Taylor Swift released her tenth album, Midnights, in October 2022. It quickly set several records, becoming the most streamed album in one day on Spotify and simultaneously getting ten songs on the Billboard Top 100 list.
While Swift's skill as a musician and songwriter undoubtedly is the primary driver of her success, in later years, she has also been hailed as a marketing genius. How can anyone make an album launch such an enormous event in the age of endless digital distraction?
– Taylor Swift herself says that it all started in the girl's room when she got caught up in the enchanting world of Dixie Chicks and their album Fly, says Nicklas Hermansson, journalist and founder of the media agency NomoFomo, who recently shared his analysis of Swift's marketing as a speaker at Sweden Live.
Few of us will ever have as vast an audience as Taylor Swift. Still, the core principles of her marketing are relevant for anyone trying to build a loyal following. Here are five lessons from Swift's career you might implement in your marketing strategy.
In August 1999, the all-female country band Dixie Chicks (today known as The Chicks) released their fifth album Fly, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album list and became their biggest success to date. The album made an indelible impression on the nine-year-old Taylor Swift, exposing her to the concept of creating a rich artistic universe around an album:
"I was very inspired by the album Fly and the aesthetics because it was very clear they had really put a lot into the artwork. And so it got my brain thinking bigger in terms of, you know, you make an album, but then you can choose an entire look and color palette and aesthetic and symbolism and imagery and backstories — that you can really make an album even more of an experience if you so choose," Taylor Swift told Entertainment Weekly in 2019.
– Swift is an expert at creating rabbit holes for her fans, says Nicklas Hermansson.
– Her team uses the same tactics as political extremists and conspirators to drag fans down the rabbit hole using mysteries, symbols, and riddles. Once they are drawn in, she turns them into her standard bearers by rewarding the most active fans.
Swift's albums are ripe with "Easter eggs" and subtle references. In the summer of 2020, she started posting black and white photos before declaring on July 24 that the new album Folklore would be released the same day. Her lyrics and videos might refer to events in her life, her favorite TV series, album covers, or fragments of her songs. Before the release of the Bejeweled music video, she commented that it had a "psychotic amount of Easter eggs" for the fans to enjoy.
Country artists Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill were some of Taylor Swift's biggest inspirations when she wrote her first songs. At 13, she got the attention of record companies in Nashville, the capital of country music. And it was as a country artist she presented her self-titled album in 2006. Taylor Swift stayed on the Billboard album list for several years and established her as the most remarkable country talent of the decade.
Two years later, her second album Fearless won three Grammys, not only the country award but also Album of the Year. While her subsequent two albums were also categorized as country or country pop, her music gradually moved in the direction of mainstream pop. In 2014 she made the leap with 1989, titled after her birth year. Since then, she has tweaked her musical style frequently.
– Her ability to change styles is one of her greatest strengths, says Nicklas Hermansson.
– Taylor is reborn with each album. New look, new music style, and new collaborations with both artists and companies. This means that she is never cemented and constantly broadens her fan base.
It might seem paradoxical that Swift keeps her fans loyal by changing her style. Remember that many of her audience, especially in the early years, were children and young teens. Unless their idols keep moving, young fans will leave them behind as sweet childhood memories. Many of these artists try to mature their image, but only a few do it as effectively as Swift.
In Nashville, Swift got to work with a team of professional songwriters. Her most influential mentor these years was Liz Rose, whom she started meeting weekly for a two-hour songwriting session. Rose later described how Swift would write about what had happened in school that day and turn small events into hooks, tunes, and chords. Rose could merely focus on editing Swift's constant stream of ideas.
One of these events was the basis of Swift's first single and the first track on her debut album. The idea of the melody of Tim McGraw came to her in the middle of a math class. She later connected the thought of her likely upcoming breakup with her boyfriend, who was soon leaving for college. The final song was about memories of a summer romance where the lyrics ask the boy to think of her when listening to her favorite Tim McGraw song.
Tim McGraw was the first of many Swift songs about boyfriends, breakups, and other personal experiences. While there are many references to her romantic relationships, she later became more secretive about her private life, especially her current relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn. On Midnights she returned to the autobiographical realm with "13 songs about sleepless nights".
Storytelling was also Swift's response to the greatest crisis of her career, the public feud with Kanye West in 2016. Swift got a lot of bad publicity for how she handled the conflict, took a break from the media, and wrote about her experiences with the press on the 2017 album Reputation. In recent years, she has extended her storytelling to directing her music videos and made a successful debut as a filmmaker with the short film All Too Well in 2021.
The early years of Taylor Swift's career coincided with the rise of social media. As social media matured, she became one of its biggest stars. In 2015 her Instagram account became the most followed on the platform. And even though she took a break from social media in 2016, her audience has continued to grow. At the time of writing, she has over 240 million followers on Instagram and more than 90 million on Twitter.
But Swift took the idea of interacting with her fans beyond social media. In the weeks before the release of 1989 in October 2014, she held a series of secret mini-concerts in different cities and even in her own home. Small groups of invited fans got to hear her entire new album before its release, meet her in person, and taste her homemade cookies. The concerts became known as Secret Sessions, and the fans proved able to keep her secrets.
Right after the 1989 release, Swift instigated a new tradition: In the weeks before Christmas, she started to drop seasonal emojis into the comments of some of her most dedicated fans. The fans were obviously chosen, but for what? They soon found out that Swift had been shopping for presents, packed them, and sent them to fans herself. "Swiftmas" was celebrated for several years and was one of the decade's most memorable campaigns.
Swiftmas faded at the decade's end, and the pandemic put the Secret Sessions on hold. But Swift has signaled the secret concerts will return. While she has become more secretive about her private life in recent years, she still closely connects to her fans. Swift's generosity might be the easiest part of her marketing strategy to imitate – giving something away is possible for anyone.
Stars meeting each other to create a hit has been a standard feature since pop music was young. What could be better for everyone involved than borrowing audiences from each other for a while? Taylor Swift has been highly active in this area, recording more than 30 songs with other artists. She has also written songs for others using the pseudonym Nils Sjöberg – most famously Calvin Harris and Rihanna's hit This Is What You Came For.
From early in her career, Swift was an attractive partner for collaborations. The English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran learned that she was a fan in 2012, when she had his lyrics written on her arm in a TV show. Sheeran went on tour as Swift's opening act in 2013 and later became one of the most successful artists of the decade. The two friends have recorded several songs together, the latest being The Joker and the Queen from 2021.
When you're famous enough, you can even collaborate with your idols. In 2013 Swift recorded Highway Don't Care with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, and in 2019 The Chicks (formerly Dixie Chicks) did the backing vocals on Swift's song Soon You'll Get Better. For Midnights she created Snow on the Beach with fellow singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey. While most don't have the opportunity to work this closely with our heroes, collaboration is often possible to implement in our marketing but easy to overlook.
At 33, Taylor Swift has released ten studio albums, sold over 200 million records, and received a boatload of awards for her music. And she shows no signs of slowing down. In a recent interview, she told how she's been constantly creating for the last six-seven years: "... the more I write, the more I keep writing (…) and the more things I make, the happier I am."
So what does Nicklas Hermansson expect from Swift's upcoming projects?
– Since she's been reborn with every album so far, I'm guessing she'll keep it up, he says.
– I also think she will continue collaborating with new companies and artists to broaden her fan base. What has accelerated in recent years are her stances on social issues. Since that resonates well with the the younger generations, I believe she will continue on that path as well.
So what's next for you?
Will you surprise your customers? Reinvent your business? Make the audience a part of your story? Be more generous? Or find new partners to collaborate with?
It is easy to be awestruck by Taylor Swift's success. But while she is an incredibly gifted artist and creator, her marketing principles are accessible to all. She had to start at square one like the rest of us. How far can you go if you imitate some of her strategies?