I’m an adult with a job and responsibilities, yet I’m a Taylor Swift super fan. While some can’t see past her youth or twee blond looks, I see a seriously powerful businesswoman—one we should learn from, not underestimate. Her latest release, 1989, garnered three Grammy nominations, saw the best opening-week sales of her career, and became the “only instant-platinum release” of 2014. Impressive.
Last year was a critical turning point for Swift’s brand. As Rolling Stone points out, she had a bit of a coming-out party, debuting as a full-fledged pop star. Gone were the frilly white dresses and songs about waiting for Prince Charming. Instead, she debuted a new identity, one brimming with business prowess and brand awareness.
Want to rebrand yourself or your business? Take a page from T. Swift’s playbook.
1. Don’t Underestimate Your Value
Music critics, teen fans, and grown-ups like me lost their minds over 1989. But it was a business decision that kept Swift on top the of news cycle: She removed her catalogue from Spotify. Swift says Spotify does not compensate artists adequately, and as she boldly put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Amen.
It’s a clear lesson in putting a value on your work, and as career coach Nina Cashman explains, the move “commanded a higher degree of loyalty from her fan base,” who went out and bought her album in droves (1989 sold a staggering 1.29 million records in its first week).
Swift’s decision addresses the question that plagues freelancers and creatives: Should I ever work for free?
Bonnie Marcus, president of Women’s Success Coaching, notes that “doing work for experience and exposure without compensation is sometimes a necessary strategic move, especially for those of us who don’t have the stature and power of Taylor Swift.”
But here’s the trick: “You should provide only a taste of your offering and not give it all away,” says career consultant Alyssa Gelbard. It’s especially critical not to make it a habit. If you’re at all established, you should command payment that reflects the value of your work.
2. Stay True to You
In Lucky magazine, Swift answered the apparently pressing question about why she doesn’t expose her belly button: She doesn’t want to. She continued to joke about it, but the message is clear: Her body is hers to display as she chooses.
As we’ve seen with Beyoncé, espousing personal values is a clear boon to personal brands. “People want to connect with people, not a persona,” says Danielle Miller, a personal brand strategist. Even when rebranding, Swift stuck to her guns and maintained her authenticity.
HR consultant Laura Gmeinder also stresses the importance of being transparent. “Sharing personal values will attract the right customers to you if done correctly.” Cashman adds, “People build loyalty around brands they trust, and it’s hard to trust anything that holds back its ideas and neglects to relay its values.”
3. Update Your Style
It’s hardly just Swift’s music that changed — her personal style evolved significantly. For the better part of her career, she donned an endless supply of fluffy white confections that you might wear to a purity ball where you pledge chastity to your father. Yikes.
That look is a stark contrast to today’s Swift, whom I associate with an Audrey Hepburn-esque black turtleneck, winged eyeliner, and red lipstick. Way more sophisticated. There’s not a princess dress to be seen in her excellent “Blank Space” video, which skewers the “crazy lady” trope that we’ve seen applied to her over and over by the media. She followed a fairly simple formula: As her music evolved, her style did, too.
It can be easy to underestimate the value of personal style, but as Rhodes points out, it’s “as much a part of your personal branding as your web page, Twitter cover photo, and business cards.” Personal branding consultant Holly Chantal explains that if you are “intentional about the image you want to portray, you can control what the market (or audience) thinks about you at first glance.”
4. Upgrade Your Network
Surround yourself with powerful new friends and rebuild your network. Note Swift’s pictures with model Karlie Kloss and Lena Dunham.
Finding a strong network might seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Use online resources like Facebook groups, meetups, and LinkedIn, or take it offline and try that networking event you’ve been avoiding.
And networking is much more than just chatting someone up. Be strategic. Pick a goal and then identify people who can help you achieve it. From there, it’s a matter of being “open and honest about your ambitions,” says Dave Wakeman, an expert on leadership. You can gain trust and support by showing vulnerability—bonding over shared struggles, for instance.
As in marketing, it’s crucial to be authentic. Wakeman clarifies that the way you connect on social media should be “aligned with how you build quality relationships in person, and that means focusing on adding value to your interactions.” To that point, Rhodes cautions against “com[ing] on too strong too fast.”
Finally, Miller points out that common courtesy often goes by the wayside: “Be an active listener; focus on what the other person is saying rather than being in your head rehearsing your elevator speech. Ask questions, get to know people, and come from a place of ‘How could I help or be of service to this person?’”
5. It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Perhaps Swift’s most daring change was moving out of her comfy country niche into the mainstream. But take note of her evolution. As digital marketing expert Meagan Rhodes points out, Swift didn’t make a sudden genre switch; instead, each album got progressively more poppy.
She recommends that change be relatively seamless, or “50 mini-pivots that happen over time.” PR and marketing expert Jasmine Bina also points out the necessity of creating “a clear path, even with simple tactics such as customer surveys, beta testing, content marketing, customer support” for your customers to follow, ensuring that they stick with you during the change.
How do you know when it’s time to pivot?
Rhodes says it “should be a natural reaction for a business when they notice one aspect of the business is bringing in more revenue than the others. Or if the business model they first created is not hitting initial goals, they should be creative in finding a new solution with new goals.” Or base change on customer feedback. Simply ask what people want—social media is the perfect tool.
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