Soul Survivor: What You Can Learn About Branding from Keith Richards


Those brands seeking longevity and vitality — and who ain’t? — might want to take a life lesson or three from 66-year-old guitar slinger and lifelong Rolling Stone Keith Richards, whose no-holds-barred memoir hits bookstores and online retail today. 

After all, he’s survived legal troubles that would have derailed those of lesser mettle; substance abuse so legendary you have to wonder how he’s even alive, let alone lucid; decades of ups and downs in the most fickle business on earth, pop music; and even a fall from a coconut tree and ensuing emergency brain surgery

With an estimated personal net worth of over $220 million and a 50 percent stake in one of the most lucrative songwriting catalogues in history, Richards is the quintessential bad boy who made good.

Richards’s highly anticipated autobiography, Life, was already the number one bestseller at’s U.S. site and number four at Amazon U.K. before today’s release — all on the strength of pre-orders, and some well-leaked bits about Richards’s contentious relationship with Mick Jagger.[more]

It’s long been acknowledged that the Rolling Stones are a remarkably well managed and supremely profitable brand. For perspective’s sake: When Bill Gates officially founded Microsoft in April 1975, the Stones were rehearsing for that year’s American tour — their eighth U.S. foray — in support of It’s Only Rock n’ Roll, their seventeenth album spanning more than a decade of recording. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was born more than twenty years into the Stones’ career. By the time Google was hitting stride in 2002, four short years after its formal founding, the Stones were mounting a massive year-long global stadium tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Despite their golden era of hit records and critical acclaim being decades past, the Stones’ 2005 tour stands as the single highest-grossing concert tour in history, raking in over half a billion dollars. And that logo? Deathless.

Just as a masterbrand strategy is often reliant on a strong individual holding in its portfolio, the Stones have “Keef,” whose individual brand just seems to appreciate with age. So what does Keith Richards have that your brand might want? Let’s run it down.

• Quality. Obviously, if your product isn’t there, you can’t be successful. Whatever you do, devote yourself to the craft of it. The bottom-line assets supporting Keith Richards’s brand are musical chops earned through hard work, much as the “elegantly wasted” image might scream otherwise. It’s a lesson worth learning: Do whatever it takes behind the scenes to deliver on your brand promise; otherwise all the cool you layer on top of that will prove empty. Richards’s brand is rooted in his rep as one the great blues-based rhythm guitar players in history, and his sensitivity and skill as a songwriter. Those attributes don’t just emerge half-baked (no pun intended). This is a man who, casual appearances notwithstanding, has been devoted to the rigors of his craft for 50 years.

• Visual and Verbal Panache. Once the roots are strong, you still need to grow some pretty flowers — signals to lure the world to your offering. And they need to be flexible over time and agile across audiences but consistent in character. Keith’s striking personal style was the inspiration for Johnny Depp’s pirate-chic Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series (in which Richards memorably appeared as Sparrow’s hard-living father). Keith flashed the scarves, the elegant but rugged black clothes, the death head rings and eyeliner, all before goth, punk or metal claimed them for fashion. And as for his perfectly matching verbal assets, how’s this for simple, powerful communication: The phrase “Elegantly Wasted,” coined over thirty years ago, has served as his universal, timeless Brand Idea, while multiple scrapes with death inspired his oft-uttered tagline, “It’s good to be here – it’s good to be anywhere.” 

• Authenticity and Durability. For every stagger, you need equal parts swagger. That’s the recipe for weathering the tough times that inevitably come, and every brand that wants to see four-plus decades of growth has to master that. Imagine if Keith had been cowed by the Beatles (a friendly rivalry, he told NPR’s Terry Gross), his first drug bust back in London in 1967, his then-wife’s dalliance with his business and creative partner in 1973 or the threat of hard time and extradition troubles with Canada over a Toronto heroin bust in 1977. The trick? Knowing that the sun will rise tomorrow and your long-term value will only grow if you stay true to yourself. Keith has done it with creative generosity, a demon grin and an abiding faith in the long haul. We should all live such a charmed Life.