Opinion

Taylor Swift: A masterclass in market orientation

As Taylor fever grips the nation, Neighbourhood Strategy's Christine O'Keefe deep dives into how the pop star continues to put her customers at the forefront of everything she does.

If, like me, you have been fascinated by the seemingly stratospheric rise of Taylor Swift, from a very talented musician to an icon of our times, you may find it useful to join me in a little passion project of mine – putting ‘brand Taylor’ under a marketing lens to understand the hysterical era we are in.

There’s a lot to be said about Taylor. Her ability to build a consistent brand whilst simultaneously re-inventing herself through new musical genres, her sales smarts in reclaiming the rights to her music and touring the world with essentially a 3.5hr cross-sell of her back catalogue to reinvigorate each of her albums, her sheer likeability to people of all ages and stages.

But today, in the afterglow of a magical weekend within Taylor’s orbit in Melbourne, I am going to talk about what I believe is at the centre of her blinding success; Taylor’s market orientation.

“No one wanted to play with me as a little kid.

So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since.

To make them love me and make it seem effortless….”

Taylors Swift’s connection with her fans started at a young age. Despite being told that her country music genre was geared towards women in their mid 30s, she firmly held a new target audience in mind… teenage girls. And she sang about heartbreak in a far more relatable way to this audience than the genre had previously cracked. She helped a new audience feel ‘seen’ and the dollars followed.

Over time, Taylor’s music has changed, broadening her appeal, and her superpower is to centre her music around a universal human theme; living sensitively in a not-so-sensitive world and reflecting on this. Whether it is the culturally-charged bangers like You Need to Calm Down or a deep introspection like My Tears Ricochet. She is a champion for the unseen.

Beyond the music, Taylor has always put her customers above all else, investing in the long game since the beginning.

Taylor genuinely wants to get close to her audience.

Taylor has always gone to great lengths to ‘give back’ to those who invest in her. In her earlier days, she would stay after her shows to sign autographs for everyone present. She would go on to host mini acoustic performances to a small group of fans when sharing new music, and she even surprised a few super fans with appearances at birthdays, engagements and other occasions. This has helped Taylor be seen as a real person who genuinely cares for her fanbase.

At every concert, each audience member gets an arm band that lights up with the music – creating starry patterns of colour throughout the audience and connecting everyone to the moment, and to each other. She also has a tradition of handing over her hat after performing Red’s ‘22’ to a chosen lucky person in the crowd, complete with a solid hug.

It is all these little micro moments of attention-paying that make a disproportionate impact on her connecting with the people she knows matter most.

Taylor meets her audience where they are.

Taylor neatly manages the art of coming across as real and honest in a way that feels unique among celebs, especially the A list. This comes through in her storytelling, which seemingly ‘invites people in’ to her personal life, which is often peppered with insights on her celeb friends, foes and partners, whom we would never get this close to otherwise.

At her concerts, Taylor goes out of her way to connect with her fans, thanking them endlessly for ‘wanting to be there’, and even organising ‘spies’ to roam the audience and suss out the crowd vibes so she can speak to specifics on stage. It’s ethnography in real time!

In her Eras show, she played back Aussie colloquialisms like ‘Yeah nah’, much to the surprise of fans, only deepening their connection to her.

How many times have you been to a concert where the artist can’t even pronounce your city the right way? (Mel-born anyone?)

Taylor knows that when something is limited, it is far more desirable.

Taylor has mastered ‘the scarcity effect’: the fine art of simultaneously feeling close to her customers, minimising the perceived gap between star and fan, yet somehow remaining just out of reach, to maintain desire.

If we look at the current Eras tour, every single location has a limited number of shows, leading to a complete sell-out, with hundreds of thousands of fans missing out each time. This takes her presence from a star in town to an iconic moment that you’re either a part of or you’re not. And with 8 months build-up from ticket sales to the event, that’s a heck of a lead time for the location to paint the town Taylor to be part of the moment.

Taylor keeps the conversation going.

One of Taylor’s smartest ways to engage is her ability to build hype around what she might do next. There hasn’t been an album drop or announcement of any kind since at least the Red era (2012), that hasn’t come shrouded in mystery, surprise or ‘clues’ as to what she plans next, leaving fans to follow the various threads to see what they find. Her recent surprise album launch at the 2024 Grammys threw even the most receptive Swifties, who had been anticipating her re-record of Reputation in its stead, due to the ‘rep codes’ she had been giving off of late.

She famously bakes ‘Easter eggs’ into her music videos, giving just enough for fans to ‘decode’ what may or not be happening next. By doing this, Taylor is generating weeks of speculation between brand interactions, akin to the water cooler chat we might have between episodes of a top-rated series as we try to figure out what will happen next week.

And in doing so, she is seemingly creating a dialogue with fans that runs beneath the surface level of culture. People feel she is speaking to them and it’s a personal connection.

Taylor leverages fan familiarity to build new behaviours.

If you’re wondering what the fuss is over these friendship bracelets that have seen Spotlight selling out of stock over this past couple of months, well it is all down to the fans. For those in the know, swapping friendship bracelets at Taylor’s performances has been a sub-culture within the Taylor universe, but it took Taylor herself including a line in her recent release of You’re on Your Own, Kid, where she said “Make the friendship bracelets, take the moment and taste it…”

And with that, the baton was passed back to the fanbase and they understood the assignment. A global bracelet making phenomenon had begun. Not only was this a genius way to keep the brand salience alive ahead of her shows, but it also connects fans to each other. In this way, brand Taylor’s genes are being passed on to multiply.

As a Swiftie friend of mine recently said, ‘It’s Taylor’s world, we just live in it’.

So whilst Taylor is certainly in a league of her own when it comes to her music success, her market orientation has played a huge role in her brand success that simply cannot be underestimated.

No matter what industry you find yourself in, market orientation is a crucial ingredient in building your brand to win the hearts of the people who matter most, and reap the rewards.

Christine O’Keefe is strategy and research director at Neighbourhood Strategy

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