Say what you will about her music, persona, or awards-show grooving, Taylor Swift is a marketing genius.
From product launches and rebranding to borrowed equity and social media domination, the playbook of the 25-year-old recording artist reads like a Strategy 101 textbook.
Legions of loyal fans see her as approachable, sincere and authentic. News outlets willingly spread that message. Celebrities clamor to be part of her posse, eager to capitalize on a Swiftian halo effect.
She is an ideal example of the power of earned media and social reach. Her label may toss cash at paid ads, but by and large Swift grinds out her coverage the old-fashioned way: She earns it. Because of that, she reaps insane ROI through the message amplification of others.
Below are five lessons from this country-turned-pop star that you can apply to your brand:
1. Be willing to reinvent your brand.
Swift’s early country hits were rooted in boy-crazy romance, enabling her to connect with her tween and teen fans. When that narrative turned negative (she’s dumped, clingy, pathetic), Swift flipped the script and released the song (and video) “Blank Space” on her crossover-to-pop album “1989.”
Swift shunned victim status, positioning herself as the dumper, not the dumpee—which helped an aging fan base to reinterpret her brand. Swift embraced the negative and laughed at herself, and she was rewarded with a No. 1 hit.
Takeaway: Keep your ear to the ground as your organization matures. If the narrative goes awry, reset and look for creative ways to shake it off.
2. Lead the conversation.
Many brand managers are circumspect—too circumspect—about taking an unambiguous position. The fear of alienating a small subset of their market often trumps making a stand that may impress a greater number.
When Swift wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal criticizing Spotify for its role in devaluing music, she risked irritating those fans who used the streaming service. She did it anyway, attracting support from other musicians and re-igniting a national dialogue about the significance of paying for art.
She framed it expertly, not pleading poverty but emphasizing the worth of music to the world—worth that should be adequately rewarded. If the record-setting sales of “1989” are any indication, those impressed far outweighed those offended.
Can you name another pop star able to smack down a billion-dollar multinational like Apple and cause it to back down?
Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to articulate what your brand stands for. The customers you lose probably weren’t loyal to begin with; the ones who remain (and those you attract) will be that much more devoted.
3. Own your channels through branded content.
Don’t wait for the world to figure out what you’re about.
Taylor Swift owns her messaging, because she regularly pushes out unique, high-quality, multi-channel content. Whether it’s penning an op-ed like the one in the WSJ or sharing cat photos on Instagram, Swift tells the world what she’s about.
Takeaway: Meet your audience where they are. Create content. Engage on social media. Be present.
4. Humanize your brand.
People like to talk to people—and the best brand managers make personal brand connections with their audiences. Southwest Airlines is successful because of its wacky workers. People associate Apple with its CEO. Stitchfix sends me recommendations from my “personal shopper Amy.” Those companies are no longer amorphous entities. They’re personalities.
Swift has a leg up in this department because she is, well, a person-but that’s not what humanizes her personal brand. She accomplishes that by sharing herself with her fans and authentically connecting on social media and face to face. “Taylor Swift buys fans Christmas presents—and wraps them herself!” “Taylor Swift Skypes with sick fan!” “Taylor Swift gives girl $90 for Chipotle!” All that could backfire, except it’s true and it’s authentic.
Takeaway: Humanize your brand to establish a true personal connection with your consumers. They’ll reward you with understanding and loyalty. It’s a lot harder for me to quit Stitchfix when I’m worried about offending Amy.
5. “Think different.”
Apple’s old slogan is as true today as it was in 1997. Why? Because “different” gets noticed. “Same” is just noise.
When Swift was a struggling young artist, she looked for ways to market herself distinctively. She didn’t wait for her market to come to her; she went to them, whether it was delivering cookies to DJs who spun her records or performing a flash concert in a departure lounge at JFK Airport.
Takeaway: Look for opportunities to be where your competitors aren’t. Don’t restrict yourself to industry trade shows—you’re all selling the same thing. Look for chances to be the only one of your stripe.