How Taylor Swift Changed Marketing with the Unbrand

Peter Van Brunt
May 26, 2016
How to

Earlier this month I attended Salesforce’s annual digital marketing event, Connections hosted in Atlanta. There was a wide variety of speakers and topics covered, from email marketing to life in space from astronaut Scott Kelly, and buzzwords like “scalability” and “consumer journey” baked into powerpoint after powerpoint.

One of my favorite sessions was uniquely titled “How Taylor Swift Changed Marketing Forever.” The sheer volume of Tay Tay fans made this session hard to get into and what caught my eye wasn’t T. Swift, but instead the speaker: a Gartner Analyst by the name of Martin Kihn.  I am familiar with Marty from his most famous book “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time”, which was later adapted into a Showtime Series “House of Lies” where the main character’s name is Marty Kahn (played by Don Cheadle).  

As Marty opened with some trivia about Taylor, I immediately realized I was the least knowledgeable person in the crowd about the music star. Then he went into explaining how Taylor changed marketing by creating a unique brand, which Marty coined the “Unbrand.”  What makes a Brand different from an Unbrand is their differing habits:

Brands Habits:

  • Go Big
  • Are not people
  • Talk a lot
  • Are Entertaining
  • Want to be liked
  • Are not us

Unbrands Habits:

  • Go Home
  • Are human
  • Go against the flow
  • Listen a lot
  • Are real
  • Like independence
  • Are us

Unbrand habits are applicable to influencer marketing

The concept of the “Unbrand” resonated with me and immediately I realized how these same Unbrand habits are applied to best-in-class influencer marketing programs. Brands that are practicing influencer marketing correctly work with Unbrands as their influencers. These are the individuals online affecting your brand’s consumers buying and decision making process because they are trusted members of their online communities. They are real and we see ourselves in them, can relate to them, and trust their thought leadership. I recently purchased an Amazon Echo because several people I look to as tech thought leaders in my network were sharing their positive experiences and use-cases of the technology, not because Wired wrote a review of the product. I bet you make purchasing decisions in a similar fashion, right? 

Not all marketers understand the Unbrand--yet

Unfortunately not all marketers understand this yet. I regularly walk into meetings where the goal is centered around an influencer marketing program working with folks with the largest reach possible. They dig in and focus on vanity metrics like number of followers, connections, etc... These influencers also have a tendency to create A TON of content, engage very little and cover an extremely wide range of topics. They are talking heads and drive little action with their audiences by throwing stuff at the wall all day hoping something insightful sticks.

How to leverage the Unbrand for influencer marketing

Marty highlighted key takeaways and, while all were very insightful, a couple of them really resonated with my influencer marketing application:

  • Go Home (to Go Big):  The old way had brands focusing on the widest possible reach, no edges and unachievable stereotypes where the “Tay Way”, as Marty refers to it, starts narrow, focusing on a passionate niche, keeping the edges and empowerment. Here the key quote was “Relevance is the new Reach.”  Meaning when it comes to focusing on the right influencers for your brand, Relevance to the topic(s) that your brand’s consumers care about should be the leading driver of selecting the right influencers to work with.
  • Listen a Lot (to Everyone): Traditionally brands talked a lot about their product, looked at social as a means of promotion, and saw the formula as Reach x Frequency = Impact.  The Tay Way emphasizes the importance of social responding, leveraging social as a tool to learn and gather insights and a new formula of Impact = Impact. The lesson here  is that not only are the most impactful influencers those that listen and engage with their audience, but more importantly that marketers should be listening very closely to what their influencers have to say!  Listen, give, and then get.
  • Are Us:  Brands, with the help of social media, are becoming more and more human.  The same should be true for the influencers you work with. The goal isn’t to find the closest thing to a celebrity online, but instead find people that relate to your consumers.  If you accomplish this your consumers will see themselves in that individual and it will impact them more. I once had a makeup brand explain to me that the reason influencers drove more purchases vs. celebrities was because these influencers were all so similar to their consumer and the consumer could see themselves in that person vs. looking like an unachievable stereotype.  

What brands and influencers can learn from the Unbrand

Influencer marketing can learn a lot from the concept of the Unbrand.  First comes the brands and their interactions with influencers. Brands need to focus on relevance ensuring they aren’t getting caught up in the vanity of it all, listen to their influencers to ensure they are hearing and understanding their needs, and work with influencers that reflect their consumers.  

The other half to the equation is what influencers can learn.  The more that influential people understand the concept of the Unbrand the better the space will become. My belief is that most influencers online incorporate the qualities of the Unbrand, but many did and changed once they became influential and strayed from their roots. You see this when people with influence begin to opt-in to paid networks and suddenly start spamming their audiences with irrelevant ads. And suddenly, they are not listening and engaging with their own audience because they’re too busy “running a business.”  It’s an easy way to lose your following and break trust with your audience.

So how does your brand stack up? Brand or Unbrand? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

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