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  • Writer's pictureYuki Klotz-Burwell

Shake It Off: How Taylor Swift turned controversy into a billion-dollar brand

A little over four years ago, superstar Taylor Swift revealed her plans to re-record her first six studio albums to regain control after her previous record label sold her catalog, refusing her the chance to purchase it herself.

Since then, Swift’s popularity has surged, and her global Eras Tour has epitomized this entire journey, morphing into a tour de force of personal branding and marketing success. During every era at the concert, from the personalized experiences she gives her fans to taking command of her narrative, Swift has cemented her status as a personal branding mastermind.

The Eras Tour isn’t just a stadium concert—it’s a cultural phenomenon that’s only just beginning to make its way around the world. Analysts estimate the tour will gross $1 billion by next March, making it the largest tour in music history. Swift’s impact spans beyond just industry firsts; the Federal Reserve even credited her with boosting the U.S. economy this summer. And even here at SutherlandGold, 30% of our staffers attended a show.

With that staggering success in mind, let’s take a look at the lessons Swift has taught us.

Keep it authentic

The music industry demands constant reinvention, but Swift’s artistic evolution has always resonated with critics and fans alike as authentic. She adapts while preserving the essence of identity, striking a chord with her audience through sincere vulnerability and relatable storytelling.

The Eras Tour showcases her growth from country classics like “You Belong With Me” to smash pop hits like “Shake It Off” and indie and folk music singles like “Cardigan,” bringing audiences on a journey of the eras of her career and life. Every era becomes more personal, inviting fans to grow alongside her and unveiling a new layer of her persona.

Swift’s authenticity is rewarded. For example, one of the traditions from The Eras Tour is a minutes-long standing ovation after her piano song “Champagne Problems.” This song is a raw, emotional ballad that brings self-awareness on privilege, suffering and broken engagements. The live performance is accompanied by a speech on what making music means to Swift. At one show in Los Angeles, the crowd held a standing ovation for almost 8 minutes. Her willingness to share her struggles creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity, demonstrating how artists can stay true to themselves while navigating the complexities of fame.

Control the narrative

Over her 17-year musical career, Swift has faced numerous challenges and controversies, from public feuds with other celebrities to disputes with record labels. But she has consistently demonstrated an uncanny ability to take control of the narrative and turn it to her advantage.

Perhaps the most iconic example comes from her infamous dispute with Kanye West, who interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. He further escalated the situation in 2016, when he released a song with derogatory lyrics about Swift and claimed he had her approval. The dispute played out publicly, and Kanye’s then-wife Kim Kardashian even released edited footage to make it look like Swift had approved certain lyrics. Swift’s reputation tanked, she was repeatedly called a “snake,” and #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was Twitter’s top trending hashtag for days.

Instead of allowing the controversy to define her, Swift took control of the narrative with her 2017 album, "Reputation." The album was a departure from her earlier themes of love, friendship and self-discovery, instead covering themes of betrayal, revenge, and media scrutiny. Songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” unabashedly confront her critics (and even Kanye and Kim themselves), turning the tables by reclaiming the narrative that had spiraled out of her control.

With the album’s prominent promotional snake imagery – a reference to the emojis that flooded her social media accounts after the feud – Swift reclaimed a symbol used against her and made it her own.

With “Reputation,” Swift bounced back stronger than a 90s trend—she won Artist of the Year, Favorite Pop/Rock Album, and Tour of the Year at the American Music Awards. Swift's "Reputation" is a masterclass in narrative control, transforming a potentially career-damaging moment into an empowering and commercially successful movement.

Create personalized experiences

The Eras Tour’s record-breaking popularity comes from more than just Swift’s musical fame; the concert is an immersive experience with ridiculous attention-to-detail that caught the attention of celebrities and non-Swifties alike.

Swift goes above and beyond to create a captivating experience, incorporating visual elements, costumes, and stage design that reflect the themes and aesthetics of each era. Concert-goers don’t just leave with a night of good music; they walk away with a more profound understanding of Taylor Swift as an artist and person.

Swift excels at building immersive experiences that create memorable impressions. She also hides complex Easter eggs in her work, hinting at upcoming albums and songs. On the final day of the U.S. Eras Tour, August 9th, she subtly hinted at the “1989” album re-recording announcement by wearing new, blue-toned versions of her outfits from each era, aligning with the album’s blue theme. The date, 8/9, coupled with it being 9 years, 8 months, and 13 days (Swift’s lucky number) after the original album’s release, already had fans anticipating an announcement.

Swifties also share their theories and interpretations online, which generates buzz and keeps the Taylor Swift press machine running. Her use of Easter eggs and personalized touches stand out in an oversaturated pop landscape, and reinforce her brand identity.


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