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Taylor Swift Meets the Marketing Nation

By Martin Kihn | April 03, 2016 | 2 Comments

In case you missed it, a dip into the archive and a tribute to the branding power of Tay. Those of you early risers who are attending the upcoming Marketo Marketing Nation Summit in a few weeks will have an opportunity to enjoy the full presentation. (It’s 4/25 at 8:30am – rise & shine with Tay!)

Let’s think about Taylor Swift as a brand – a symbol of the way the most successful current brands (and politicians) present themselves, often without knowing it. Forget for now the current fillip with Kanye and Kim, which is shifting Tay’s image a bit – push that across the table and recall the American icon as she was last May, during Gartner’s second digital marketing conference, when I batted this idea around with a house full of Swifties.

The idea is based on data from a market research firm and a social analytics platform. It is inspired by the question:

“Why is Taylor Swift such a successful brand?”

Net Net

It turns out that “Taylor Swift” does not exist. She has no external reality, as a brand. She is a blank space upon which people project themselves. Stay with me here.

She is what I call the ultimate “unbrand.”

Taylor Swift is the “most marketable brand in history” (Forbes) and the “most beloved icon in recent memory” (A.F.I.). She is a spokesperson for Target, Diet Coke and Keds, among others, and her appeal is oddly democratic: she appeals to groups who can agree on nothing other than her.

Who is Taylor Swift, the brand? What is her secret?

To find out, I asked market research firm CivicScience to share some survey data and spun up a social network analysis of her fans, provided by social analytics firm Affinio. The numbers revealed:

  • She is embraced by opposing groups – my social network analysis showed that Swift’s followers on social networks fall into a range of different “tribes,” including (as expected) country music fans and teens, but also (not expected) pro wrestling enthusiasts and balletomanes, evangelical Christians and outspoken atheists, and so on.
  • She can not be insulted – she has a “Teflon Taylor” property, impelling anyone who says anything mildly offensive to her to apologize immediately and in public. Jared Leto, Amy Schumer, Kanye West (sort of) – all have pulled back mild rebukes with vigor.
  • She has a lot of lookalikes – to a degree unknown among celebrities, fired by social media, people all over the world believe they look like her. This is known as the “Taylor Swift meme.” And the ultimate expression of it may be Ryan Adams’ song-by-song remake of Swift’s entire “1989” album, an outrageous homage.

People who don’t agree on anything, agree on Taylor. My consumer survey showed that self-described Democrats and Republicans like her at about the same rates, with 20% of each group saying they “do not like” her. And it turns out that this 20% share another characteristic. We asked them how they felt about themselves “right now.” In a word, they are unhappy.

tay picture

People who don’t like Taylor Swift, don’t like life. More profoundly than her followers, Taylor haters are also projecting their own self-image onto her.

Taylor Swift and Sociology

So who is this “Taylor Swift” who can’t be insulted, inspires lookalikes, appeals to people who can’t agree on much, and is disliked only by people who are congenital punks?

The answer – I think – was provided by Emile Durkheim, the 19th century French sociologist. Seriously. Durkheim studied field notes from aboriginal tribes in Australia and New Zealand. These tribes would paint a stone with an image of their tribe and then endow it with divine qualities. They worshipped the stone. Durkheim’s influential insight was that this stone, representing both the tribe and its god, was a way for the tribe to worship itself. It was a totem.

I believe that Taylor Swift is a totem.

As a brand, she has no identity but seems to be a blank space upon which many different (current) tribes project themselves. Her very non-existence is her strength: she can be anything to anyone.

This quality of non-existence is the opposite of traditional branding goals. Yet it is the new way that brands are defined. More than simply claiming “branding is dead,” I believe the most successful brands – including products, celebrities and politicians – embody the same traits as Swift. They are Unbrands.

Consider Google. What do we – as people – really know about Google? What are its politics? Is it pro-woman? Pro-anything? What about Uber and Pinkberry and Jet.com? Many successful mass brands have no real identity in the traditional sense. Apple, Kiehl’s, Skype, Amazon, Keds … and Taylor Swift. All profit from the liberating emptiness of non-existence.

How It Works

Unbrands like Taylor Swift behave unlike traditional brands. As a marketing major at Columbia Business School in the early 2000’s, I was taught what marketing majors continue to be taught: namely, that brands have a clear point of view (a “brand identity” or “brand voice”); that they communicate this point of view through media; and that they must be “relevant,” usually translated into some form of trend-watching.

What about the Unbrands? My analysis of Taylor Swift and her cohort show that they, of course:

  • Don’t have a point of view – have no opinion on outside issues
  • Don’t talk about themselves – prefer to listen and repeat/retweet
  • Ride the countertrends – find prevailing winds and walk into them

For example, Unbrands do not make their position known on any topic of moment. On politics, economics, social and religious matters, they are publically inscrutable. To support the dark mask, they either speak in banalities or do not speak at all. Taylor Swift retweets and comments (blandly) but prefers to holding “listening parties,” where she lets her fans speak for her. Unbrands are good listeners.

tay 2

And as to countertrends, they exploit them. Today’s countertrend is tomorrow’s banality. This quality does not make them antisocial but rather anti-obvious. For example, the prevailing trend in popular music is to sexualize young women. Taylor Swift (the Unbrand) rides the countertrend with rather mature, dressy and sexy (not sexual) style. And if the trend in technology is toward feature overload, Google rides the countertrend toward simplicity.

And so on.

Why It Works

Here, I can only speculate that the nature of media – of life itself – has changed to the extent that we construct our own realities now; we live in a world of our making. There is evidence that mass media functioned in the past to create coherence, a shared social context, and that our era of bewildering complexity drives us all to select media and experiences with which we already agree. We don’t change to meet the medium; we change the medium to meet us.

In such a world, no brand (or politician) can have universal appeal unless it can be adopted by hundreds or millions of disconnected tribes. For various reasons, we are less and less likely to run into people who are not pretty much like us; we’re splintering into homogeneous and self-consistent cadres with little incentive or even opportunity to meet different types. This process has been called The Big Sort.

Media used to hold us together, oddly enough. Whatever our surroundings, whoever our neighbors, when we all watched the same TV and read the same newspapers, we could agree on the facts of the case. We argued about interpretation. Now, when I can choose precisely what to consume and when recommender systems suggest I consume more of the same; when a large minority of Americans say they get most of their “news” from their friends on Facebook; and when I have no reason (and many reasons not) to visit a news site whose antagonistic views make me want to scream – in such a world, I build my own media diet that just pretends things I don’t like are not true.

For celebrities, mass appeal comes from mass appeal. I must be consciously adopted by groups of people who have high suspicion of one another – but not, importantly, of me. They must all see themselves in me. In a way a previous generation of Brands did not, today’s Unbrands must adapt, Zelig-like, into any environment.

In the words of the ultimate UnBrand, they must be a “Blank Space.”

2 Comments
  1. August 3, 2016 at 12:47 pm
    Jade says:

    Hi Marty! Great blog :)

    By Taylor or any brand not having a point of view doesn’t that put them at risk for seeming to lack authenticity? Some of the brands you listed, Amazon/Keds/etc, I don’t think the authenticity piece is as important but for an individual I believe it is. What do you think?

    • August 3, 2016 at 2:10 pm
      Martin Kihn says:

      Thanks Jade. I suppose Unbrand celebrities are at risk for seeming inhuman – but Taylor overcomes that risk by writing songs that seem to reveal her humanity. I say “seem” because even though they sound very revealing and personal (and probably are), the emotions they’re conveying are generic young-person-feelings — they’re common to millions. So I don’t think her songs take a point of view on anything except heartbreak. But they’re authentic. That’s the beauty of Taylor the brand before #whatuptaylorswift …

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