Protecting your brand from heathens.

Uncle Crusty & the Venice Canaligators was an LA-based honky-tonk boogie band I performed with (as mentioned previously), sometimes in the street, sometimes in bars.

The band gained in popularity in the '70s & '80s—helped by television appearances on NBC's The Midnight Special. Eventually the Canaligators became "adopted" as the band of choice by a renegade motorcycle club, the Heathens. A mixed blessing, as it turned-out.

It seemed like a harmless enough partnership at first. (What's not to like about large, menacing, hirsute hulks, sporting skull-and-crossbones, in wild Bacchanalian revelry?)

After all, they treated the band extremely well and their endorsement guaranteed good attendance from its membership whenever the Canaligators played the seaside bars. (The ubiquitous presence of the Heathens also seemed to motivate club owners to pay us what they actually owed us.)

But when the relationship with the Heathens got too cozy, the band was slow to recognize the dangers. The Canaligators' brand over time became tainted by the Heathens' brand, which in turn began to scare away the band's core customer base of peace-loving outcasts, including hippies, acid-dealers, and runaway teenage girls—a potentially devastating loss.

But a cardinal rule of branding is: don't let outside forces dictate your brand. In this case the Canaligator brand took on a threatening connotation. If you booked the band in your club you might be hosting a Heathens' pep rally.

But this unholy business alliance eventually became undone.

According to one report, Uncle Crusty got into a late-night disagreement with a Heathen at a Marina del Rey bar, defending the honor of a female acquaintance. Uncle Crusty (aka "Hook" McGuire) had only one arm and understandably got the worse of the dialogue.

This may have been why Uncle Crusty took a torch to the motorcycle gang's clubhouse in Culver City early one morning. Showing remarkable judgment, Hook immediately took an extended vacation in New Orleans, returning to Venice many months later.

Inexplicably, he somehow managed to make amends with the gang and survive the ordeal—before his peaceful passing a decade later. (After this incident the band continued to attract heathens, but not ones with a capital "h".)

The primary lesson from this is an obvious one: you can't afford to let your brand go negative by association—especially with individuals (think Tiger) or organizations that don't represent what your brand stands for.

As consultant Steve Yastrow points out in Brand Harmony: your customers ultimately determine your brand, based on the impressions they get, so you want to be smart about "orchestrating" those impressions.

The secondary lesson is just as important, though easy to miss: when establishing business partnerships with motorcycle gangs, choose only those who are demonstrably peace-loving and who model cultural awareness, respect for diversity, and sensitivity to gender issues.

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  1. Better the Heathens than the Hell's Angels or Mongols. The one percenters don't let you mess with their turf. But I'm sure the Heathens were no pacifists either. Your Uncle Crusty must have had some friends in high places.

  2. I personally liked most of the Heathens I met. I even thought of writing a book about them, "Some of My Best Friends Are Heathens." I've heard a lot of stories about how/why the gang spared Uncle Crusty's life, but I was on the East Coast with my own band at the time, so I don't know the details. But friends in high places? That depends on how you parse the sentence.

  3. Thinking about my own brand, (being a children's music entertainer),I tend to stray from the motorcycle gangs. And I am very aware and protective of how I want my clientele, which are obviously the parents of these children. I also carefully choose those musicians whom I play with and associate with on stage so that I remain the wholesome, family act.

  4. Don't forget - Heathens are parents too. But I understand anyone's concern for wanting to protect the brand, from Tigers or Heathens.

    Speaking of which, AT&T, Accenture, and Gatorade have dropped Tiger ads—but Nike hasn't. Interesting.

  5. In the end it is always the customer's perception of the brand that counts. Too many businesses ignore this at their own peril.

  6. Anonymous: yes, that's a point that Steve Yastrow (among others) drives home in his books. You have to be hyper-vigilant about the brand impressions your customer is getting.

    The bad news (whether you're talking about marketing or life) is you never have TOTAL control. Of anything. The heathens are always banging on your door ready to party.

  7. I agree with the point about orchestrating associations but what often gets overlooked is how to repel unwanted associations. Apple have a reputation for doing this in a very aggressive, litigious manner. I guess the lesson, despite the jokes about bikers, is that you have got to be prepared to enforce the brand values it if you need to.

    Regarding the secondary lesson about establishing business partnerships with outlaw motorcycle gangs: don't put them in charge of security. It might seem like a good idea but they don't have a great record here...

  8. Mark, you're referring of course to the Altamont fiasco in 1969 in which the Hell's Angels provided security for a rock concert headlined and organized by the Rolling Stones. Murder & mayhem resulted.
    Come to think of it, the Rolling Stones' brand took somewhat of a hit from that, but they recovered. Rock festivals in general took a bigger hit. Altamont was dubbed the end of the Woodstock era (that historical epoch that lasted 4 months). Which brings us to another business lesson from rock: when it comes to hiring security for your events and presentations, go with the Heathens over the Angels.

  9. Thanks, Stormy. Yeah, in the old days I bought back my share of musical instruments that were stolen from me a few weeks earlier. The bad news is I paid a lot of money for those guitars when I first bought them. The good news is I paid less than full price when I bought them a second time. So it kinda evens out.

  10. I agree with James. The amazing thing is that Crusty got to live for another 10 years. Maybe the Heathens were a more benign biker mob than the Angels, who were evil mfkers who stole my band's equipment in Atlanta in 1970 and then kindly sold it back. Then again there's Altamont. Proves the point that Age of Aquarians were even more stoned than we thought we were - these guys were perceived as somehow heroic for a while.


  11. John, you cracked me up with this line, ". . .which in turn began to scare away the band’s core customer base of peace-loving outcasts, including hippies, acid-dealers, and runaway teenage girls—a potentially devastating loss. But a cardinal rule of branding is: don’t let outside forces dictate your brand."

    My husband is creating his brand as an IT consultant. He's just narrowed his vision to target Real Estate Asset Management companies because he realized that his expertise lies very particularly in that area. Within the scope there are profit and non profit companies. Starting up and considering everything about creating your Brand is quite a challenge! Gerri

  12. Gerri: yes, developing and protecting your brand is just as important for an individual as it is for a small business team (like the Venice Canaligators) or a multinational corp (like Nike). It's a message many of us have been pounding away at for years. (Tom Peters coined the terms "Brand You" and "Me, Inc" for the phenomenon.) Even if you work inside a behemoth company it's important to define & demonstrate your UNIQUE contribution to the enterprise - or you won't be there for long. And if you're working for yourself (as a "free agent" - to quote Dan Pink) you quickly learn that your economic survival depends on your "saleable distinction." Everyone in the 21st century workforce should be able to answer the simple question, "What's unique or special about what you do or how you do it?"

  13. cultivating your individual brand and differentiating yourself from others in your function -- even if you're working in a team -- is a smart idea if you want to keep your job, especially in a large company. wm

  14. wm: no question. The top companies are training their new hires - right out of college - in personal branding. Awhile back I led courses training financial professionals at a Fortune 50 health care products company to identify and demonstrate their personal brand - i.e. how they distinguished themselves from everyone else within their function and within their company. The Millennials (Gen Y) absolutely get it. The over 30 crowd often don't - until they're forced to by economic reality. I guess that's something rock & roll taught me: how important it was to stand out from the pack - as an individual (stand-alone musician) and as a team (band). And the best business teams and organizations I've encountered encourage their members to fully express - if not flaunt - their individuality.

  15. Hey John!!
    Yes, a good looking logo will certainly enhance the brand, among other things.

    Getting involved with any biker gang is certain career suicide. James said it right! Best to avoid such foreign entanglements!


  16. Nick - Foreign entanglements? Biker gangs are as American as cherry pie and bingo. And some bands have apparently thrived on this entanglement, e.g. the Doobie Brothers in their early days with the Hell's Angels.

  17. John, I Totally enjoyed your article.

    Especially since our Branding as you put it has now lasted since 1973. We now have Brothers from Sea to Shining Sea.
    Oh and there is actually a book out there already. Gabe Griffin beat you to it, although it is more pictorial. There are a few newspaper clippings though. They might bring a nostalgic smile to your face.

    Simply do a google search for us or please visit the website.
    Big Chris
    National VP

  18. Holy sh*t! You guys are STILL together? Well, in the ecumenical spirit of rock & roll we welcome all commentators thru these cyber-doors as long as they're not blatantly selling me something while pretending to kiss my butt.

    What does HFFH mean? Wait...I don't want to know. :-)

    1. Hey this is lil all, harp player! Hook and I jammed together at times, good times! All that crazy stuff was when I was flying HEATHEN Patch. Early days. HEATHENS ARE ALL OVER.

      1. Welcome aboard, Lil Al. I think I remember you! Well, according to Bill O'Reilly on FOX News, heathens ARE all over.

        Those were fun days at Honky Hoagie's Handy Hangout in Venice.

        Maybe my new mantra should be: "We're All Heathens Now."

  19. Hey this is lil all, harp player! Hook and I jammed together at times, good times! All that crazy stuff was when I was flying HEATHEN Patch. Early days. HEATHENS ARE ALL OVER.

  20. John, i had left the band to do my own thing, by the time the alliance with the heathens had taken place. i moved to New Orleans and began playin with Deacon John and the Ivories, The Dixie-Kups, Charles Neville, and several others. Hook came and stayed with me and my (now- ex) wife for a couple days after burning the clubhouse, fearing for his life. i was against the biker thing from the start, even tho i knew sum of them, like lil Al, who i liked and respected. i wasn't into the country music direction that the group wuz headed, either. i think that Hildebrand guy took my place. i stayed with the blues, and glad of it. i have a couple groups i work with here in Memphis, where i live now, and we do mostly blues, R & B, funk and like that dere. i tried to find copy of the Canaligator's Midnite Special dvd, with no luck. i've been involved in my heritage, participating in Native ceremonies for the past 30 years, gaining enrollment in Seneca Nation, Sundancing, Native American Church, and Longhouse, and dancing at powwows, when i'm not gigging. i've written a book, as well (unpublished) and have released 7 CDs to date. By the way, Mighty Mo Rodgers has a new CD, "Mud and Blood", to be released in Feb in the states...he's a star in Europe, and i perform with him occasionally.

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