With the release of the first single off her upcoming album “Reputation,” Taylor Swift is proving that she is a force far beyond her country-music origins, pop-star looks, and gossip-magazine headlines. This is not a music review, but it is an endorsement of her brand-building skills.
Let’s start with some analytics: Her new single is breaking records for video views–an unprecedented 19 million views for the lyrics-only video in its first 24 hours and 82 million for the feature video in just 48 hours. The song is already generating airplay as the music behind ABC’s promo for its “TGIT” lineup, as well as grabbing attention through the benefit of an endless stream of polarizing reviews.
To be sure, none of this was unplanned. Swift, as an artist, knows that creativity and marketing must work in synch to pay off and that you don’t succeed in the long term by playing it safe.
Marketers today need to think like artists if they want their brands to stand out in a saturated market, where differentiation is a tall order. While data certainly matters, creative thinking is integral to brand building. So what can CMOs and other digital leaders learn from Taylor’s game plan?
1. Take risks: When she’d already collected handfuls of platinum records and Grammys, Swift shifted from her country roots to Top 40, disheartening some of her early fans. But the gamble paid off as she became a cross-over sensation with the highest grossing tour of 2015. Along those lines, brands that play it safe for too long go stale in the minds of consumers, then face an expensive refresh in their attempts to survive.
One brand that understands that is Porsche, whose concerns over launching an SUV turned into a massive success. Since the Cayenne’s launch in 2002, Porsche sales have climbed fourfold. These days, the Cayenne and its sister SUV, the Macan–both risky bets–drive nearly 70% of total sales.
2. Change with the times, not after them: The music industry can write and rewrite the book on disruption. Vinyl to tape. Tape to CD. Digital singles to streaming. While music has rode a wave of disruption, Swift has stood her ground to lead, rather than be subject to, those changes. She famously aligned solely with Apple Music in 2014 after protesting how her music was given away in a streaming world. Then just a few weeks ago, knowing how critical streaming has become for any record’s success, she agreed to return to Spotify.
Big companies often suffer the effects of disruption when the opportunity to act has passed. Newspapers suffered the impact of digital media early and for a long time. Physical retail is now reeling from overexpansion in the face of a rising preference for online shopping. The key to riding the wave is to spot it and jump on it, rather than wait for it to crash over you.
3. Mix old and new: Swift’s upcoming album will feature a mix of media that we haven’t seen in a long time. Advanced sales on physical media at Target and Walmart stores will include one of two versions of a 72-page print magazine intended to showcase her as more than just a singer, featuring her poetry, photography, and artwork. Even at $20, and without any songs other than the lead single, the CD is already amassing impressive presales.
Similar to how other new brands, such as Airbnb, are now releasing magazines, the goal is not to be a publisher but to reach people in the moments when they are not bombarded by screens and messages. This return to traditional media concepts is intended for what it is: a brand-building tool. It is not intended to be a performance marketing driver that has a direct tie to sales.
4. Be creative and bold to stand out: Nearly every artist or group who lasts goes from a one-dimensional character into a more nuanced, often roguish one over the course of maturing. (Think: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album and Madonna’s “Sex” book.) These evolutions help shape, for better or worse, the broader narrative behind the person or group that is defining themselves in new terms.
Likewise, brands such as Old Spice and T-Mobile also reinvented their brands, though in their cases it was to revive lagging results. Old Spice, known for being popular among men who were young in the 1950s, gave the brand swagger using Isaiah Mustafa and humor to become relevant to young men in the 2010s. The result? A 10% lift in sales. Meanwhile, T-Mobile, long the wireless underdog in the U.S. with a smaller, antiquated technology, invested in becoming the “Un-carrier” with bold statements, bold pricing, and direct attacks at its big competitors. At the height of that campaign, it captured 26% of those switching from the Big 3 in the telecom sector, all the while changing the narrative of the industry.
5. You won’t please everyone: Does being bold create haters? Of course. But better hated by some than ignored by most. Swift’s “1989” album and videos took aim at some of her music colleagues and detractors while she played innocent. And country stations abandoned her when she made the switch to pop.
While withstanding controversy might be tough in the short term, early contentiousness in board meetings will give way to harmony as the audience for the product adjusts to both new customers and those who see the change as a good move One could argue that Uber is the classic example of a brand that can’t please everyone. We’ll soon learn where the former Expedia boss will take the company, but the ride-sharing app did something remarkable as a business and a brand in a very short time. It might have hit a lot of speed bumps, but it wouldn’t have become a $70 billion private enterprise without breaking some glass along the way