Advertising Experts Grade Taylor Swift’s Creative Strategy

A white woman with brown hair wearing a green shirt.

Sarah Angle, instructor in Strategic Communication and faculty advisor for Roxo

Taylor Swift and her team have been thinking creatively to promote her newest album, “The Tortured Poets Department.” Across a variety of communication channels, Swift and her team have hyped the album launch by painting a QR code mural with YouTube Shorts in Chicago, enhancing her Instagram profile, opening “The Tortured Poets Department Library” pop-up with Spotify and rebranding iHeartRadio to iHeartTaylor.

Strategic Communication instructors Sarah Angle, who teaches Creative Strategy,  and Duke Greenhill, who teaches Campaigns, examined Swift’s creativity.

Swift is known for hiding Easter eggs in her messages to entice her fans. How does her theme of Easter eggs allow her to create dynamic advertising that interests a variety of audiences?

Angle: I always tell my students that a great advertising concept has legs, meaning it can extend to various forms of media and messaging for the brand while remaining on concept and on strategy. Swift’s Easter eggs are a concept without end. And much like the rest of her promotional strategy, they’re a game that ardent Swifties can’t wait to play. This gaming strategy doesn’t feel like advertising, which makes it one of the best forms of advertising.

Greenhill: There are two (critical) tactics at work here: (1) the idea of “worldbuilding,” and (2) gamification. Worldbuilding is just what one might imagine: the process of conceiving and constructing an imaginary world, either totally disconnected from ours and utterly fictional, or a “shared ‘verse:” an artificial world within or tangential to our own, as Taylor Swift is doing. This, as a practice across disciplines, is nothing new. Tolkien did it with Middle Earth … The “Taylorverse” invites participants to co-create the world with the original maker. The goal of worldbuilding and co-creation is invariably what marketers call “immersion.” The Swifty generation demands immersive storytelling … compounded with “gamified” narratives (like the Easter eggs).

A white man in a suit smiling

Duke Greenhill, instructor in Strategic Communication

These different promotions are partnerships with high-profile brands, which have stakes in Swift’s success. How much does advertising depend upon relationships with other brands, and do you think these partnerships are necessary for successful advertising?

Angle: Rising tides lift all boats. And Swift is rising higher and higher, well, swiftly. Cobranding with her isn’t right for every brand because not every brand shares her target market or values. But for those that do, it’s a smart partnership. Just like relationships are key to a rich and happy life, partnerships with other brands can make the Taylor Swift empire even stronger. And those partnerships can lead to new eyes, new fans and new product purchases for everyone concerned – and that’s some good karma.

Greenhill: Relationships have always been the most critical component in business, period. In this way, the proliferation of partnerships in marketing is not new. However, as the cost of media, and demands of consumer segments grow, many (most?) brands are mitigating risk — financial and brand — by partnering. If they fail, they fall half the distance. If they win, they enjoy twice the spoils.

Taylor Swift is such a towering name in music and pop culture right now (see Time’s Person of the Year for 2023) that she doesn’t really need to advertise to sell her album. Do you think this gives her more creative freedom in her advertising?

Angle: I think there’s enormous creative freedom in not needing to advertise to sell a product or service. In this instance, it means Swift can really consider her album as art instead of a vehicle to create sales and revenue. People respond the most to art in its purest form, which is why smart advertisers create ads that become art. Think about the iconic Absolute Vodka campaign; the brand partnered with artists such as Andy Warhol to create print ads that merge the lines between art and ad. Creative freedom is hard to achieve but a glorious gift when earned.

Greenhill: Certainly, it allows her a greater deal of creative freedom. Like any brand, when you’re “on top,” creative vision becomes singular (yours), less shared. However, it also means that risk and the potential for a “cancel” becomes more singular and individual, too. In other words, as individual creative freedom increases, so does a greater chance at falls from grace. That said, it is a long-lived and utterly false myth in advertising that because a brand is on top, that brand no longer needs to advertise. The truth, in fact, is the opposite: brands that are on top see not just correlation but causation in data that clearly shows when winning brands stop advertising, those brands also stop winning.

From a creative standpoint, which of Taylor Swift’s ads is your favorite and why?

Angle: I like the QR code that links to the mysterious Error 321 video. It’s a puzzle that committed Swifties will obsess over until the album drops. That’s the best advertising campaign in the world: Permanently implanted advertising in the minds of consumers who will tell all their friends about it. AND generate loads of media attention — brilliant.

Greenhill: It’s the collective Taylorverse for me. None of the tactics work without the success of the overall brand-/worldbuilding strategy.