Back in my day, if a musician made the cover of Rolling Stone then that musician was a player. If it was your favorite star, then you were psyched as all get out. If you didn't know the star, then suddenly that music was on your play list. I mean after all, it's the cover of Rolling Stone.
Making the cover of Rolling Stone meant that you made it. I think the same sentiment still exists and is very much a part of the Rolling Stone brand. Fans view the cover as a reflection of current pop culture and a signal of who is "it" right now. I know a lot of people who follow it religiously. It's a pop culture guide post.
Hence, I believe, the recent upset over the alleged Boston bomber being on the cover.
It's off brand for many people, so it's no wonder it took fans (and everyone else) off guard.
Suddenly featuring a high profile figure from the "news," and a controversial figure at that, is just off putting. It's the cover of Rolling Stone! He's not a musical legend or hit maker or a cutting edge artist. None of that.
Those on the cover are celebrated. Vintage covers are sold on eBay. I myself have one framed from 1979 hanging in my home office! How could we possibly use this brand to celebrate this figure? And it wasn't a line-up photo, by the way. It was what some would say a beautiful picture, making him look quite cool. The magazine says that's the point, which is their choice clearly.
Here's the rub -- when you build a brand for that long, gain that much equity, and holding that much meaning, you can't just change it up. Or if you do, you have to get your fans in the loop. Or deal appropriately with the commentary.
Featuring the alleged Boston bomber on the cover of, say, Newsweek would be a different story. Or a tabloid publication. Or even People magazine. But it's not consistent with the Rolling Stone brand.
If Rolling Stone wants to be about featuring controversial subjects who are making news, that's fine I suppose. In a statement, they said that they have long covered political and cultural issues of the day. I do remember the controversy surrounding Charles Manson being on the cover too.
While that may be true for them, for many of us it's been a brand that for years has been celebrating musical heroes. One of the only brands to do so.
So the question remains -- what was the motivation here? Is it to stir controversy and put the magazine in the news? Is it to signal a change in the brand, a new direction of where the brand is going? Or just a bold move to try something different and connect with a new audience.
All of those might be ok for a brand and it's marketing, but no one should be surprised at the reaction to it. Or the rejection of it.