Taylor Swift: A Lesson in Brand Management

I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan for years. And in case you can’t tell this point, I also have the tendency to geek out when it comes to marketing. Since I’ve been listening to a lot of Taylor’s music while studying for my last set of final exams this week, I’ve had the chance to really think about Taylor not as a musician, but as a businesswoman.

And you know what? She’s pretty freaking good.

I’m not saying that just because she’s rich and famous. I’m saying it because she’s been so in control of how she’s presented herself and made sure that she’s always in charge of her story, no small feat in Hollywood. She’s also changed her image over the years, going from lovesick teenager to a grown woman who couldn’t care less what people think about her. From a brand management perspective, it’s inspiring and something that marketers can learn a lot from.

Namely, we can learn how to reinvent our brand and keep ourselves relevant to our target market, all while staying authentic to our core values.

At first glance, this sounds easy. Just keep evolving, right? But let me ask you something: how often do you see companies close down or musicians fade away simply because they can’t keep up with the times? Pretty often. It’s a marketer’s job to prevent this exact scenario and in my opinion, there’s no better lesson on this than Taylor’s career.

Let’s break it down, album by album, shall we?

Taylor Swift

On her debut album, Taylor established herself as a typical, All-American girl. She sang about love, heartbreak, and feeling out of place, just like many teens. Her style was decidedly country, which went with her image at the time. And in many of her videos, like Our Song and Teardrops On My Guitar, she wears dresses that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a high school prom.

Fearless

For her second album, Taylor stepped out of the box a little. She was still very much a teenage girl, influenced by her country roots, but she had a bit more wisdom now. For instance, more of her songs are about moving on from a bad relationship, like You’re Not Sorry, Forever & Always, and White Horse. However, she’s still hoping to find true love, evidenced by Fearless and You Belong With Me. It’s not unlike a younger high school girl as she moves into her college years, a little worse for wear but ready to take on the world, nonetheless.

Speak Now

Speak Now marked a clear evolution in Taylor’s style. She was no longer the wide-eyed teenage girl that had taken America by storm a few years earlier. Now, she was a twenty year old young woman who had seen her fair share of heartbreak and controversy. She was clearly getting tired of her failed string of relationships and taking on a more mature tone as she sang about children, weddings, and rising above her former bullies who thought that she would never accomplish anything. Taylor Swift has always given as good as she gets when it comes to people talking bad about her. In this album, she started to hint at just how much confidence she had gained after four years in the spotlight. As always, though, love and heartbreak continued to play a role in her music.

Red

When Red came out, Taylor was 22 years old and had been dominating the music scene for a whopping six years. She’d had a string of relationships by this point, with her love life playing out in the headlines of various gossip magazines. Some of her fans had gotten a little over Taylor’s romances (myself included) and, judging by her music on this album, I think she was a little over it herself. Red features songs that are more reflective in tone as she thinks about her exes, what led to her breakups, and how she feels about it all. She’s still hoping for the kind of love that she sings about in Stay Stay Stay, but she’s also not afraid to be a single girl for a bit, as referenced in 22. Like most girls at this age, she’s struggling with searching for that love that she’s always wanted, and defining her own identity beyond her romances. She also recognizes that she hasn’t made the best choices, like in Treacherous and I Knew You Were Trouble.

1989

1989 is a distinctly pop album that is less about guitars and pianos, and more focused on catchy beats and synthesizers. The attitude that Taylor projects in this album is that of someone who has gone through a lot, including an unhealthy, on-again off-again relationship. It’s this relationship that dominates 1989, where she sings about being Out of the Woods and knowing when You Are In Love. However, she ends with Clean, where she compares her string of romances, and this one in particular, to an addiction that she’s finally getting over. It’s been hard, but now, she’s ready to just be herself, regardless of what others think.

Reputation

Since this album dominated musical headlines for weeks after it came out earlier this year, I’m not going to go in depth about it. Suffice to say that Taylor Swift doesn’t give a crap what people think about her, whether it’s about her romances or her high-profile feuds. This album is very much about a woman (Taylor turns 29 this year) who has gone through some major s*** and has come out of it stronger than ever. She knows that she’s made mistakes, as referenced in Getaway Car and Call It What You Want. However, she’s very much in charge of her story once again. She talks more explicitly about sex and drinking than she ever has before, her tone is more Look What You Made Me Do than apologetic, and while she’s in a relationship again, is much more mature and healthy than any of her more recent ones. To go along with this album, Taylor has been largely staying out of the spotlight, preferring to let her songs do the talking as opposed to a couple shots from the paparazzi.

With every album, Taylor has grown and she’s made that evolution clear in her music. She’s constantly re-imagined herself, evidenced by everything from her lyrics to her hairstyles, but she’s always done it in a way that stays true to who she is. Her changes also match up with how her fans are moving through life, so that her music continues to stay relevant for them. Taylor’s always stayed with her first target audience, the ones who were in high school and middle school when she made her debut, rather than try to constantly go after teenagers.

This choice to mature as her fans do as kept Taylor’s music authentic, no matter what she’s singing about. Keeping your authenticity over twelve years and an endless list of headlines is something that marketers strive for when it comes to their companies. Maybe we can learn a couple things from Taylor.

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