Being associated with The Beatles can have its advantages. At the same time this particular association, as iconic as it may be, also dates the Abbey Road brand and pushes it towards being a nostalgic heritage marque rather than a contemporary business that engages in cutting edge research and development.
A Brief History of Abbey Road
“I would just say that Abbey Road is the best studio in town; town being the world.”
Paul McCartney, 1982
Opened in 1931, Abbey Road is the oldest and one of the most famous purpose built recording studios in the world. Over the last 85 years they have produced a number of landmark records and made a significant contribution to music heritage and popular music culture. In 2015, Abbey Road rebranded to create a parent brand for its existing recording studios and to coincide with the launch of its two new departments; Abbey Road Red, and Abbey Road Institute.
The advances and democratisation of technologies, and the economic situation within the UK over the last decade have pushed some commercial recording studios into the decline phase of their life cycle, with those unable to adapt to the changing environment going out of business. Taking that into consideration, this analysis will focus on the rebrand in 2015, and will investigate the relationships between the brand’s heritage and future. It will also focus on the audience(s) the Abbey Road brand intend to target as users of their new services and platforms.
To effectively analyse the Abbey Road brand we must understand that their perceived status is directly linked to its historical involvement with other music brands. The nature of their core identity as a recording studio means that their finished product may be regarded by the public as the produce of other brands. Most notably, Abbey Road is heavily associated with The Beatles, and the Abbey Road brand image in recent years has reflected the artwork from the much celebrated album that bears the studio’s name, the designs utilising imagery symbolising the pedestrian crossing in their logo designs.
Narrative and Context
Abbey Road identify themselves as being “at the forefront of music creativity” since the studio opened its doors in 1931. Not only can the brand be associated with a significant number of landmark recordings, but they are keen to stress both their heritage and innovation, portraying a brand that is both built on a significant historical foundation in popular culture and a legacy of technological advancement and innovation. Breaking down the statement made on the Abbey Road website, its components can be divided into the two aforementioned categories:
- Landmark Recordings; 7 of the 30 greatest albums of all time were created at Abbey Road (see Roy Shuker’s album canon)
- Association with historic music
- Association with historic music brands; The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, etc
- The most famous and oldest purpose build recording studio in the world
- Creation of film scores, including Star Wars
- Technological breakthroughs
- Association with current music brands; Adele, Florence and the Machine, Kanye West, etc
- Invention of stereo recording
- Creation of film scores: Skyfall
“I love Abbey Road because it has depth, back up, tradition and all those things.”
Paul McCartney, 1982
Abbey Road Studios are often referenced as ‘legendary’ and as an ‘icon’ when addressed in cultural and technical magazine articles. This status is part of a identity myth that consumers use to address identity desires and anxieties, and that carries a heavy symbolic value in the mind of the public.
The emotive statement from McCartney could have arguably been triggered by his career being entwined with that of Abbey Road, the studio having been the primary location for the production of a large portion of The Beatles’ album catalogue. By contrast, the emotional response for many others seems to have been formed through their connection with music recorded at Abbey Road; generations of music fans may have listened to works produced at the studios without knowing where it was produced.
Demonstrating the emotive response toward the brand, in part due to their associations with The Beatles, fans continue to write their names and leave written messages on the perimeter wall that surrounds the studio.
The spirit of the brand is that of excellence within the field of sound production and technological innovation and a sense of connection with the legendary artists through their masterworks created with the brand.
Each paragraph within the statement references the old and the new. The balance that the brand is trying to achieve is to support the ability of the brand to change with the times, which necessitates a balance between innovation and conservation. Successful brand management requires two sets of techniques; those that aim at the selective appropriation of consumer innovation and those that aim to make consumers’ use of branded goods serve to reproduce forms of life that the brand embodies.
To summarise, the brand narrative is that Abbey Road is at the cutting edge of music production, constantly innovating, whilst rooted in its unique historical status in popular music culture.
Style and Tone
“It is impossible to separate the connection between The Beatles and the Studios which was cemented with the release of the Abbey Road album in 1969.”
Form were recently engaged to re-imagine the Abbey Road brand with the remit of repositioning their strategy to create a new visual brand identity to connect with a wider audience. The iconic photograph taken on the zebra crossing that was used for The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ album cover is the most predominant image that appears in search results when the studio’s name is entered into Google. A relatively recent rebrand shown below as the previous brand logo (pre-2015) incorporates the imagery of the black strips of tarmac between the painted white stripes of the zebra crossing, and gives the impression of EQ or mix levels by varying heights of the black stripes.
“Rather than ignore the crossings’ black and white stripes, we decided to deconstruct it and re-imagine it to celebrate a new era for Abbey Road.”
The new logo set continues the black and white theme that is consistent with previous logos. The re-imagining of the black stripes has taken the form of a single black stripe that is suggestive of the distinctive parquet flooring prevalent throughout the famous recording studios complex.
Noticeably, this logo set differentiates the ‘Studios’ from the overarching parent Abbey Road brand, and allows for other sub-brands to be individually identified within the same brand family. The direction of the chevron formed by the black stripe moving across a three dimensional plane indicates the North West location of Abbey Road within London. The selection of red as the third colour is certainly a nod to their new music technology incubator, Red, named after the Record Engineering Development Department and their custom built REDD consoles made famous in their control rooms in the 1960’s.
The new branding design seeks to maintain brand identity through its unique set of brand associations by continuing to incorporate elements of its heritage; the black and white colour scheme, and the addition of red to reflect the importance the brand places on their legacy of innovation. The semiotic distinction between the brand symbol and allegory is not archaic, instead relaying Abbey Road’s honourable pedigree.
Form commissioned graphic artist Patrick Thomas to further re-interpret their new logo design, the black and white stripes of the zebra crossing, and incorporate the new red sub-brand colour to generate themed patterns to be used across all communications.
Tonally, the branding is clean and professional, and the sharp contrast of the minimalist black and white imagery makes the studio feel cutting edge whilst holding on to Abbey Road’s pop culture roots in the 1960’s. The message is also intended for young to middle aged musicians aspiring to make a connection with the legendary artists that have come before.
The mythology surrounding the name ‘Abbey Road’ is supported by the social reality of the vast contribution the studio has made to both popular music and music recording technologies. Abbey Road’s direct association with The Beatles catalogue and the album of their namesake add weight to the myth. In effect, the success of artists within the culture industries like The Beatles and Pink Floyd that are linked with the studios have co-authored the brand. It all serves to maintain a social ideology which perpetuates the brand as an industry leader that is arguably unchallenged within the UK.
Product Life Cycle
Abbey Road, as a brand, could be considered to be between maturity and decline when considering the traditional output of the business; recording bands in the studio, mixing multi-track recordings, and mastering mixes. Over the last two decades studios at the top end of the market have suffered because of the technological and economic factors ushered in by the democratisation and accessibility of recording technologies. In response to the changing environment, the brand has launched new products that take advantage of modern connectivity.
Earlier this year, Abbey Road announced an upgrade to their online mixing and mastering services, making them more affordable and easier to use. The success of these new services has been underlined by the huge growth in user base both within the UK and internationally.
Arguably, the Abbey Road brand narrative presents both its heritage and innovation in equal measure and this serves to speak to two different audiences. The first group is the general public who associate the studio’s historical link with major artists, most preeminently The Beatles. The second group contains the prospective artist-as-client, sound production professionals, and businesses that require the services provided by Abbey Road as a sound production facility and technological innovator in the field. This second group may also have an appreciation of the heritage, but they are more interested in actually engaging with the activities of brand’s core identity as a site for sound recording and production.
There are a number of commercial sound production facilities around the UK that can technically perform the same task as Abbey Road studios in regard to sound recording and production; CaVa in Glasgow and Rockfield Studios in Monmouth being examples of studios that can produce chart quality recordings. What their competitors can’t do is compete with the depth of heritage and heavily publicised contribution that Abbey Road has had in popular culture.
The added prestige of an album mixed and mastered at Abbey Road could be described as a self-expressive benefit that artists want to have ascribed to their own work, lending it the emotive benefit of a perceived connection with the studio’s impressive alumni of legendary artists. This is important because it builds an experience around a brand by creating an exclusive and distinct position in the mind of the audience.
The Abbey Road Brand Experience
Retail and Public Spaces
The physical public space is the studio itself, located in the North West of London, which is generally inaccessible to the public. Recently, Abbey Road Studios and Google have won an industry award for their brand partnership for Inside Abbey Road Studios. The product they have developed allows the public access to the studios using a similar software interface to Google Maps Street View.
The most accessible retail spaces for Abbey Road are online. Their website provides a platform for all of its sub-brands, and an interface for Abbey Road Studios online mixing and mastering functions. The website’s online store continues the brand theme created by Patrick Thomas, and it has been incorporated onto products sold by the brand. Representative of the strong brand association, the store stocks Beatles merchandise in almost equal measure to their own. The shop functions as a way for consumers to engage with the conservation of the brand by buying into forms of life that the brand embodies. Other co-branding opportunities largely present themselves in the online storefronts of their collaborative partners like Waves and Native Instruments.
Product Design and Packaging
The brand’s core business offers a range of services rather than physical products, identified within the sub-brands of the Abbey Road family. Coinciding with the rebrand Abbey Road launched a music tech incubator and an educational institute. The way the Institute is delivered to the audience through their web content is in keeping with the re-brand’s communication standards set by Form. This visual communication is apparent throughout the brand’s educational content which is delivered through the Abbey Road Institutes in Berlin, Munich, Melbourne, and Sydney.
Abbey Road Red is a tech incubator that assists music technology startups with projects and provides a platform for researchers and academics to study emerging technologies. The design of Red is such that Abbey Road forms the epicentre of research and development, in a scheme designed to foster relationships with the innovators today that also involves partnering with academic researchers to find good ideas and develop them further and take them to market. The presentation of Red follows the colour scheme and iconography associated with the brand.
Co-Branding, Partnerships, and Advertising
Co-branding opportunities serve to perpetuate the Abbey Road brand as a marque of quality that adds value through their perceived authenticity to the co-branded product. It would be impractical to analyse all of the studio’s co-branding partners, so this case study will only look at a recent partnership with Channel 4 and Volkswagen.
Volkswagen sought to promote their new Beetle, their goal to target the mainstream male audience between the ages of 30 and 50. Referencing the original Beetle that was immortalised on the cover of The Beatles landmark album ‘Abbey Road’, VW wanted to use the perceived authenticity and status of Abbey Road to add value to their new product.
VW’s involvement with Abbey Road aimed to re-affirm the association between the legendary Beetle and the rock and roll spirit it embodies. To achieve this, they worked with Channel 4 to produce a TV show called Abbey Road Studios: in Session with Volkswagen Beetle that followed the format of the successful Live from Abbey Road series. From the outset, the advertising for the show focuses on how people give meaning to the brand Abbey Road through their relationship with the music that has been produced there.
“I’m glad that it means so much to so many people from all over the world, you know?”
Paul Weller, 2010
The visuals of the advert blend the nostalgia and romanticism of ‘the studio’ and times past by featuring analogue and vintage equipment, and sequences including the new Beetle fitting in to the environment. Whilst the opening dialogue is referential to the heritage of Abbey Road, Paul Weller is preparing to tell the audience that it’s “important to know when to if not re-invent yourself when to move on”.
Using Paul Weller as the messenger also lends the message authenticity and a sense of cool. Towards the end of the advert, they reference the album cover which has so often denoted the studios brand identity by recreating it with Weller and a new Beetle.
The overall message of this advertising campaign and VW’s promotional activities reflect the innovation and conservation that is the underlying tenet of the Abbey Road brand and their brand management. It features elements of both time past and time future symbolising memory and desire.
It could be argued that Abbey Road’s symbolic value to the general public is largely co-authored by the massive and enduring popularity of The Beatles, the Studios being brought into the popular consciousness by their album that shares their name. On the other hand, it could also be argued that musicians and music enthusiasts may have a more wholistic relationship or perception of Abbey Road Studios given a greater knowledge of their brand identity through their commercial output.
The new look to the brand appears to be distancing itself from the album cover, hinting at their desire to present the Abbey Road brand as an innovative business looking forward rather than leaning on their heritage and an association with an album produced nearly half a century ago. That being said, the re-brand has retained the colour scheme and some of the symbolism that has stood for so long to represent a legacy of unparalleled technological advances in the field and their well documented associations with iconic artists.
In April 2016, the studios were presented an award for Music & Brand Partnership at the Music Week Awards for their work with Google on Inside Abbey Road Studios, indicating of the continued support for the brand by the professional recording industry. The wide range of projects undertaken by Abbey Road and their co-branding partners is indicative of the strength of the brand and the continued interest in their products.
In their book “How Cool Brands Stay Hot”, Van den Bergh and Behrer proposed five key elements that impact Gen Y’s perception of brand image and initiate brand conversations; coolness, realness, uniqueness, self-identification, and happiness. It would appear from this analysis that Abbey Road brand is able to check all of these boxes with their pop cultural associations, authenticity, unique heritage, engaged fanbase, and continued commercial success.