I’ve been a Swiftie – albeit a less dedicated one than many – since my dad (shoutout) bought her first CD and played “Tim McGraw” and “Our Song” in the car on the drive home from a day of seventh grade. Like many others, I was hooked from the start on her lyricism and musical talent and, like any other angsty pre-teen kid, the feeling that the music truly “got” the feelings of love and heartache – even if I was only twelve.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and Taylor is an undeniable powerhouse not just of lyricism and musical skill, but of building a business and brand. Plenty of articles have been written, especially in the last year, about her insatiable fans, her economic impact, and, in TIME’s recent profilenaming her their person of the year, her ability to create a narrative almost without anyone noticing.
This last point is one that any good business should pay attention to.
Obviously a B2B enterprise is not the same as Taylor Swift. They aren’t dropping regular “easter eggs” to draw in new customers like Taylor does to market new albums. No company is blatantly or subtly calling out other entities or people that they have bad history with as Taylor does in many of her songs (looking at you, “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” “All Too Well,” “Look What You Made Me Do”). And very, very few companies have the complete authority over what they produce and how they do that in the way that Taylor does – they have to report to too many stakeholders.
But the way that Taylor builds a story that continues to iterate on itself is one that every business should emulate.
Here’s what I mean: in 2017, Taylor released Reputation, an album that was, for her, a complete diversion from her norm. It was angry, and threatening, and certainly no longer PG-13 in the way her past albums had been. Her albums always spurred conversation before, but this one prompted entirely new dialogues all around the same question: would this new Taylor be welcome?
Clearly, she was. Because she took a risk by being authentically mad– something most artists, to stay protected by their labels, can’t do. But it was one that her background in musical success, her already engaged fans (though nearly not at the level they are now), and the new industry backers that she had were more than ready for her to take. It queued up a new era (pardon the pun) of Taylor – one where fans knew she would continue to diverge from the “norm” that we’d expected. With every album since, she’s made a dramatic pivot, and fans, whether they like the new album or not, are always watching to see what she’ll do next.
To follow the Taylor formula, businesses need to figure out what risks they’re able to take and lean into them.
That doesn’t mean take a running leap towards them – it means building strategic buy-in over time, refining, and ultimately making the jump, which should really be little more than a large step, when all of the pieces are in play.
This starts, we believe, with being willing to say what others can’t or won’t say. Figuring out what that is often lies within a company’s founding principles but can often be buried by jargon and over-analyzing. It can also be stymied by pushing too hard, too fast to determine what exactly that key, provocative idea is. Uncovering bold thinking often takes a lot of time, and questioning, and testing – not just among your internal team, but also with advisors, and clients, and industry leaders – through earned and owned channels.
Taylor spent nearly a decade building a fan base, trying new approaches to music and songs (think of the shift that she made from country to pop), and slowly building buy-in until she could completely, through strategically, unleash herself.
It doesn’t have to take 10 years for a business to reach a point where they’re ready to lean into a bold idea. Some can do it in as little as a few months, while for others it may take up to a year. The key is this: businesses have to find partners that are willing to push them, and they have to be willing to think about their work through new lenses. This doesn’t mean changing what they do – but it does mean changing how they think and talk about it and being willing to publicly explore that shift with their colleagues and other industry stakeholders.
When it comes down to it, it’s as simple as business leaders having some conversations, working with their partners to turn those into new questions, and then asking those of themselves and the people around them.
Once they’ve nailed down an answer, it may be time to launch a new era (pun fully intended) of their own.