5 Guerrilla Marketing Tactics to Learn from Twisted Sister

Content marketing inspiration from the savviest brand in metal

December 27, 2016

Twisted Sister

Editor's note: This post originally appeared on the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions EMEA blog.

Not all musicians are great marketers; not all bands get to become global brands. However, when a band battles through the New York glam and punk scene of the early 1970s – and is still playing to crowds of 100,000 plus four decades later, you know you’re dealing with smart, savvy and inherently innovative marketing brains. Twisted Sister, which Jay Jay French first founded back in 1972, is one of those bands. And when I interviewed Jay Jay for a unique double episode of the Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast (Part 2 of which was released today), it quickly became clear that it was an envelope-pushing, guerrilla marketing instinct that helped to make them that way.

Twisted Sister haven’t just kept going for 40 years, they’ve kept innovating, kept finding new ways to connect to audiences, and kept a close eye on what their brand means and how best to express it in a changing media landscape. That’s why their fanbase is even larger now than when they broke through in the clubs of New York and Long Island (the subject of We are Twisted F&*king Sister, the hottest current documentary on Netflix), or when they were one of the most popular (and controversial) MTV acts of the 1980s.

It struck me that Jay Jay and frontman Dee Snider have cracked the key objectives for any marketer figuring out how to adapt, evolve and build a resilient and relevant brand. Here are the five lessons I believe any marketer should learn from how they did it:

Never forget the power of paid-for media

What does a hard-working band do when the only way to get played on the radio is through having a recording contract – and you haven’t been able to persuade a record label to give you one? For Jay Jay and Twisted Sister the answer was simple. If the established music shows wouldn’t play their stuff – they’d take over the ad breaks instead. The band started buying radio ads to promote their gigs in the clubs of New York and New Jersey – and devoted the majority of the airtime during each ad to playing their new single. The result? Everyone heard their songs – and everyone coming to their gigs thought they were watching a band with a hit record, rather than one with (technically) no records at all.

Jay Jay is the first to admit that the same tactic would be a non-starter today – radio ads are a lot more expensive than they were in the early 1970s. However, his example shows how innovative use of paid-for media can help get your story across even when the establishment isn’t ready to listen. And that’s a great principle for any guerilla content marketer.

Know which touchpoints drive revenue – and which build your brand

The most frustrating thing about my own time in the music industry was the refusal of established labels to adapt to the arrival of digital music. You certainly can’t accuse Jay Jay French of that. He talks about how Twisted Sister cared a lot less about their music and videos being shared for free than they would have done if nobody had wanted to share them. It was digital music distribution that built huge audiences for the band across regions like South America where they would otherwise have remained unknown. It doesn’t mean that the band wanted to work for free – but they recognised the difference between touchpoints that were building their brand (freely shared digital tracks) and experiences that people were prepared to pay for (the legendary Twisted Sister live act). Now that the band have played their final gig (they stepped off stage for the last time this year), he’ll need to find a different business model. But then, that’s what innovative marketers do.

Don’t be afraid to revisit old formats

It’s not just live performances that a smart music brand makes money from. As Jay Jay explained to me, “you have to find products that work in the context you’re in.” That was the logic behind A Twisted Christmas – the album of Heavy Metal Christmas classics (including O Come All Ye Faithful performed to the tune of We’re Not Gonna Take It) that the band brought out in 2006. At the end of the day, nobody likes giving a free download for Christmas. There’s a similar logic in bands revisiting vinyl to deliver music in a format fans are happy to pay for.

As a content marketer, I find a lot of inspiration in this. Getting creative with formats is a proven way of increasing the sense of value that people get from content – and that can often involve revisiting formats others have given up on. When we started The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast, there were plenty of marketers who thought the format was finished. Today podcasts are on most content marketers’ agendas, with their value for sustained engagement increasingly appreciated. One of the great joys of content marketing is finding the next format to reinvent.

Value your different creative contributions

‘Creative differences’ have become a cliché as the reason given for bands falling apart – disguising the clash of egos that’s usually involved. Listening to Jay Jay talk about his other band members – and in particular Dee Snider – made me think about how appreciating different creative strengths can often be the key to keeping a team together. “I’m a broad-based conceptualist,” he told me. “I’m not so narcissistic to think I can make it without Dee Snider. I don’t write, I don’t sing. I needed his desire to create and he needed me to help push it forward.”

Embrace co-creation – with all kinds of partners

Imagine the scene – you’re at a huge metal concert in Mexico when the band suddenly starts performing one of its most famous hits. Something’s not right though. Rather than singing about rebellion against teachers, parents and other sources of authority, they’re screaming down the microphone about eggs cooked in oil with lemon. Has something gone badly wrong? Is a nervous breakdown taking place on-stage? Or are you witnessing the power of co-creation as demonstrated by one of the wittiest music acts on earth?

Twisted Sister has always had an arms-wide-open attitude to licensing its music, ensuring that it stays in the popular consciousness and encouraging fans to take ownership of it in new ways (its tracks were a soundtrack to console games like Grand Theft Auto during the early noughties, for example). The hymn to egg-frying that you’ve just been imagining shows what this strategy can do. It comes from a widely popular and very catchy Mexican ad that uses the tune from We’re not Gonna Take It. It’s a staple of the band’s live set at gigs across South America; it’s guaranteed a stadium-wide sing-along; and it’s even produced its own line of fan merchandise. Plenty of acts would have been embarrassed about their tunes becoming a commercial soundtrack – it takes a special kind of creativity to spot the humour, and celebrate it.

Have no shame in commercial creativity

“I have never been a struggling artist in my life. I have been a New York City hustler. When Twisted Sister started, my first question was – how are we making money? I wanted to create great music but I wasn’t prepared to starve to do it.”

This quote from Jay Jay French sums up why Twisted Sister has always been such an effective, marketing-led band. It underpins almost all of the other lessons that I drew from our interviews. Creativity eventually withers and collapses if it can’t be linked to commercial success. Making money from your art isn’t a sell-out – it’s what the purpose of art has always been. And as this post has hopefully demonstrated, it can inspire some innovative, and extremely inspirational, creative thinking. If you’re a content marketer who always dreamed of headlining a rock band then don’t see your current role as a step down. Embrace the commercial nature of what you do – and do something wonderful with it.

The second part of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast with Jay Jay French is available now. Tune into some guerilla marketing inspiration here.