Pop PR– Hot marketing tactics behind Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s surprise album and video release

 By Piper Anderson

Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s music video Apes**t is magnificent to behold. It was somehow shot in a completely empty Louvre without any knowledge of it leaking to the press. There are gilded ceilings as golden as the music’s rhythm. Tantalizingly brief shots of gorgeous outfits against richly pigmented walls. Fluid dances, power couple shots, ancient art. The stills in themselves make for endlessly aesthetic marketing materials and media articles. But when this beautiful cinematography is coupled with the element of complete and utter surprise? Then the reaction is massive.

Photo courtesy of YouTube via Essence

On Saturday, June 16, Beyoncé and Jay-Z (the Carters) dropped their joint album Everything Is Love without prior announcement or promotion, along with their stunning Apes**t music video. Fans took to social media ecstatically reeling from the unexpected gift, and even non-BeyHive members couldn’t miss the coverage coming from virtually every media platform that touches on pop culture. 2.1 million tweets circulated about the album in the two days after its release.

Why such a media maelstrom? The quality of the music is part of it, but the Carters’ genius for marketing certainly helps. They have always been masters at keeping secrets. Beyoncé in particular has a gift for hiding things like albums and then strategically unveiling them for maximum response. Her album Beyoncé sold over 600,000 copies within 3 days of its surprise release; her audio-visual album Lemonade sold over 600,000 copies within the first week of its surprise release; her song Formation caused a frenzy after its unexpected drop on the eve of her Super Bowl performance. She has become a pioneer of surprise releases in the music industry.

The element of surprise is a powerful and clever public relations tool– especially in the face of increasingly predictable marketing tactics. Between algorithms that predict market trends and data that tailors messages to exactly the right audience, increasing technology-use in marketing runs the risk of trading in excitement for efficiency.

Singer Adele told TIME that surprise marketing keeps the audience interested: “When you have a 6-month build up, don’t expect me to be there the day your album comes out, because I’m bored.”

The power of surprise is no secret to the music industry. Future’s Evol, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered were all surprise albums that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart within the first week of their unexpected release.

The element of surprise is easily transferable to other industries and brands, as well. Take for example, IHOP’s bizarre change to IHOB. Such an unprecedented change could not be ignored, and the franchise’s “word-of-mouth” score skyrocketed.

Album cover image from Amazon

Surprise is something PR professionals might keep in mind when brainstorming campaigns– even little surprise-and-delight moments make for wonderful media coverage, like Coca-Cola’s happiness vending machines that gifted “doses” of happiness in the form of fresh flowers and pizza and more. These unexpected moments bring back the wonder and glee of childhood.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z carried their flair for mystery into the Apes**t video. It’s striking not just because the setting is magnificent, choreography mesmerizing, and visuals gorgeous. It’s striking because it’s enigmatic. There are hundreds upon hundreds of articles about the “Secrets Behind the Art in Apesh**t” and the “Hidden Meaning in Each Painting.” The obsession over the symbolism and complexities in the video– which the Carters have not commented on– has become a trending media topic.

Of course, no matter how great a surprise is, a brand won’t get recognition if it’s actual product is uninteresting and insignificant. The message of the Carters’ music is what gives this stunt staying power, rather than being a flash in the pan. Apes**t cleverly addresses what it means to be black in a predominantly white culture, and the power behind re-contextualizing Western art. The Everything Is Love album takes a more personal twist– it explores the marriage between Beyoncé and Jay-Z, a topic that the public has been endlessly fascinated by. The drama of their marriage has been expressed in Beyonce’s Lemonade and Jay-Z’s 4:44; now, this album marks the two of them coming together and healing; it explores the African-American legacy they are creating. With messages like that, marketing comes naturally.

As far as a public relations takeaway from the Carters is concerned, combining the element of surprise with quality messaging can make for great results. Surprise and mystery entice your audience and keep them curious and excited. But it’s the contextual elements of a product or organization that truly appeal to an audience and drive brand loyalty– or, in the case of the Carters, life-long fans.


2016 Super Bowl Ads – Part 2: Cute and Fuzzy Wins Us Over

Super Bowl ads are known for playing up our emotions, especially the ones that feature adorable animals. A few brands made the strategic move to include animals in their commercials, and in turn, made us say “awww.” Below are comments from RLF employees who couldn’t resist the cuteness in this year’s ads.
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2016 Super Bowl Ads – Part 1: Celebrities and Pop Culture References Prevail

This year’s Super Bowl game might not have been all that memorable, but the ads are definitely worth talking about. Many commercials made us laugh, some commercials stirred our emotions, and other commercials left us scratching our heads (puppymonkeybaby??). Among this diverse list of TV spots, a common ad strategy emerged: the use of celebrities and pop culture references. Several brands incorporated famous personalities or funny memes into their ad’s message, effectively capturing the viewer’s attention and leaving a lasting impression of the product. Continue reading to find out which RLF staff members identified their favorite ads in this category.
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Major (key emoji) for Brands: Staying Relevant

By Kat Pallotta
Over the past few weeks, you may have seen people use “Major (key emoji) to success” in an Instagram caption, Snapchat, Facebook post or tweet. This phrase refers to the popular Snapchat account of hip-hop producer DJ Khaled. More than 2 million people a day watch Khaled’s Snapchat stories that feature what he believes are major keys to success.
Leading brands such as MasterCard and Uber have participated in the DJ Khaled phenomenon by tweeting his trademark phrase in relation to their services. “Major (key emoji) Alert: If you need ID Theft alerts, we’ve got you covered (credit card emoji) #blessup,” tweeted MasterCard. The White House, which recently joined Snapchat, also used the phrase in its “My Story” the day before the State of the Union address, stating: “Major (key emoji): Get some rest before the big day.”
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How Companies Have Leveraged User-Generated Content in Marketing Campaigns

By Heather Ebert
The evolution of social media has led to a change in the consumer brand experience. No longer do people wait to tell friends about their latest favorite brand or product in person; instead, they share images and posts about their indulgences instantly on social media. This change in brand advocacy has resulted in a stockpile of user-generated content that brands can easily use in their own marketing efforts.
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Public Relations Lessons From Celebrities That Apply to Not-So-Celebrity Clients

By Heather Ebert

Recently, singer Taylor Swift penned an open letter to Apple via her Tumblr page expressing dissatisfaction with Apple Music’s policy to not pay artists for music streamed during the service’s free three-month trial period. She stated that because of this policy she would not release her album “1989” on the platform. Apple quickly reversed its policy and pledged to pay artists during the trial period, which began June 30.

The intensity and reach of the public eye often requires that celebrities like Swift be very transparent and responsive with the media and their fans, especially when news stories or scandals break. There are many celebrities that handle such events almost seamlessly, but there are others whose actions make the situation worse. There are lessons to be learned from both. Here are the top three PR do’s and don’ts that we can take from celebrities.

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History in the Making: How Brands Showed That #lovewins

By Amanda Garrity
imagesThe world was exceptionally colorful on Friday, June 26. From Twitter feeds to the illuminated White House, everyone was buzzing about the historic Supreme Court ruling, which made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
Responding to current events, especially ones with international news coverage and online engagement, is a great way for brands to showcase timeliness and relevance. It can also bring added attention to their brand and gets people talking, a win in the world of public relations.
The following four brands captured our interest (and hearts) by the way they uniquely and creatively showed their support of the Supreme Court’s decision.
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March Madness: 3 Lessons for PR and Marketing Professionals Straight from the Court

By Victoria Dolan 

Most basketball fans can sum up this year’s NCAA basketball tournament in one word: surprising. Losses by Duke University and Ohio State University in the first round resulted in real “March Madness” and broken brackets for many avid basketball fans. Whether you researched team histories, banked on expert opinions or viewed every game personally, there were not many advantages to be had building your brackets this season.
Depending on current standings, predictions and status quos can hurt PR and marketing strategies too. Here are some lessons that translate from the basketball court to the communications world:

Leverage your victories.

Relish in the glory but don’t let your winner’s high distract from building relationships or converting customers. Awards, media mentions and successful rankings are the perfect time to reach out to nonbelievers and show them why your product or service beats the competition. After UCONN’s victory over Michigan State, the team President Obama had picked to win the national title, @UCONNHuskies tweeted: “Sorry about busting your bracket @BarackObama… We have room on our bandwagon if you’re interested.” A little humor never hurt anyone, right? Engaging with them then might not convert them right away, but it can help build a better relationship in the long run.

Just because you are seeded #1 does not guarantee winning the title.

Michigan State was seeded #4 and was defeated by UCONN who was seeded #7. Kentucky was seeded #8 in the Midwest Region and has made it to the Final Four. Your product or service may be accredited “the best” in the industry today, but tomorrow is another day and there’s a good chance that the competition is trying to show that they are just as good, if not better, than you. Continuously innovate and challenge yourself to exceed your customers’ expectations because being too comfortable with your current bragging rights can lead to failure in the end.  

Be aware of ALL your competition.

Know, observe and track all of the teams you’re playing against. Today’s underdog could be tomorrow’s fiercest rival. Follow their marketing campaigns, new product releases and developments, news coverage and social media interactions. Keeping tabs on their strategies will not only show you what works and doesn’t work, but will also keep you a step ahead of the game.
Photo courtesy of Luis Blanco’s Flickr photostream.

The Psychology of Marketing and Branding

Book Cover
By David French
My latest read, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, has spurred considerable thought about the branding and marketing work we do for clients. What are “good” design, appropriate colors and the right copy messages? Do subconscious forces influence our work?
The book by Adam Alter, assistant professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, delves into the subtle, unnoticed cues that influence our decisions, behaviors and even our success in life. If you’re unfamiliar with the shade of pink referenced in the title, it’s a vivid, bubblegum shade. Researchers in the 1970s and 1980s found that it significantly calmed children in Canadian schools. They wondered whether the same effect might occur when aggressive people were exposed to the color, so the walls of drunk tanks and jail cells were painted pink. You can guess the result.
I’m pleased to say that RLF has done quite a lot of excellent, award-winning branding and marketing work, directed by our stalwart and experienced creative director, Ron Irons. I sat with him for a few minutes to talk about how we use color, design and copy to support and build brands. I learned that creative direction is less about unseen forces and more about strategy and creativity with a dash of intuition.
“We’re not using colors, shapes and copy concepts to manipulate. At the most basic level we’re trying to help audiences understand a brand, its personality and what it promises to deliver,” he said. “But a fair amount of intuition—you could say the subconscious—does influence design and creative execution for a brand. Plus, I’ve been at it for many years, so experience counts, too.”
Take color, for example. For a client whose business is to educate and enlighten, we recommended the dominant color be shades of yellow—the color of sunlight and illumination. For another who’s in financial services, we used grays, blacks and muted colors to communicate solid, secure, and stable.
Shapes and spacial arrangement of design elements are important, too, to emphasize and clearly communicate what’s important—and to get noticed. As a brand is marketed and promoted, very often those shapes alone carry the entire brand message. Logos and symbols, for example, if property executed can become memorable. Think the Nike “swoosh”—in executions where it’s the only element, it’s immediately recognizable to millions around the world.
Elements like headlines and tags, and copy are the third consideration. Under Ron’s direction, we strive for high creativity, yet keeping it simple and pragmatic. “If the message isn’t easily grasped and understood by the intended audience, then it becomes noise,” he said. “You can be creative without being complex.  And that holds true for all elements of design. They are the tools that provide a visual and verbal context, working together to communicate the core brand message.”
As a “non-creative,” I expected to draw more parallels between the thoughts presented in Drunk Tank Pink and marketing/branding creative. I have to say after talking to Ron, I’m not disappointed that there are few, if any. I’m gratified—and clients can be, as well—that building effective brands is based on strategy, creativity…and a lot of experience.

The Road Ahead: Six Observations for 2011

The leaves have finally turned in North Carolina. An intensely hot summer that stretched into October generated deep, vibrant colors set against clear blue skies. It’s time to take stock of the waning year and prepare for the road ahead in 2011.

Fortunately, we’ve had time to do some clear-headed thinking over the past few weeks. RLF recently participated in three significant public relations industry events: the WorldCom Public Relations Group’s Americas meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, the Public Relations Society of America conference in Washington, D.C., and the Council of Public Relations Firms’ forum in New York City. In all, we heard from more than 30 leading business, advertising and public relations leaders and engaged in conversations with corporate and agency professionals from across the United States, Canada and Latin America.    
As all of us begin to plan, prepare and budget for 2011, here are six key observations we pulled from the events.  These and other thoughts will guide RLF in 2011 as we amplify our efforts to live up to our mission to be devoted to ideas, strategy and service that advance our clients’ business objectives.  
1.  The Strong Are Surging
The buzz among top agency executives is restrained optimism. The restraint is easy to understand. Unemployment remains high, credit is tight and confidence among consumers remains elusive. But optimism is finally muscling aside the gloomy predictions of recent years.  Across almost every business sector, corporate clients are gearing up for an aggressive 2011. Companies who made it through the great recession are ready to reap the rewards of aggressive cost-cutting and conservative business practices over the past three years. Companies intend to spend on programs and campaigns that will generate revenue and increase market share. As one speaker noted, the companies (and agencies who serve them) that can tap into helping consumers recover from the recession and regain control over their lives in small measures will see great success in 2011.   
2. “My Friend Recommends…” 
A great deal of discussion focused on social media and word-of-mouth’s continued rapid rise and influence on consumer behavior. One startling statistic shared – 78 percent of consumers “trust” a peer recommendation, but only 14 percent “trust” what a company says directly about a product or service…” 

The good news is that the fundamentals of marketing, branding and public relations have not changed. Reaching “key influencers” has always been a critical component of our work, but it is now taking on different forms.  As one action step, companies should assess if the relationship between marketing, public relations and customer service teams is working. These teams need to be constantly talking and sharing information about what consumers are saying, thinking and doing. Leading companies are establishing rapid response teams to monitor what is being said online about their products and services and addressing problems before they spiral out of control. As a senior vice president from American Express said, the logistics and time commitment are “enormously challenging” to do this kind of work, but the payoff appears to be worth it.      
3. Ideas, Trust & Courage
Corporate marketers were steadfast in their belief that “great ideas” are more important than ever in building brands, and they are open to those ideas no matter which agency they come from. “The best idea will win” was repeated, in one form or another, at every forum we attended this fall. And the ideas need to not only be good, they must also be “big.” We heard little support for embracing ideas that would generate only incremental improvement. Two ingredients — trust and courage — will be required significantly by marketers and agencies in 2011 to transform great ideas into workable, measurable campaigns. 

Dos Equis Beer's The Most Interesting Man in the World
A Mexican beer company's popular campaign, "The Most Interesting Man In The World," was a tremendous leap of faith by the brewers.

The chief marketing officer for Heineken USA talked about the genesis of a very popular campaign for Dos Equis beer. “The Most Interesting Man in The World” campaign has generated tremendous sales based on the strength of integrating paid advertising, online marketing, social and earned media. Coming up with the approach and concept was a challenge, but the larger task was convincing the brewers funding the campaign that it was “okay” for the main character to say, “I don’t always drink beer…” For people who make beer for a living, supporting a creative campaign that discounts beer drinking takes a tremendous leap of faith. However, including that phrase makes the campaign “authentic” and one audiences have been willing to embrace, watch on YouTube, “like” on Facebook (at last count, the fictional spokesperson for a small Mexican beer had nearly 800,000 fans) and buy in the store.       


 4. The Value of “Value”
Winning consumers with “the lowest price” is not going to be as effective a strategy as it has been for the past few years. For example, one speaker noted the average shopper now spends 30 minutes more in the grocery store – comparing, sorting and judging – to better assess “value.” And increasingly, consumers are willing to spend money on items at all price points, but expectations have been reset.    

Figuring out what “value” means to consumers in your business, and then creating ways to deliver that “value,” should be a top priority for companies who want to increase market share in 2011.     
5. “Going Viral” Requires Creative Content…And Money
Consumers are drowning in content. The media and information channel explosion created a world of “constant communication” that must be filtered for value. For example, there are 24 hours of video uploaded on YouTube every 60 seconds. It’s not just that quantity exceeds quality; it also exceeds our ability to process it.    
Reaching consumers requires both sides of the media equation – paid media (advertising, marketing, sponsorships, product placements, etc.) and earned media (media relations, social media, industry leadership, contests, etc). They support, influence, and feed off each other’s strengths.    
For a corporate campaign to spread via word-of-mouth and social networks, creative content has become more important, not less important. And good content must be buttressed by paid media (in whatever tactical form that needs to take) to have a fighting chance of success.     
6. Give Your Team Direction and Boundaries, Then See What They Can Achieve
One of the most fascinating speakers out of all the fall events was Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief evangelist for Google. Cerf, one of the earlier pioneers of the Internet and the person we can most likely praise (or blame) for the creation of email, spoke eloquently about the Internet’s meteoric rise. Cerf and his colleague Robert Kahn created the “rules of the road” for the Internet, the basic architecture for how people should program in this new frontier. “We didn’t tell people what kind of car to make or drive, just what side of the road to stay on,” said Cerf. “And by focusing on creating a solid infrastructure, we’ve seen an explosion in applications and programs.”    
Looking ahead, Cerf foresees the same explosion taking place in mobile devices, and that view was shared in every forum. How we use mobile devices is still in its infancy, but companies who can provide consumers convenient and value-added applications will gain market share. Companies should challenge their marketing and public relations teams to envision how they can tap into mobile marketing and generate market share ahead of competitors. And then fund the big, game changing ideas.