What we can learn from modern music marketing about building brands in the digital age (or, how Miley was more relevant than Syria; how Beyonce’ broke the Internet; how Lorde and Pharrell’s hat asserted themselves into mainstream American culture; and what influence has got to do with porn


#1 Royals, Lorde: Grammy’s 2014

#2 Vevo, Beyonce’

#3 Miley Twerking, Onesie edition

#4 Daft Punk & Pharrell, Grammy’s 2014 & @pharrellhat


What does Lorde, Beyonce’, Miley and Pharrell’s hat have to do with brand building in the digital age? In short everything. This paper examines a handful of brands that rarely get considered in advertising – that’s the big business of music. It argues that modern business and marketers can learn almost everything about communicating and building brands today, by unpacking the hallmarks of successful music marketing today. Specifically, by examining four concepts: being culturally contextual, stepping outside of category constructs, liberating ourselves from ‘blockbuster moments’ and acknowledging that communications controlled by us aren’t the only answer.

So why is music getting it right? In brief, it’s been forced to. Music, unlike most big brands in the marketing world who have a ‘mainstream imperative’ has had to embrace the digital age because its fans who spend the most and are most engaged (‘aficionado fans’ and ‘digital fans’) primarily use digital for music discovery, are extremely active on social networking and use smartphones as a music entertainment hub[1]. These needs drive innovation, because if they don’t get it they take the power into their own hands.[2] Exemplary music marketing delivers to these needs and results in influence, which could be the most useful success metric of the digital age.

Let’s put a lens on cultural relevancy by turning to track one – a tune by New Zealander, Ella Yelich O’Connor called Royals. It’s music’s biggest night at Los Angeles’ Staples Center Lorde is surrounded by the biggest and most influential cultural icons right now. In this context, the performance makes sense. The slight American drawl, the references to hip-hop culture and excess, it works. Team Lorde knew it was destined for this context and it would be played next to a track from Yeezus, right after Jay-Z’s latest jam and would be talked about and compared to Miley’s flavor of the month. It’s clear she wanted to exist outside her own little world, have a point of view and not only reference culture, but critique and add to it. As if this wasn’t enough, she continues to contribute to debate on feminism and sexualisation in pop music[3] and in doing so showing the music product is only one portion of the Brand Lorde.

In theory, brand strategy 101 sees us ‘tapping into passions’ and ‘solving needs’, but all too often we’re making brands relevant to a collection of individuals, over a collective of people. Generally speaking we’re tapping into a cultural discourse through a current ‘cultural truth’, over what could be a cultural truth. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re a few steps behind and we sit off to the side afraid to really ‘dip our toe in’. It takes courage as an individual, an organisation, or a business to stand up, speak out and stand for something. It opens you up to scorn and ridicule, but the new world sees people with the power and to actively build culture and participate in it and we expect brands to do the same. Challenge: More meaningful contributions to culture, less ‘tapping in’ and appropriation of culture.   

Shall we journey now to Beyonce’ with track two and what she managed to deliver to the world on the 13th of December this last year. ‘Queen Bey’ and her people produced a 14-track album complete with 17 videos (only purchasable as a complete work) and no marketing hype. With a single Tweet from the Queen herself, she flew in the face of convention. Having the courage challenge what had become status quo led to a breaking in iTunes sales and selling more than 800,000 albums in the first three days.[4] The PR value of this approach was unprecedented, as most media outlets were reporting Beyonce “…broke the Internet.”[5]

Contrast this to the normal agency strategic process. We put the spotlight on the category that brand or product ‘lives in’. However, research by Havas Media tells us that people are finding it harder to differentiate products within categories. “Consumers said brands were holding their own in only four categories, and in the remaining 40 categories were converging, or becoming less distinct.”[6] Additionally, McKinsey tells us that FMCG marketers are spending three times more of price promotion, over brand building[7]. There’s never been a better time to truly act in a way that differentiates your brand or product over the competition. Particularly because most people the world over said they wouldn’t care if more than 73% of brands disappeared tomorrow[8].

The truth is, for a lot of people, these categories don’t exist. They’re constructs made up by our industry that bear little resemblance to the real, everyday world. As people go about their daily business, they see a billboard for a soda, a press ad for a hair colour, a car ad on the side of a bus and overhear some teenagers at the bus stop talking about the latest Miley track. That’s four categories right there and three more than we would have considered if the brief were for a soda brand. Generally speaking, for music it’s a case of ‘differentiate or die’ and for a lot of marketers it’s a case of making 5% difference this financial year[9]. We need to think less about short-term hooks and fixes and more about long-term brand building and differentiation. Challenge: More looking outward, less introspection.

Let’s cut now to track three 2013’s good girl gone bad Miley Cyrus. Her team made a conscious decision to not just bank on blockbuster moments (single, album drop, more singles, tour, etc). ‘Feeding the fans’ and feeding them frequently became a defining feature of the Miley marketing output. Investing in outputting regular, snack-sized bites of content led to Miley never being out of the modern day water cooler conversation, Facebook’s News Feed. The day after her famous VMA’s performance (and not earning a single award) she topped Google’s hot searches, added over 100,000 Instagram followers, increased her Facebook likes by 50,000 Facebook likes[10]. As a direct result of this increased exposure and engagement, her album Bangerz sold 270,000 copies in its first week and took the number one spot in the Billboard 200.[11] Additionally it’s worth noting that over this period she created more conversation than The Syria crisis.[12]

In advertising, we regularly get obsessed with traditional marketing calendar ‘regulars’ such as the polished TVC and press ad. The problem with this approach is it takes a lot of time, money and resource to ‘produce perfect’. Output aside, as strategists we spend a lot of our days and weeks and months debating a string of words that become the proposition, or playing a game of ‘synonym rotation’ on a brand temple/house/onion/keystone, often in liaison with the client. Although this can be useful in displaying your grasp of the English language, it could be suggest that perhaps our time would be better spent thinking about the conversation the brand or product you have custodianship over, exists within. Better still, think about how to keep that momentum going ‘between drinks’ and ultimately make it work hard for the bottom line. Challenge: More consistent momentum, less short bursts of activity.

Finally, let’s draw our attention to track four and its accompanying Twitter handle. The name Pharrell Williams shouldn’t be new news, but for a lot of his current fan base, they first chanced upon him on Grammy night earlier this year because of one defining feature, his hat. Classic challenger behaviour, it stood out and it paid off. Google Trends data shows the week post The Grammy’s saw Pharrell’s hat and Pharrell increased by 5000%[13]. The performance and deliberate choice of headwear spawned a fan-driven Twitter account, @pharrellhat and at last count, it had 19.2K followers[14]. It proves getting out of the way can be the best thing for your brand.

Because we’re in the business of advertising, we often get consumed by the notion that advertising, or more broadly communications are the only answer to a business problem. And, that the advertising agency and the brand should only be the ones to communicate the message we’re trying to convey. However in this ‘digital age’ it’s more powerful and effective if these ideas are propagated by the people that we are in the business of reaching for the brand. It’s more powerful if it comes from the people, groups, organisations that aren’t the brand or product[15]. This is nothing new, but it’s surprising how often this isn’t the case. If we’re honest with ourselves, all too often we blast out 360-degree messages, shout, get in the way and expect people to listen. It’s time to remember to get out of the way. Challenge: More core thoughts that allow outsider contribution, less messaging propositions.

In summary, let’s ensure our brands and products genuinely act more like pop cultural participators, instead of appropriators. There’s no reason why a laundry powder or liquor can’t take a stand on feminism and help be a mouthpiece for a generation. Let’s also stop benchmarking against ‘category norms’, and making small margins of difference. Let’s start benchmarking against culturally influential brands – the Miley’s, the Lorde’s, the Beyonce’s and Pharrell’s of the world. Stepping outside of our categories can help to make real step change and allowing brands to have ambition beyond category expectations can unlock substantial opportunity. Also, earning influence goes beyond big spikes in activity (owned, bought, and even earned) and requires us to get out of the way and allow people to make the brand or product their own. We need to ensure we are creating opportunity for micro, more one-on-one and personal experiences are built into the marketing calendar.

So what does this mean practically speaking and what can we do today? It’s a no brainer that we need to all start tapping into and building intelligence from what people are saying, over what they say they’re saying or doing using social listening – the focus group of the digital age. We don’t need to just rely on brand trackers and quarterly dips, we can be dipping in and out of our brand, or product everyday. More broadly, we all need to adopt a test-and-learn attitude that allows us to try, succeed and make mistakes on a daily basis. Being influential requires this in spades.

But what does influence actually mean, how do we measure it and just as importantly, how can we apply this to what we do everyday? One could argue that it’s less about moving brand health measures, shifting dials on social sentiment and increasing ‘likes’, ‘fans’ and ‘shares’. There isn’t one generic influence metric, nor should there should be. Could it be as simple and reductive as getting a collection of people en masse to switch behavior from what the love doing, to getting them to participate with your brand or product? Could the ultimate influence metric be getting people to swap porn for participation, as seen in the latest Super Bowl?[16].

Building brands in a digital age also requires a recalibration of what digital and social really are. They aren’t just platforms and pixels, they’re a way of engaging with the world and done right they’re a surefire way to earn influence for our brands and products. In the modern business world embracing innovative, creative thinking is not only mandatory, it’s a cost of entry. Simply put, if you fail to innovate you risk an almost certain death. In the words of Mark Zuckerberg, “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”[17] It’s time to bring back the cool to marketing and think more like a musician with nothing to lose.

[13] Google Trends data


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