14: How to Future-Proof Your Brand: Gene Simmons of KISS

Gene Simmons started KISS in 1973 with Paul Stanley. It's arguably the hottest band brand ever: and they're not done.

Gene Simmons started KISS in 1973 with Paul Stanley. It's arguably the hottest band brand ever: and they're not done.

Gene Simmons is the most outrageous member of one of the most outrageous bands of all time: KISS. 

There's a lot more to KISS than shock. It's the number-one gold-record-earning group of all time, at 30, when you include the four solo albums that band members released on the same day in 1978. Fourteen albums went platinum. 

This is a band that's known for its hits: "I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day" seems like it's a phrase as old as rock itself. The band is known just as much for its look. There's the black and white face paint, the pyrotechnics, and a few details that are signature Gene Simmons. There's the blood-spitting, the axe guitar, and of course the tongue so long it's almost a fifth band member. And guess what: They're still touring.  

I sat down with Gene Simmons at the Studio Hotel in New York for the Fortt Knox podcast, to talk business and marketing. Simmons is a guy who not only managed to launch an iconic brand in his early 20s, he and cofounder Paul Stanley remade it several times along the way with different band members, different looks, and a voracious appetite for merchandising.  

Simmons also managed to become a brand on his own.  

He has had more than one turn on reality TV. He was on the Celebrity Apprentice with now-president Donald Trump – we talk about that, of course – and he had his own show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, that features wife Shannon Tweed and kids Nick and Sophie. 

Here's a sampling of some of the wisdom he shares – in typically colorful fashion – in the podcast: 

Stand Out 

It's not exactly a shocker that a guy like Simmons doesn't recommend blending in; but Simmons has very strategic reasons for spectacle. He traces the lesson back to trying to sell fruit on the side of the road in his native Israel. 

"The bigger of a nuisance and the bigger of a spectacle I made of myself, the more we sold. That's the first lesson of mother nature and in show business," he says. "You have to grab life by the scruff of the neck and demand to pay you some attention." 

In your workplace, that probably doesn't mean carrying an ax guitar and spitting blood. It probably does mean zeroing in on which of your skills benefit the organization most, and making sure they get noticed. 

Own Your Persona

Simmons is very specific about this: When he appears on stage as "The Demon" it's not a character, it's a persona. The difference is, he's not pretending to be something else as much as he's giving free rein to one aspect of his personality. 

"If I put on the red lipstick and the star over my eye, I wouldn't be convincing," Simmons says, contrasting his persona with Paul Stanley's. 

Lest we think personas don't have power, remember Steve Jobs, and think of Mark Zuckerberg. Jobs began wearing a black mock turtleneck and jeans later in life as a sort of uniform – or superhero suit. Mark Zuckerberg used to wear jeans and a hoodie or fleece; now he's most often seen in a gray t-shirt. Jobs's persona communicated attention to design and simplicity. Zuckerberg's communicates a connection to the programmers who try to keep the company relevant. 

Sometimes You've Gotta Take It Off

For more than a decade – from 1983 until 1996 — KISS took the makeup off. The band's popularity had been on a downward spiral. Aside from Paul and Gene, the band members weren't getting along.  

"We decided, there's nowhere else to go. Let's take the makeup off," Simmons says. "It's much harder to be yourself. Much more difficult. You're aware people are looking at you." 

But removing the masks that had made people pay attention, it turns out, proved to be a novel way of making people pay attention again.