We’re betting many of you read this headline and rolled your eyes.

Yes, we’re talking about the same Taylor Swift you’ve heard of ad nauseum on entertainment shows and on the covers of every gossip rag. The most marketable artist in the business. The one who keeps getting into all those weird conflicts with Kanye West. You’ve heard of her, I’m sure.

But it’s not an accident that she’s one of the most famous people in the world. We might easily dismiss her for being “just some pop star,” but it’s undeniable that her brand has struck a chord with consumers of all ages. What makes her different from her contemporaries like Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry or Adele? Why are millions of Swifties dying to be part of her squad?

This year at Connections, Salesforce’s 3-day digital marketing event, Martin Kihn, Research VP at Gartner gave a step-by-step breakdown of what makes Taylor Swift (the brand), revolutionary and why marketers need to pay attention to the zeitgeist she’s captured.

The Rise of the UnBrand

Think of some of the larger modern-day brands: Google, Uber, and Snapchat. The popular Japanese retail brand Muji, literally means “no brand.” They each have principles, values, and exist as a company; but these brands are blank spaces. What do they stand for? What do they mean? Typically a brand should have a point of view, talk about themselves, and ride the trends, and yet these modern UnBrands don’t really do any of these things. What it means to be a brand has changed.

As it turns out, Swift is a perfect example of an UnBrand. Kihn compares Swift to a totem — a symbol or emblem to a group of people. Instead of having a specific brand point of view, Swift’s image is blank space, allowing various groups of fans to identify with her and project their ideal self. According to Affinio data, Swift appeals to a large, and diverse group of people, from tweens to parents, and from hardcore politicos to those who prefer watching WWE.

Why does her appeal transcend generations and demographics? Swift, like the other UnBrands, breaks all the traditional brand rules.

While other pop stars are playing up their sexuality, power, or glam party-hopping lifestyles, Swift rides the countertrends; she is known for being a homebody who likes to hang out with friends — and her cats. She’s the ultimate confirmation that pop stars are just like us — the cat-loving, homebody non-pop stars. And that relatable, shifting image has netted Swift millions in endorsement deals, 79M Twitter followers, and a spot on Forbes’ World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list. Let’s look at 7 habits of Swift and other successful UnBrands.


1. Go home (to go big)

Build your base by starting small and starting narrow. The traditional way was to always try for the widest possible reach. Now we know that focusing marketing efforts on a very target audience is most effective if you’re looking to connect connecting with people. Find your followers— and your niche. Find out why people like your brand and expand outwards from there. Relevance is the new reach.

2. Be human

I think a lot of us would agree that the most effective marketing is the stuff that you didn’t know was marketing in the first place. Yet it caught your attention or spoke to a problem you had. The days of speaking at customers is over; marketers need to speak directly to customers, as you would your friends or colleagues. Like Swift, companies can build stronger relationships and connections by simply being human. Make your marketing strategy relatable; be chatty and conversational.

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3. Go against the flow

People who work in the fashion industry tell us that it’s always better to be a trendsetter than a follower. Yet most brands don’t follow that line of thinking at all; they tend to embrace cultural currents. Brands respond to the latest news topic or memes on social media to illustrate their relevance. But Swift knows when to participate in the conversation and when to ignore it—and it makes her that much more appealing. While sex sells, Swift has proved that having a unique style (or lack thereof) instead, sells even more.

4. Listen to everyone (a lot)

We’re not talking about designing or creating something by committee, but it’s always smart to get customer feedback. Swift takes research a step further than most celebrities: she invites fans to her house for “listening parties” to solicit feedback directly. She’s savvy enough to know that connecting to her fans is a two-way street. It’s not about the constant push and selling of her products; customers who are empowered to speak up and voice their opinions about brands are more inclined to remain loyal to those brands.

5. Focus on being real instead of entertaining

Have you ever watched a commercial and had no idea what it was selling or what message you were supposed to take away? (Brad Pitt’s weird Chanel N°5 commercial comes to mind.) That intrigue, irony, or entertainment value might have worked in the past, but younger generations don’t buy it. UnBrands know this and don’t bother with it all this. They get straight to the heart of what they’re doing: promoting their product upfront. Honesty and transparency are part of the new playbook. For example, it’s okay to unapologetically promote your brand or product, but be sure to own it; be okay with being a profit seeker. Younger consumers value accuracy and authenticity.

6. Be independent or contrarian at times

Part of being authentic is showing all your sides, faults included — and occasionally standing up for what you believe in. Your brand doesn’t always have to be easy and agreeable. If you pick your battles wisely, you can gain new followers and fans for having a true point of view. Swift has taken on Kanye West, Spotify, and even Apple and has come out on top, with many of them apologizing to her. Even with the recent drama-filled gossip, Swift’s tightly controlled image and her calculated moves with the press will hardly leave a dent in her UnBrand. Remember, conflict is part of being human.

7. Be one with your customers

The separation between a brand and its people narrows. Brands are becoming more human every day. We can see the employees who work for a company, read about the jobs they do, and interact with brands in real-time via tweet chats or livestream comments/chat feeds. Swift has built a community of all her networks, inviting collaborations among her fans, her friends, and fellow performers. She’s also shown us what she does in her down time. In essence, she’s invited us, as the consumers, to be part of her brand and experience her world with her. As consumers, we can see ourselves fitting into that world and connecting with it, rather than admiring its unattainability. We’re right there experiencing it with her saying, “I think we’d be friends in real life. She’s like me.” That’s impact.

The rise of UnBrands has changed the rules for marketing, and are connecting allowing companies to connect with more customers. Steal a few tips from Taylor Swift and you’ll find out how you can turn a blank space into your wildest dreams.