Look What You Made Us Do: 
5 Lessons in Brand Storytelling from Taylor Swift

Look What You Made Us Do: 
5 Lessons in Brand Storytelling from Taylor Swift

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Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, then you’ve probably heard about Taylor Swift’s new album ‘Reputation’ and her edgy reinvented image to match. 

Normally, I’m not one to jump on the pop culture bandwagon, but Swift’s new rebrand has me applauding her raw creative genius on a whole other level. As a designer, I appreciate the cool typographic elements of her cover art, but what I’m SERIOUSLY geeking out about is her brand storytelling.

For those not in the know, a brand story is  a cohesive narrative that encompasses the facts and feelings created by your brand (or business). Unlike traditional advertising, which is about showing and telling about your brand, a story aims to inspire an emotional reaction. And boy, oh boy, did people emotionally react to Swift’s new videos…and songs..and look. Okay. It’s just awe-inspiring.

If 37 million views in 3 days isn’t enough evidence regarding Swift’s success at telling a great brand story, then maybe these 5 lessons will be. Here’s a list of things I think Swift and her team have mastered when it comes to the art of brand storytelling.

1. Never underestimate the power of your old image – Nods to the old brand in the new brand allow you to gain new audiences without losing your old following. Tay seems to really get this because she hides TONS of easter-eggs in her videos. This accomplishes two things – First, she can reference older parts of her image from the ‘Fearless’ country chart-climbing days which keeps her original fan base intact. Second, more recent fans get to participate by piecing together the millions of other clues in her videos while enjoying the new pop sound. Everyone wins! Great job, Taylor.

2. Some things about your brand story just can’t change, and that’s ok. – Have you ever noticed how Swift continues to produce hit after hit, gaining popularity and cult following, but never uses profanity in her music? That’s because there are just some things about your image you can’t compromise. Taylor Swift built her empire on her wholesome ‘good girl’ reputation and even now as she explores an edgier sound she doesn’t abandon her morals. Perhaps it’s because she knows just how important integrity is to the lifespan of a brand.

3. You don’t have to answer all of your audiences’ questions up front – A good story always has an element of mystery. It allows your audience a chance to involve themselves in your narrative. The key is giving them the essential pieces of information first, then letting them put it all together.

In the book ‘Building a Story Brand’ by Donald Miller, Miller says that one of the biggest mistakes companies make in portraying their brand is forcing customers to work too hard in understanding what they offer. While this may be true, I think some businesses also over simplify, making an offer seem like it’s ‘too good to be true’ or just an outright scam. This is because they skip to the end of the story without taking the time to develop the narrative or it’s characters. Simplification is great, but nobody likes a spoiler! That’s why it’s imperative to take the time to write a great story instead of just a great ending. Swift’s videos are so popular because they reveal key plot points, but don’t give away they whole story.

4. A little bad blood never killed anyone – Swift KNOWS drama. Yet she has somehow taken years of media scrutiny and celeb feuds and made them into one crucial villainous element of her brand story – the smartest way of handling any bad reputation I’ve ever seen (In case you missed it, that’s been the theme of her album and recent video releases). With the media as the villain, she’s now the hero of her own story. And who doesn’t love a good hero story? She’s taken the old saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad PR’ and made it an actual reality!

5. Put on a big show, but make the message simple and meaningful – We’ve been trained, whether we realize it or not, to search for the moral of a story no matter what it is. We like things we can clearly summarize and define, true, but we also enjoy things with deeper meaning.

For this album? Taylor Swift is obviously telling the media and haters that she’s fed up with their scrutiny. But what makes us feel connected to this image of speaking out? Simple. It’s our human ability to relate to struggle and the shared desire to overcome and accept. 

Miller in his book lists one successful ending for a brand story as the fulfillment of potential. He states ‘Whether it’s by fulfilling a purpose or accepting themselves as they are, this return to contentment resolves something in a story that is universally human: the desire for self acceptance.”

The interpretation is up to you, but in my opinion, Swift may be sprinting on a journey of self-acceptance and we’re all getting to see if unfold through her music. Maybe that’s why the internet breaks every time she releases new material. We just can’t get enough of a brand story with meaning.

I guess the question is now…Are we ready for it?

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