What Taylor Swift Could Teach Us About Branding

by Maile Ann Schunk

You’ve probably heard the new single “Look What You Made Me Do” released by Taylor Swift. Did it strike a nerve? I had to navigate to Apple Music to check it out. When I first heard it though, I shrugged and told my husband, “It’s not that good..” I didn’t foresee the drama that would unfold as the news media covered their interpretation of the song. “It’s a dis song,” one teenager plainly stated in a video interview.

I agree with that statement, but I feel the song is much more than that. If we look beyond some of Taylor Swift’s personal motivations for writing the song, we can see this as an attempt to regain control of her brand.

{Definition of Brand: A brand can narrowly be defined as your promise to your customer. It more widely encompasses every touchpoint and impression you make that does or doesn’t help relate that promise.} 

Could this song be less about vengeance and more of a counterpunch to the accusations made about this songwriter? The song is her attempt to enter the conversation about how she’s viewed.

If you’ve followed Taylor Swift at all, you know she wrote a thoughtful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In it, she philosophized and strategized about the future of music artists and their audiences. She is definitely keen on the business side of her artistry. Here are some of the ways she schools us on branding.

  • Be authentic.  One reason Taylor Swift has been able to stay at the top of the charts has been her ability to connect with her audience, regardless of what persona she puts out there. This record is charted to perform just as well, despite an arguably significant shift in persona. How is she able to do this?

    It’s because she presents an authentic part of her personality. This contributes to making her records personable, likable, and in the end, buyable. At the same time, it also makes her brand sustainable – something she can continue to deliver. This is the lesson: You want your brand to be rooted in who you are or who the company is. This makes the brand more likable AND sustainable.
  • It’s ok to be hated. Now that we’re clear on the fact that you want people to like you, let’s clarify further. Not everyone has to like you. In fact, by focusing down on the main group of people that you want to sell to, you can express more of your company culture and core values in a way that they understand. This may earn you some haters. In the end, that’s ok. The point is, it’s better to embrace your brand and have haters, because on the other end you will also be creating superfans who share your values and opinions. There’s more to this dynamic in the book Bad*ss Your Brand by Pia Silva.

    Taylor Swift has always pushed the envelope with artistic self-expression. She’s become bolder and bolder in her confessional songwriting, which has earned her some enemies. I don’t agree with getting into feuds with other celebrities, I think she’d be much happier if she kept those identities a secret. However, my point is – she has been pretty fearless in her self-expression and this has translated into a large number of fans and superfans.
  • Value your brand. Take some time to think about how you’re different and what core values and sustainable advantages set you apart. Instead of looking at what everyone else is doing and copying it, think about a message or an offering you can provide that is different. Crafting your brand is worth it!

    Taylor Swift was a confessional songwriter from the start. Not only her artistry and songwriting have improved over the years, this brand has become clearer and more vibrant as well.
  • Don’t let someone else define your brand for you. When Kanye West released video footage of Taylor Swift agreeing to his song, he tried to make her look like a disingenuous schemer. Instead of ignoring this or allowing her manager to handle it, she publicly spoke to it and now this song addresses it as well. There’s something to the phrase – be so brilliant, they can’t ignore you. She may have lost the immediate publicity battle, but she’s winning the war. If she didn’t address the issue, she could literally lose thousands or millions of dollars if fans became disenchanted with her and her brand.

I hear “Look What You Made Me Do” on the radio now. I can’t help but relate to the jilted dreamer, and appreciate the branding work she’s done. Yeah, I have to admit, I think it’s brilliant.


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