Most widely known for his tenure as the bassist for Rock N Roll luminaries like Rob Zombie and Ozzy Osborne, Rob “Blasko” Nicholson’s pension for cool extends far beyond the music industry. Turning his tenure at the pinnacle of heavy metal into roles as a strategic and creative leader, including becoming the Entertainment Marketing Overlord at Liquid Death, Blasko brings a lifetime of outsider insight, and counterculture philosophies to the branding conversation.
With his music career self-described as “behind him”, Blasko connected with our managing editor to discuss his dedication to building cool brands, the power of simplicity, what drives counterculture, and why authenticity, awareness, and action are crucial components of any successful fringe brand.
Brandingmag: When was the first time you became aware of branding and what were the first brands that really impacted you?
Rob Blasko: People like us, Noah, we navigate life by what we think is cool. When I was seven, I made my mom drive me to the record store to buy a KISS record. And it was because I thought KISS was cool. But she’s like, we have records here. Here’s Joan Baez. Here’s Peter, Paul and Mary. All the folk stuff of that era. And I was like—that’s not cool to me. I don’t identify with that. KISS was cool. Peter, Paul, and Mary, not cool.
You become aware of branding when you’re making a decision based on what you think is cool.
I identify with not just BMX, but specifically a Diamondback. Riding BMX was a necessity as a kid to get from point A to point B, but what’s cool? Huffy ain’t cool. I want a Diamondback. I want a red line. Skateboarding is cool. But what was the coolest? Powell-Peralta, Alva, Dogtown–these were cool brands that I identified with that make you aware of branding because it sort of becomes part of your DNA–outwardly representing who you are as an individual. When do you notice branding? As soon as I identified something that was cool versus not cool and then immediately became a consumer of that–to outwardly identify with my surroundings–this is who I am as an individual, this is what I identify with. And I want everyone around me to know. That way you’re either instantly my friend or you’re not my friend.
Bm: It’s interesting because there is a thing that happens, for some people, where we want to automatically transmit to the world who we are. You know, like, I want to look like the music I love. Then, brands in those niche worlds almost become the gatekeepers. The first gate is knowing about them. The second gate is to pull off getting it, cause it’s just out of reach enough that getting it says something about who you are. Having long hair in high school is just hard enough to pull off that, if you do it, it says a lot about who you are. For some reason, we woke up one day and decided that we want to look how we feel.
RB: Yes. Having long hair, having colored hair, wearing a certain T-shirt, being a certain way, those were decisions you made that you knew could possibly get you beat up or at least in a fight. You may win. But, if you’re willing to defend a mohawk, then chances are you’ve been in a few scraps. Present day, there are a lot of outward facing decisions you could make to identify yourself and also put yourself in harm’s way–simultaneously. You have a lot of people that just want to Homer Simpson into the bushes and not be noticed. You don’t see me. I don’t ruffle feathers. There’s nothing wrong with that decision. But I grew up in a time and in a way where we identified ourselves individually as a little niche subculture to attract more of the same so that we could build a community of like-minded people that like the same things.
Bm: It becomes a homing beacon. How do you see the dynamic between counterculture and monoculture now? Is monoculture dead, or are subcultures gaining ground?
RB: Fortunately, we progress. Technology progresses. Generations progress. The way my generation experienced entertainment and countercultures is different than, say, this generation, right? I’m Gen X. Gen Z has a completely different experience. Gen X, in terms of monoculture, we experienced things simultaneously. There was the water cooler. There was the thing that you talked about because you knew that everyone else was watching the same thing at the same time. There was some comfort in that.
Nowadays there’s a bit of an option paralysis in terms of where the competition is. On your phone, you have this option paralysis. Your competition is an infinite amount of options on Spotify, on YouTube, in video games, on Instagram. The attention for the consumer, the audience, the fan, what have you, is so thinly spread that it justifies why everything is such limited short content. That’s why shorts are popular. That’s why TikTok is popular. And you have these really bite size nuggets of content, and that’s the way this generation consumes content. It’s probably never been harder to get heard and get seen because of the amount of competition on one device. It’s overwhelming when you think about it. To be able to rise above that is a real challenge.
Bm: One solution for the noise is this idea of building cult brands, or a cult following. When I was younger, I would hear artists like Nick Cave described as a cult artist. Now brands want that. Success for many people is having this die hard advocate, or fan base. In the music world, you’ve obviously played with bands who are revered cult favorites. Rob Zombie fans buy everything he does. They are all in. So how has your experience been taking what you’ve learned in the music world and applying it to brands?
RB: Yeah. Also, too, the very clear distinction that needs to be made, that when we’re talking about cults and cult brands, we’re not talking about, like, the Manson Family. A cult brand is more of a feeling. We all have this feeling that says ‘I want to find it first, and I want to be the first one to share it with my friends.’ The first adopters have a sense of ownership, if you will, and also a sense of responsibility to evangelize the brand. Whenever cult brands become mass, they tend to lose the early adopters, because then it becomes less cool when everyone knows about it. It’s cool at the early stages.
When you start trying to create a cult brand, you’re trying to solve a problem for a particular niche of people.
With Liquid Death, it was categorized as a cult thing at first because we identified the early adopters, but it quickly spiraled out from there. We did not think that water in a beer can with a skull on it was going to appeal to a suburban mom out of the gate. Right? It wouldn’t have. It makes sense that it does now because their kids are identifying with it because it makes them feel cool–it’s cool to drink Liquid Death. Then the parents are like, ‘It’s just water, so who cares? Whatever, right? I’m not scared of it anymore.
Bm: It’s the early counterculture adopters that bring it to culture.
RB: I’ve been interviewing a lot of young founders and CEOs to understand what makes them tick and how they’ve built their businesses that are on the fringe. There’s a couple of through lines and similarities, pillars that come up over and over again. It’s authenticity, awareness, and action. All these people have this sort of intuitive sense of these three things. Authenticity is a big one. If you’re going to start a brand, it has to be an authentic extension of who you are.
If it’s not authentic, it won’t connect.
Liquid Death found a very active marketplace of bottled water, and they identified that there was no cool brand in the space whatsoever. Water is a multibillion dollar business. So could you look at any businesses like that and go like, oh, well, where is there something that isn’t cool? Let’s specifically make a brand that is cool and insert ourselves in that conversation. In terms of the brand itself, it is an honest extension of the authenticity of the owner. He is a righteously tattooed, metalhead, punkrocker, skateboarder. That initial identification was that cult audience–that is all those things, that’s who identified with it first.
Next is awareness. Now that it’s authentic, how do we build it up? All of these people were aware of their surroundings. How do we get it to the next level? What are the things that are in our network? Who is in our network? How is it that we can build this brand and access the things that are in immediate reach. That’s where it levels up.
The third part is action. These are all action-oriented people. How many things do you know that just never see the light of day? Because it dies at the moment it needs to be actionable. Everyone’s got a fucking good idea, right? How many people were like, ‘Man, I had that idea. I never saw it through.’ There’s just no follow through, because follow through requires sacrifice.
There is always a reason why things can’t happen. But I’ll tell you, as cliche as it sounds, in every interview with one of these people, it ends the same way. I’ll say ‘Hey, it sounds like you just believed in yourself.’ And every time they’re like, ‘Yes. I just believed in my idea. I just believed in myself. I put it out there and it’s working.’
Bm: In this industry we love the big idea, but it’s making an idea work that is so valuable.
RB: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution.
Bm: Because there are only seven storylines. There’s only so many characters. A Kung Fu movie and a Western are functionally the same–just executed differently. This is one of the reasons why I believe counterculture thinkers are so valuable in branding—they inherently understand it’s about executing–getting in the van, playing the show, making the film–it’s about doing it.
RB: That’s exactly right. It’s also reframing the conversation in a lot of ways where it’s not a customer, it’s a fan. It’s not a consumer, it’s your audience. It’s not marketing. It’s entertainment. Really bringing people into your world and making them feel part of it. I think that adds a lot to the overall success of brands.
Bm: The brands who do it well tend to remind me of bands.
RB: There’s one thing that I’ll say about bands in terms of what I’ve noticed of successful bands that I feel like is a through line–that if you can figure it out, chances are you probably will be successful. It’s a very hard equation. You are difficult to define and you are difficult to replicate. Meaning that you don’t sound like anyone else. The mashup of things that you are is difficult to define. Then on the flip side, because it is so unique, you are difficult to replicate. Sure, people can try, but because you’re so unique, it just sounds like a shitty rip off.
Bm: True of bands and brands. Being difficult to define and hard to replicate is cool. The Diamondback, Powell-Peralta, Ozzy.
RB: I want to know everything there is to know about what is cool. Why people identify with cool, what consumer behavior is around cool. What makes someone feel cool. Those are all things that my business is geared towards. It’s what has driven me as a fan, as an audience member, as a consumer my entire life. Kiss record, BMX bike, skateboard, clothes I wear, what I do, where I go. Will I do what’s cool? Yes. Will I do what’s not cool? No. It’s that simple.
Bm: Do you have one takeaway lesson from your corner of niche cool that you think the larger branding world could or should learn from?
RB: Break the rules. Look at it from a different perspective and understand what’s unique, and what the world needs from a unique perspective. I think that’s kind of it. Brands have to look at things from a different perspective, and push themselves a little further outside of the comfort zone because there’s a lot of noise you’ve got to cut above nowadays.
Cover image source: Andrew Stuart