How to build a brand the KLF way

For anyone working in the creative industry, there's a lot you can learn from the KLF. Want to make waves? Here are our tips for building a design business like The KLF...

01. Start today

Tired of sitting at a desk making money for someone else? Want to break out on your own? Bill Drummond imparts some sterling advice in the introduction to The Manual.

"If you want to do something – REALLY want to do something – don't wait to be asked. Don't seek permission. Don't put off until you have passed the right exams or saved up enough money. But be prepared to risk complete failure. 

"Don't give a shit about whatever your mates or your girlfriend or boyfriend think. Whatever it is – start now, today. Tomorrow is always too late."

02. Get a business partner

Key to The KLF's success was the mix of Bill Drummond, a former music industry executive and band manager, and Jimmy Cauty, a musician and artist whose Lord of the Rings poster (opens in new tab) for Athena hung on many a student's bedroom wall in the 1970s.

Their skillsets complemented each other perfectly. However good you are, a like-minded collaborator will fill in the gaps and raise your game, and keep you going when things seem bleak.

03. Make it heroic

Like other great men, such as Jesus and Harrison Ford, Bill Drummond started out as a humble carpenter, building stage sets at Liverpool's Everyman theatre.

Theatre legend Ken Campbell – who in 1997 would direct Bill and Jimmy's one-off 'Fuck the Millennium' performance at London's Barbican – rejected Drummond's original set designs for the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool's nine-hour performance of The Illuminatus! Trilogy. But Campbell gave Drummond the following advice:

"Bill, don't bother doing anything unless it is heroic." These sage words doubtless inspired The KLF's epic videos and Top of the Pops appearances. If you want to make a name for yourself, apply these words to your design work.

04. Create your own look

One area in which The KLF excelled was in defining its own distinctive style. It used one typeface across nearly all of its work – Compacta Bold – coupled with a handful of instantly recognisable logos designed by Jimmy Cauty, and even invented its own musical genre for its biggest hit singles: Stadium House.

Take a similar approach: come up with your own selection of visual cues, a preferred typeface, a stand-out colour palette, and use them on your portfolio site, your press releases, in your self-initiated work – anywhere you might be noticed. 

You could even go one step further and invent a name for your particular look. Make sure people hear about it.

05. Recycle and remix

You know what it's like when you do a piece of work that you really love but it doesn't get the attention you think it deserves, right? Follow The KLF's example: hold on to it and come back to it later. 

It had an insatiable appetite for sampling not only others, but itself, and for reworking its old tunes. What Time is Love?, the band's signature track, went through four quite different releases – the original Pure Trance mix; the Stadium House version called America: What Time is Love? with loud guitars and rock vocalist Glenn Hughes thrown in; and 1997's Fuck the Millennium, with added brass band and swearing.

If something didn't quite work before – or it did, but you think it could work better – revisit it, remodel it, bring it bang up-to-date and try again.

06. Share your wisdom

Get a load of that Compacta Bold

Get a load of that Compacta Bold

After getting their first number one record as The Timelords, Drummond and Cauty wrote a book explaining how anyone could do it, with an irresistible guarantee.

"We guarantee that we will refund the complete price of this manual if you are unable to achieve a number one single in the official (Gallup) UK charts within three months of the purchase of this manual and on condition that you have fulfilled our instructions to the letter."

The genius of this guarantee, of course, was that if you really did follow their instructions and fail, you'd be in thousands of pounds of debt to studios, manufacturers, distributors and others.

Regardless, people love to learn how things are done. If you've created an important piece of work, write up a case study and publish it on your website or send it to the design press.

07. Grab all the publicity you can

The JAMs turned the ill-fated trip to Sweden to try to meet ABBA into an album cover

The JAMs turned the ill-fated trip to Sweden to try to meet ABBA into an album cover

The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (The JAMs) – named, of course, after an organisation in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy – mastered self-promotion, seizing all manner of opportunities for a bit of publicity, from graffiti campaigns through to commissioning a crop circle in the shape of its pyramid blaster logo. Sometimes – though not very often – the group even gave interviews.

The problem today, of course, is that everyone's wiser to the tricks that used to work for The JAMs. If you want publicity, you'll need a clever and engaging angle, and you'll have to work for it.

Look at everything you do and everything that happens to you – even setbacks, such as being sued by ABBA – and ask yourself if there's a way you can turn it into worthwhile publicity. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

08. Collaborate with the best

The KLF had all manner of unwitting collaborators in the early days – it just sampled the likes of Whitney Houston, Petula Clark and, yes, ABBA and mostly got away with it.

Later, when The KLF became a big-name act, it managed to convince the queen of country music, Tammy Wynette, to sing about driving around in an ice cream van on hit single Justified and Ancient.

"While Jimmy got on with the track, I went into the office and picked up the phone," Drummond wrote in The Guardian (opens in new tab). "10 minutes later, after three or four calls, I am actually talking to Tammy Wynette, just before she goes on stage in Chicago. We play her the track down the phone and she agrees there and then to record the vocals with us."

Want to work with one of your design heroes? Ask them. Tell them what you're about and why you'd make amazing stuff together. The worst that can happen is they'll say no.

09. Know when to call it a day

Eventually, pop stardom took its toll on The KLF. Drummond's machine gun antics at The Brits in 1992 were a lot tamer than his original plan, which was to chop his hand off on stage and lob it into the audience.

If it all gets too much for you – if you're facing a constant stack of deadlines, not getting a chance to enjoy the fruits of your labour and just not feeling the passion that drove you to start all this in the first place – it's alright to quit to do something else. 

Travel the world, learn a new skill or just have a change of scenery. Better that than become an embittered old hand, sniping from the sidelines.

10. Don't burn a million quid

Not even if you've got a million quid spare and it seems like a good idea at the time

Not even if you've got a million quid spare and it seems like a good idea at the time

Just don't, right? It's already been done.

Over and out

Over and out

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Jim McCauley

Jim McCauley is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler who started writing professionally way back in 1995 on PC Format magazine, and has been covering technology-related subjects ever since, whether it's hardware, software or videogames. A chance call in 2005 led to Jim taking charge of Computer Arts' website and developing an interest in the world of graphic design, and eventually led to a move over to the freshly-launched Creative Bloq in 2012. Jim now works as a freelance writer for sites including Creative Bloq, T3 and PetsRadar, specialising in design, technology, wellness and cats, while doing the occasional pantomime and street performance in Bath and designing posters for a local drama group on the side.