Taylor Swift: Master Marketer

Even as we learn that nearly half of Bay Area residents “want to leave,” at least 55,000 of them were screaming in place last year as Taylor Swift delivered what a dazzled critic called “pretty much a perfect pop spectacle.” Perfect! And as Tay conquers town after town in her six-month, 55-city global victory lap … I’d like to reshare a post I wrote when her last album came out. It’s about just how much we marketers can learn from this 28 year-old sensei of song.

Taylor Swift: Master Marketer

So we finally have it, Reputation, after waiting since the MTV Video Music Awards last August: Taylor Swift’s sixth album, a 55-minute oleo of fifteen tracks on the theme of a young woman’s broken, broken heart. We won’t comment on the songs, which make us nostalgic for 1989, but once again on the marketing.

For whatever you can say about Taylor Swift, woman and musician, she is a genius as a brand, a revelation, and she just wound up a very public six-month master class in the way a thoroughly modern marketer can be #NailingItDaily.

Last November, she easily became the first artist ever to have four million-selling opening weeks; no one else has even had three. Released at midnight on November 11, Reputation‘s first-day sales were 700,000. Loading up pre-sales, which only count on day one, is a standard move for entertainment properties; the number itself becomes a source of earned impressions (i.e., PR).

Yes, Tay had the year’s most successful record, and has launched what will obviously be this year’s most successful stadium tour, at a time when her personal popularity may be drifting. Our friends at market research firm CivicScience shared this disturbing image with us:


So while Taylor Swift, 28 year-old Pennsylvania-born home-schooled female, is not what she was, “Taylor Swift(r)” the brand is still absolutely bulletproof.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tay

What did Tay do to launch such a successful product?

You might say, what didn’t she do? We witnessed UPS trucks with her silhouette, TV spots, “secret” sessions with fans showing up on Good Morning America, videos and behind-the-scenes footage, even a widely-reported court case and more celebrity feuds …

We’ll break it down. Four themes here — as we admire Taylor Swift: Master Marketer.

They are:

  1. She is (still) an UnBrand
  2. She uses primitive psychology
  3. She forces fans to work
  4. She is a master of suspense

And now …

  1. She Is (Still) an UnBrand

I’ll say it again: Brand Taylor Swift does not actually exist. She never did. “Taylor Swift” is a blank space, a Durkheimian totem upon which fans can project pretty much whatever they want, but more important, themselves, their values and their wishes for their souls. By not having any edges, she presents a white widget with which we can work.

What? This is a theory I repeated coast-to-coast last year, numbing my victims into a state of gently nodding as they slept. If you’re interested in the original squib, backed up by data from CivicScience and Affinio, you can find it here.

An UnBrand is a mass-market brand that takes no position on anything and betrays no traits at all beyond the most generic. in this way, it lets different audiences with little in common other than their own humanity easily adopt the brand into their personal squad, or sociological “tribe.”

No matter what your social graph or favored fountain of fake news, Brand Tay fits because it fits anywhere. It is uncontroversial and so it is adaptable, like an attractive but polite person who is welcome to infiltrate your wedding.

We should not have been surprised — although, in fact, we were — that Tay herself knows this. She is unbrand-aware. She told us as much last August.

At the MTV Video Music Awards, she unleashed her first Reputation video for a song called “Look What You Made Me Do.” It contained a disturbing piece of theater. Fifteen different versions of Taylor Swift, pulled from the arc of her career, stood in a line on a horror film set.


There was a Tay from the 2009 VMAs (when her speech was remixed by Kanye) and Tays from various videos, including “Shake It Off.” There’s crying Tay and the circus ringmaster Tay from her “Red” tour. And so on.

Which one is Taylor? She says it herself: all of them and none of them. Brand Taylor is a shapeshifter.

  1. She Uses Primitive Psychology

Marketing is primitive psychology, and Brand Tay’s insights into the minds of her (young, female) fans is poignant. What do we fear the most? Hunger? Not most of Tay’s fans; no, we fear being abandoned, alone, left out. We exist in a state of hypertensive, continuous #FOMO.

Tay taps into this by delivering a path to inclusion. Think of her launch campaign as a video game; the prize is that you are part of the squad. And our anxiety starts with an explosion set off at the VMA’s in August, when her team revealed a very odd animated TV spot introducing its masterstroke:

“Taylor Swift Tix”

The VMA ad showed cats (good) vs. robots (bad) in a fight to the death. Its message was simple: there is an army of robots out there that are competing with you (cats) for tickets to Tay’s upcoming concert tour. You have got to fight back. One way to do this is to sign up with TicketMaster and become a “Verified Fan” (not a “Verified Robot”).

If you don’t, this terrible fate awaits:

image2 terrible fate

Of course, we see here the marketing equivalent of calling a bug a feature and charging for it. TicketMaster might have felt it was its own responsibility to combat bot fraud, the way ad tech providers do. But then again, verification is free and evil bots are a timely nemesis.

That’s just the start. Once you’re Verified, you are in line. But you still might not get a ticket. There are human adversaries, millions of them, all vying for a chance to invade the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ next July 21st, and points west.

That’s a long … long … line.

Then the magical “Taylor Swift Tix” program appears. It turns out the line is not first-come-first-served, as lines usually are, but can be played. If you do certain things, you can improve your position in this line. Two points to note, as master marketers:

  • This line is imaginary
  • Tay is channeling #FOMO

Last time I looked, the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ was pretty big. It fits a lot of Swifties, who are small anyway. I’m not sure so many of them won’t get in … but there’s a chance that we just might be excluded, abandoned, alone in our silent oblivion, playing “Our Song” over and over and sobbing … or, we can do any number of on-brand activities, all of which give us a LOW / MEDIUM / HIGH level of “Boost” in the line:

  • Watch designated videos on Tay’s fan site
  • Sign up on Tay’s official mailing list
  • Refer many friends to the program
  • Buy merchandise from the Taylor Swift Official Store ($50 t-shirts! $60 snake rings!)
  • Pre-order the album (before 11/9 only) or buy it up to 13 times

The program is not universally beloved, but it’s most excellent marketing. Our friend Jess Vogol at Movable Ink — a true Swiftie — tried an A/B test with the program. You can see from the image below that a relatively low number of Boosts (arrow “A”) does appear to lead to a lower place in the line (arrow “B”), which ranges from “Priority” (although not guaranteed) down to the dreaded “Waitlist” … which is puzzling, if you ponder it, because stadium concerts do not have waitlists … but that’s #FOMO for you.

image4 position in line

There are more ways to boost and boost until your eyes hurt. The official “program terms” don’t specify them, but Tay’s FAQ site promises that “activity boosts will come in all shapes and sizes.” Whew.

Such shapes and sizes all relate to social media, where Brand Tay has discovered just about every method of encouraging her followers to talk about her and keep talking until they’re comatose. She hands out random boosts for social activities like a Medieval churchman strewing indulgences:

image5 tweet

And the ultimate in #FOMO fomentation are the so-called “Secret Sessions” — which aren’t all that secret — in which Tay invites a select group of superfans to private listening parties before the release. There, they sometimes meet Tay herself or chat on video. These sessions are then burnished into marketable objects on “Good Morning America,” say, or YouTube.

So perfectly pitched are Brand Tay’s tactics with respect to inclusion, exclusion and tribalism that it makes me wonder if they have a sociologist on staff. And some of the most #FOMO-firing moments struck me as staged … not quite real. For example, I ran across this “fan” who made a bold claim last month:

image6 tweet

Which was paid off in an epic photostream of heartfelt tears and triumph as this “Ellie” meets her idol in the #reputationSecretSession in London:

image7 tweet

Which of course you and I were not at — #FOMO! — and perhaps did not pause a moment to reflect that, amid all her no doubt inhumanly demanding prep for her marketing master class and album launch, Taylor Swift had time to “stalk” a random English girl’s Twitter for a “year” … but who knows?

  1. She Forces Fans To Work

It’s hard work being a fan of Taylor Swift. Between buying merch and pre-ordering thirteen copies of “Reputation,” there’s barely time to decipher all the clues she’s left in her videos, lyrics and Instagram captions.

Oh, yes, clues. Tay’s realized we are a culture absolutely riven with conspiracy theories and nothing makes a fan base more engaged than an endless micro-debate over what might (or might not) be a hidden message in a blurred image, casual post, or backed-up audio file.

Mainstream fans don’t know this, but Tay has long embedded Baroque ciphers into her marketing materials. She does this to encourage — yes — social media activity, speculation, posts and counter-posts, raging debates and trenchant denials … and, finally, to repay those who put a lot of time into Tay with the knowledge that they’re in the inner ring of fire, closer to the flame.

To take one example, the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” contained the following, according to NME:

  • Her dress from the “Out of the Woods” video
  • A tombstone with the name “Nils Sjoberg,” a pseudonym she used to write “This Is What You Came For
  • A $1 bill in a jewel-filled bathtub, referring (perhaps) to the $1 she won in that trial last summer
  • Snakes and tea, related to her feud with various Kardashians
  • An army of models which might refer to her Squad
  • 8 “I [heart] TS“-shirt-sporting dancers that could be her 8 famous exes
  • 15 Tays that could (or could not) refer to the 15 songs on “Reputation”

And so on. At one point she says, clearly:

“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”

Which is a puzzling meta-statement in itself unless you followed the Kim Kardashian video-leaking scandal related to the permission that may or may not have been granted to Kanye for mentioning Tay in his song “Famous.” For that is what Tay said (cleverly) when asked to comment on the incident.

There’s a lot more to say about hints and conspiracies and so on, but we master marketers can conclude here: a great way to encourage social engagement among your customers is to toss a few ambiguous secret messages into the mix. They’ll meet you half way.

In fact, they will go too far. A lot of the Swiftian sherlocks in the past few months were totally wrong.

Rational choice theory. There is an influential hypothesis in social and religious studies called Rational Choice Theory. One of its tenets, advanced by the great Rodney Stark, is that religions that are the most successful are not the easiest ones to join but rather the most difficult: those that make the greatest demands on their members.

Think of the LDS, with its two-year missionary postings, or even A.A. with its coffee-making and unpaid sponsorship. The more a group demands, the more it weeds out light travelers and rewards the faithful. So in addition to being a Durkeimian totem, Tay is a Stark-ian rational choicer. Amen.

  1. She Is a Master of Suspense

The release of “Reputation” was a narrative unrolled with precision. It was written by a storyteller, and it proceeded in the genre of suspense. Those of us who paid attention experienced this release as a Hitchcockian thriller of no common order.

It was just great theater. And as we’ve said before, marketers have a lot to learn from Hollywood.

Remember how it began. There were rumors that Tay was going to release a new record, her first in three years, but no official word. Then on August 18, Tay disappeared from the Internet. What?! Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr — all down. Gonzo. Her 102 million Instagram followers lost their photos. Her website was blank.

Then … on August 21 … on her Instagram there is an unsettling, enigmatic video of a snake. Swish swish. A reference to a feud with Katy Perry (more conspiracies) … who wrote a song “Swish Swish” about her …

Then all the above, planting mystery and wonder in her path, and two more points before we’ll wrap up this admiration of our greatest modern marketer.

First, the VMAs. Tay was not there. She hung over it like the morning star but she herself was absent. Busy? Napping? No … it was another perfect note in the opening scene of her “Reputation” narrative. She’s always luring us on.

And second, the UPS partnership. This is particularly interesting. In case you missed it, UPS is the “Official Delivery Partner” of Taylor Swift, a great honor, certainly, and one that allowed it to give her thousands of effective out-of-home placements right where her market lives.

A few weeks ago, I took this on 28th Street in Manhattan:

image8 ups

Why UPS? It moves. Taking a picture and posting it gives you a Boost. And then … UPS released a video of Tay packing a box and another video that was utterly ordinary with the exception of its background track, an electronic plaint that sounded like a woman singing very fast.

A fan ripped the tune … slowed it down … and OMG it sounded just like Taylor herself singing lyrics that sounded like “… rip off the page.” So it was assumed her next single would be called “Rip Off the Page” … and the video itself was labeled “Unlisted” on YouTube, making the rumor even more delicious.

Again, we wonder who these mysterious unnamed “fans” are who happen to unlock ciphers and have access to news media. The stodgy brown brand’s second (unlisted) video’s ambiguous soundtrack pseudo-clue was ultimately covered far and wide (particularly by Conde Nast), from Teen Vogue to Glamour to EOnline to Buzzfeed to Refinery29 

And it was wrong. A Hitchcockian red herring. Tay released songs called “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want” but nothing called “Rip Off the Page” ….

And all we can say about “Reputation” is: Call it what you want, the marketing is gorgeous. We marketers should all rip off that page.


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