The Campaign Behind the Best-Selling Album of All Time
The King of Pop is also the King of Marketing
We’re no stranger to who Michael Jackson is, he’s a person who needs no introduction. At some point in our lives, we’ve probably secretly rocked out to the guitar solo on “Beat It,” or tried (and failed miserably) at moonwalking. This icon is dubbed the King of Pop for a very good reason, his influence and how he carefully shaped the culture around music has been nothing short of phenomenal. And that’s notwithstanding his actual album sales, which set multiple records that have yet to be beaten to this day.
Take his best-selling album (and the best selling album of all time), Thriller. To date, Thriller has sold a whopping certified 42.3 million copies, with the actual number estimated to be way higher, around 66 million. To put 66 million sales into perspective, that’s literally the entire population of the United Kingdom. And that’s mind-blowing to even think about.
Before this masterpiece was unleashed, Jackson had already cemented himself as one of the biggest pop superstars in the entire world. But if you think that Thriller’s astronomical success was mainly attributed to Jackson’s celebrity status, I can tell you this, the album’s achievement was actually the result of a genius marketing strategy that was planned meticulously from start to finish.
Here is Thriller’s marketing strategy broken down into three portions:
1. Michael Jackson’s Company Planted a Trojan Horse in His Album
Trojan Horse: a person or thing intended to undermine or secretly overthrow an enemy or opponent.
Back in the 1980’s, there was one prominent music platform that every artist wanted to get their music featured on: MTV.
Its power to steer consumers’ tastes for pop music was quickly becoming apparent, as many songs began to blow up simply due to MTV exposure, even without any radio play. But there was just one snag. MTV wasn’t inclusive of black music.
CBS Records, Jackson’s record company at that time, was extremely aware that there were no records by black artists in the MTV Top 20 Pop chart when they sent the first single from “Thriller” to the radio.
So what did they do? Not wanting to take any chances, the first single they sent, “The Girl Is Mine,” featured a white artist. And not just any white artist, but Paul McCartney, the legendary Beatles member who was receiving prominent radio play at that time.
They also did not bother investing in a music video for this first single, since they knew it would likely not be featured on MTV.
The move was a monumental success. The presence of McCartney basically ensured the song’s position on the radio. And despite initial criticism that the single was distasteful, it reestablished black music’s presence on that chart.
Following this well-executed Trojan Horse strategy, the rest of Thriller gradually gained momentum on the charts, paving the way for the remaining singles, “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” which eventually took the world by storm.
2. Michael Jackson Redefined Entertainment By Introducing Choreography To His Music Videos
Yes, the moonwalk, arguably one of the world’s most famous dance moves ever created, was part of an ingenious marketing tactic by Jackson. But how?
After the initial success of “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson and his record company knew they had to leverage on that and find a sure-fire method to get themselves featured on MTV. Thus, CBS Records decided to invest heavily in producing expensive music videos that had a fresh concept to them. The angle? The videos showcased superb choreography with Jackson as the main center of attraction. Just check out Billie Jean below:
Dancing is a visual art form that naturally gels with music videos. However, at that point in time, not many music videos included choreography in them, with the exception of James Brown. And even then they were not as well-executed as Jackson’s. Combined with the catchy pop singles that were “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”- which by the way, were both amazing bodies of work by themselves even without music videos, MTV decided to give the videos a shot.
Both singles were immediately propelled to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, along with the Thriller album making its way to the top of the album chart. This cemented Thriller’s success in the pop world.
3. Michael Jackson Released The Music Video for the Thriller Single One Full Year Later
So we know that the first two strategies helped the Thriller album clinch a massive amount of sales upon its release- but how did it go on to be the best selling album of all time? Well aware that the attention span of the music industry is usually short-lived, Jackson knew he had to deliver more interesting content to his fans to sustain the hype of the Thriller album.
And so after observing that the Thriller album had eventually fallen off its number one spot on the charts, Jackson quickly released the 14-minute long zombie-themed music video of the album’s title track. You can watch it below:
The public reaction was instantaneous. Thriller shot back up to the top, where it continued to stay for the next few months. On top of this, physical album sales began to regain their momentum, and in time, it finally became the best selling album of all time.
Apart from selling millions of copies, Thriller received multiple other accolades, such as winning a record-breaking eight Grammys in the year of its release.
But what can we take away from this example? More importantly, how can we adapt all the above strategies to a modern-day context? Here are some key lessons that I’ve personally gotten from Thriller’s exceptional marketing:
- Understanding your environment/marketplace is the essential first step. Had Jackson and his company not fully understood the white-preferred music industry at that point in time and immediately invested in expensive videos, the album would likely have flopped. In all aspects of marketing, it is always crucial to understand the industry you’re getting into- the current landscape, the market competitiveness, the barriers of entry. Only when you understand fully can you craft out strategies that can place you or your brand in a better position.
- Differentiate yourself by thinking outside the box. Prior to “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” there were barely any artists that considered adding choreography into the music videos. No doubt Jackson had a gift for dancing, but he knew how to apply that into marketing his product different from others. Do your best to discover how to make your product stand out compared to others, and not just in the usual ways like price or design. If your product can be marketed to deliver a value that no one else can, then you will have established your brand as a forerunner in your industry.
- Sustainability is key to a business’s success in the long run. If Jackson had released his Thriller music video in the same time period as “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” it probably would not have garnered as much traction and sustained sales as compared to releasing it a whole year later. By continually delivering value to your customers, you keep them interested and invested in your brand for a longer period of time.
I hope this example has inspired you as much as it did for me. Michael Jackson has always been one of my all-time music influences growing up, and knowing that he executed great marketing strategies only serves to spur me to do better marketing in my own ways. I hope that it does for you too.
Rest in peace, Michael Jackson. Your legacy lives on forever. (1958–2009)