Tortured poets and other stories: A masterclass in building authentic audience connection

Laura Mulcahy and Daniel Van Vorsselen
By Laura Mulcahy and Daniel Van Vorsselen | 29 May 2024

Few can compete with the sheer size of Taylor Swift's fandom. Their loyal connection to one of the most influential pop stars of all time continues to have an unrivalled impact on music and popular culture.

To 'Swifties', Taylor Swift isn’t just a musician – she’s an architect of emotions, crafting vulnerable experiences that resonate on a deeply personal level. Doing so has fostered a deep emotional connection between Taylor and her fans. Her song lyrics are likened to diary entries and her love life has played out so visibly in the public eye that fans have had an almost unparalleled front seat to every heartbreak. Fans feel that they know her on a personal level, strengthening their loyalty and devotion.

It's a relationship that lies in stark contrast to other tight-lipped, polished artists who have risen to fame and, in doing so, have lost this sense of authentic connection with fans.

So, what can brands learn from the world's most famous popstar? Authenticity. Specifically, how to build more authentic connections with your audience.

Be true to your brand

Taylor’s songs are written like intimate diary entries. The star bares her soul to her audience, revealing her heartbreaks, struggles and triumphs to create a sense of authenticity that resonates with listeners. It fosters deep emotional connections with her audience.

Taylor Swift is well aware of her ‘reputation’. She has never shied away from the fact that she was ‘too pop’ to be country, ‘too country’ to be pop. Too vanilla to be taken seriously. What did she do in response? Stayed true to her brand. Her stories, her lyrics, her outlook. With every album she addresses her fans, but also the haters:

   “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time. Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time”

   ‘Who could ever leave me darling? But who could stay?’

   ‘It’s me! Hi, I’m the problem it’s me’

   ‘Who’s afraid of little old Me? You should be’

People engage with genuine feelings of emotion. Brands know this. To build trust, brands need to authentically speak to people as discerning humans. Swifties know the context around Taylor. Discerning humans know the context around the brand.

If the narrative deviates, reclaim your story. Reinforce, repeat and restate the narrative around your brand. When swirling discourse spins the narrative in a different direction around Taylor, she spins it back.

Strong brands can do the same by staying true to their narrative. Patagonia recently came out with a campaign that said ‘we are NOT fashion’. In the context of gorp-core moving past a trend and bringing a wave of fashion brands into the outerwear industry, Patagonia’s campaign is an interesting zig. The brand has disconnected itself from fads and fashion consumption, taking the chance to redirect the conversation. For their core customers, it speaks deeply to what they love about the brand. Authenticity, planet and people. At the same time, it subtly sends a message to the ‘faux’ outdoor fashion brands – we are not you and you are not us.

Recent years have seen many brands setting the record straight. The key ingredient to doing this successfully? Commit to the message, face it head-on.

Your brand isn’t yours to own.

Taylor knows her fans. She fosters her relationship with them by setting up clues and easter eggs for them to find. She also gives them creative license to take clues off in new directions. Fans, driven by a shared sense of discovery, are connected by intricate details and knowledge of the star. They are active participants in the unfolding narrative of Taylor Swift, with seemingly front-seat access to every new story. A seat only available to true and dedicated fans.

Brands can also give their audience a sense of creativity. It’s a hard ask for any brand marketer, but it’s also an opportunity to cultivate and encourage fan content in a way that uplifts brand recognition. Fans do the hard work, don’t block them out. Taylor leans in.

Earlier this year, McDonald's dropped a huge (and long-awaited) collaboration for anime fans, flipping the iconic golden arches and rebranding to 'WcDonalds'. The launch in over 30 global markets came from one of the original loyal fandoms in anime. The brand collaborated with anime studio Studio Pierrot, releasing short anime videos each week. Paired with an experiential dining event in LA where fans can book tables to taste the menu. Fan parodies within anime isn’t seen as brand destruction, it’s a valuable brand asset to build from. Risky? Yes. But it’s also recognition that fan culture should not be shied away from.

Through easter eggs, storytelling and focus on emotive connection, Taylor sells a layered experience. It’s more than just music. Fans 'share' Taylor. They take from her what they will and then they make the rest up. It’s a fandom so strong that Taylor’s presence isn’t needed for fans to enjoy the experience of being Swiftie.

Brands can mimic this kind of connection by getting to know their audiences more deeply. By knowing the individual preferences and past behaviours of consumers, such as the types of characteristics that connect repeat customers. Then, using this knowledge, brands can create exclusive tailored marketing efforts and customer experiences for dedicated brand ‘fans’. The focus here should be a feeling of personal dialogue – the deeper, emotional or values-based bond we have with an organisation. It’s about true understanding of a customer, why they are interested in something, the feeling of a shared interest, and experience beyond just sales or transactions.

Taylor is the queen of connection. Through vulnerable storytelling, she builds connections with individuals. Then she connects individuals using discovery and exclusivity, leaving clues and easter eggs for her community to come together and crack. Finally, she draws on this sense of community to create shared experiences – opportunities for fans to come together and enjoy.

It's a masterclass for brands on how to foster authenticity with your audience and deepen connection by helping them be part of the narrative.

Laura Mulcahy, Head of Cultural Practice, TRA, and Daniel Van Vorsselen, Business Director, TRA

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