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.
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.
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.