Chance The Rapper is Setting the Perfect Example of How to Market to Millennials

On February 12, 2017, music fans from all across the world tuned in to watch the Grammy’s, the biggest music night of the year in America. The 20 million plus viewers that tune in each year are well-accustomed to experiencing greatness, as artists bring their best and most creative performances to the Grammy stage. This year was no different, with amazing performances from the likes of Adele, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, and of course, Queen Bey herself. These artists, among others, have been dominating the music industry for years, and it came as no surprise that they would bring their A-game to music’s biggest stage once again.

What did come as a surprise, however, was the absolutely MASSIVE night had by Chicago native Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, better known by his stage and brand name, Chance The Rapper. After delivering one of the most memorable performances of the night, the 23 year old artist also walked away with 3 Grammy wins, including the award for Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. As big of an accomplishment as this is for Chance, it actually may be most significant to a bigger picture. The truth is, Chance’s victories are of great importance to the entire music industry, to the marketing industry, and even to us infamous millennials.

Why is this the case? Because Chance The Rapper’s rapid rise to success breaks all the traditional rules of making it big in the music business. He has gone his entire young career without signing to a label, meaning all of his marketing has been done strictly by him, his personal team, and his fans. Additionally, his Grammy win marks the first time in history that an artist won a Grammy without releasing physical copies of their album. His winning mixtape, entitled Coloring Book, was exclusively released through Apple Music. And it was released FOR FREE. I won’t talk much about what this means for the music industry, but to make it brief: it’s a nightmare for record labels and a major victory for artists.

For those involved in marketing, Chance’s success story should be examined very closely, because it is truly a perfect example of how to market to millennials, a group that other generations seem to have a hard time appealing to. With millennials being just a few years away from making up more than 50% of the workforce, they will soon be the center of American society, and will soon be the largest group people must market to, if they aren’t already.

So what exactly did Chance do? On the surface, he did everything you’re supposed to do with the initial stages of a business. He began by developing his skills and eventually became excellent in his craft, leading to a great product. He then started making connections, and even ended up doing collaborations with popular artists such as Kanye West, Childish Gambino, and many others. From that, he built up his own following, largely online, and developed a niche audience. Excellent product, connections in your field, niche audience. All incredibly basic building blocks for a business. Cool, what else?

Leading up to the release of Coloring Book, he created a lot of hype by making posters available for sale and encouraged people to hang them up in their home towns. Fans got excited about a new mixtape and took him up on his request, as it had been 3 years since he had released an album (an example of scarcity marketing). Chance made a ton of money from this because he charged $20 for something that was free to make. Word spread rapidly from this, and when the album finally came out, people listened in mass groves. One other thing that helped the hype: he once again collaborated with friends of his, and he was able to land big names on his record, including Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, and Kanye once again.

Promotional posters for Chance The Rapper’s “Coloring Book” mixtape. Photo credit @KyrellosKaldas

So, what’s the secret sauce? How did he take those basic principles (and one really clever marketing idea) and turn it into a worldwide phenomenon with no label backing?

The secret is this: Chance The Rapper truly tapped into the core values of millennials and caught their attention.

This begs the question: what are the core values of millennials? I think there are a lot of misconceptions as to how millennials behave and what we actually want in life, but I think our core values are actually fairly simple. When it comes down to it, millennials are passionate, motivated, hard-working, and intelligent people. What we WANT is freedom, choice, value, innovation, and authenticity. Chance kept these principles in mind every step of the way.

I heard Dennis Schiraldi (Marketing Executive and Founder of DoYo Live) say this in a lecture about the upcoming generation: “Millennials are a very powerful generation: people don’t know how to sell to them because they don’t like to be sold to, and people don’t know how to employ them because they actually care about work, family, and life balance.” This isn’t to say that other generations don’t care about those things, but we do value choice and freedom, and we won’t be at the mercy of a company if it compromises our freedom and a healthy work/family/life balance. I agree with this completely. Ultimately, to sell to millennials, people must realize that our core values are different than generations of the past.

Going back to our “case study,” Chance is clearly very aware of how millennials are listening to music today. They’re paying for streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, and very little money is going back to artists directly via album sales. There’s also an oversaturation in the music industry. We are constantly bombarded with new music, and there are literally hundreds of thousands of artists fighting for our attention. As stated above, we aren’t interested in being sold to all the time.

Instead, Chance took a content marketing approach to his music that few artists have embraced. Instead of providing some sort of content and selling the music, he has flipped that around and made the MUSIC the content (entertainment), and has found other elements of his brand to monetize. It’s truly genius if you ask me. I mean, think back to the poster example. He literally got people to PAY him to advertise HIS music! How crazy is that? I’d say that’s the definition of being innovative. In addition to the posters, he has done other creative things to make money, such as creating merchandise that fans can customize (a great example of the millennial core value of choice), and creating a limited edition Chicago White Sox hat with New Era (an example of value). By being non-invasive with his marketing and by giving music away for free, he has given freedom to the consumer. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Chance is a very authentic individual. Authenticity is hard to define, but you can tell when it is and isn’t there. Millennials can detect a phony very quickly. With Chance, you can see his authenticity in everything that he does.

Chance The Rapper’s exclusive Chicago White Sox hats. Photo credit @chancetherapper

Marketers, it’s time to return the power back to the people. Millennials are an amazingly talented and driven group of people. The way to get the most out of them is to work to serve them. Give them the freedom they need to thrive, give them opportunites to be innovative, and stop trying to sell to them all the time! Show them your value, and they will return the favor. Just look at what a kid from Chicago did on his own. It’s a different era, and in order to succeed, it will require a different mindset.