Have We Reached Peak Taylor Swift?

The importance of brand is still pertinent if you’re TayTay.

In Memory… | Source: Evening Standard

Brands are built over the long-term, not the short-term. For anyone working within advertising or marketing that will be obvious, but the evidence behind that phrase can be astounding. Especially the story of Volkswagen and their ‘Dieselgate’ scandal. Everyone, including myself, thought it might spell the end of the VW reign in the automotive market (within Europe and Asia at least).

Turns out we were wrong. Very wrong.

In the year following ‘Dieselgate’, however, Volkswagen only sold 8 fewer cars. That’s it. Eight.

The most frequently credited reason points to the fact that Volkswagen has built a brand over a long period of time, with one consistent message and tone of voice. It had drilled into that message into the minds of the public to such an extent that when it came to the scandal they were more forgiving. Their outrage and disgust towards VW only went up to the point that it came time to choosing their new car, at which point they’d rather opt for a new Golf rather than trying another marque.

This is where we start to connect the dots between Volskwagen‘s ‘Dieselgate’ and Taylor Swift’s Reputation.

Very few would argue the cultural impact that Tay-Tay has had on our music industry. She’s achieved 31.4 million in album sales (making her the 23rd-best-selling album artist – Garth Brooks is #1 with 71.9 million) and song downloads at around 97 million. That’s nothing to sniff at. However, if we look at her 1989 album in comparison to her latest, Reputation, we can see a fairly obvious dip in success. 1989 earned 6.1 million album sales, while Reputation has earned 1.9 million since it launched in November 2017 – of that 1.2 million were in the first week. Reputation breaks the pattern of growth, instead being the first blemish on an otherwise pristine rise to super-stardom.

The beginning of the Swift’s dethroning? | Source: Statista

1989 was the most successful album in her career. It sold massively, it had an 11 week run at the No.1 on the Billboard 200, it was in the top 10 for 52 consecutive weeks and in the process helped earn her 6.1 million new social media followers – all without being on Spotify to do it. Few artists in this day and age could match that performance (Jay-Z and 4:44 being a notable exception.)

So, where did it go wrong for Reputation?

First off, let me say that it didn’t necessarily go wrong. I don’t think anyone could say that Swift grabbing another Billboard No.1 debut, 1.2 million albums sold in the first week and the No.1 album of the year shows that something is wrong. Nonetheless, I do feel that, while Taylor Swift won the electoral vote, she hasn’t won the popular vote.

The problem? She changed her brand.

Taylor Swift has spent years cultivating her brand – the country music star next door that was a little nerdy, but in a cool way. That was her image, point of view and tone of voice. You can see it build across her albums, from Taylor Swift through to Fearless, Speak Now and Red – maturing at 1989. This isn’t to say that she always had the same image, it kept evolving, but it did seem like she was cementing the Taylor Swift brand, especially by Red and 1989. To employ the words of Charlie Ebdy, she kept evolving her image at the beginning of her rise to stardom in order to stay reverent and appeal to her audiences (especially as she moved from country to pop music). However, Ebdy also argues that once you have established yourself as a significant business (or, in this case, musician), you should stop evolving and harness the power of consistency in order to ensure ownership of your brand and market share.

With Reputation, however, she has pivoted massively. She took the brand that she had developed and decided to do away with it. It was the musical equivalent to Coca-Cola’s unsuccessful switch from being the brand about ‘Happiness’ to ‘Taste the Feeling’ – which ultimately resulted in Coca-Cola dropping out of the Top 10 brands for the first time since they started.

I understand that musicians want, and need, to evolve their musical style – but that’s the key word, ‘evolve’. However, it needs to be handled correctly, otherwise the effect could be that your brand declines and you lose your appeal.

In the case of Swift, I have heard a lot of feedback that says Reputation doesn’t feel like a Taylor Swift album, that it feels like a record company decision and that it doesn’t feel genuine. Especially when she performs live, you get the impression that this isn’t really ‘her’ music. It just isn’t at home in the Taylor Swift brand world. Despite first week album sale success, it seems as if her fans think so too; the Reputation Tour has failed to sell out. By comparison, her 1989 Tour (2014) sold out in minutes – while her Fearless show at Madison Square Gardens sold out in 60 seconds.

Fortunately, Taylor Swift is a lot like Volkswagen in that she has spent the past couple records evolving and focus her brand image – cultivating lifelong fans who would rather listen to her than the latest Nicki Minaj track. The same way that VW fans were happy to stick with VW after ‘Dieselgate’, Swift fans seem happy to listen to Reputation – if not as happy as they were with 1989. The question is – what’s next? How is Taylor Swift going to follow up this album? Is she going to take a leaf out of VW’s book and double-down on what people loved about the brand? Or, is she going to be more like Miley Cyrus and shed her ‘Pop Princess’ tiara?

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