Over the summer, marketers latched onto the hype surrounding the Barbie movie; whether they had license agreements or not (and over 100 of them did), brands were bathing themselves (and their products) in hot pink in hopes that the film’s success would translate to sales.
As we move into fall, expert marketers have set their sights on a new blonde icon at the top of her game: Taylor Swift.
From Duolingo, to Lay’s, to SoulCycle to Looney Tunes (and even the town of Glendale, Arizona), brands have taken to hitching their brand to Swift’s wagon when she makes headlines or goes viral on social media.
Now, even the NFL is trying to capture some of her sheen. The star’s rumored relationship with pro footballer Travis Kelce brought a new audience to the league this past weekend, as Swift attended a Kansas City Chiefs game to cheer on her potential new love interest.
More than a tabloid story, though, the news underlines Swift’s marketing genius, the long game she’s playing to win public favor and the power of a brand aligning with the superstar.
Kelce and Swift — a marketer’s dream team
Swift’s highly speculated relationship with Kelce marks a strong shift away from the private nature of her most recent relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. This more public entwinement is a win for Kelce and will inevitably lead to the shine of Swift’s brand — and devoted fans — illuminating him and the NFL overall as a result.
Swift’s attendance at Sunday’s game no doubt boosted viewership: It was the most-watched NFL telecast from any network the past week, as Swifties with no interest in football tuned in to catch glimpses of the star in the audience.
With football season starting on September 7, Swift brought new eyes to the season early on — and, as the Chiefs vie for a spot in the upcoming Super Bowl for the second year in a row, more potential devoted fans for the rest of the season.
Associations with Swift and her rabid fandom’ pay off, with sales of Kelce branded jerseys spiking 400% after she showed up to the game.
The NFL more broadly is also capitalizing on interest around the pairing, announcing the game’s final score in a banner featuring a candid shot of Swift cheering for the winning team.
The League’s current TikTok bio says, “Taylor was here” along with the date she attended the game, and its X (formerly Twitter) bio reads, “NFL (Taylor’s Version),” alluding to the singer’s album re-recordings.
Despite announcing Usher as the Super Bowl Halftime Show headliner earlier that day, , the NFL chose to put more of a spotlight on Swift's attendance.
Lily Thaler, a strategist at Design Bridge and Partners, points out that the NFL’s TikTok has posted twice as many videos about Swift and Kelce than the Usher announcement, speculating that Swift offers “connection with the kinds of audiences that they don't already have.”
“The NFL decided that connecting with Swifties was going to generate more hype, more buzz and more engagement than promoting their newly announced biggest pop culture moment of the year,” she says. “If the Swiftie train comes your way, you do not miss a chance to hop on.”
The rumored relationship also brings in publicity at an opportune moment for Kelce. A Prime Video documentary about the Chiefs player and his brother, fellow football star Jason Kelce, was released on Sept. 12, following the pair’s face-off at this year’s Super Bowl.
Approval from Swift, though demonstrably lucrative, is hard to come by, as she is notoriously protective of her image and rarely partners with brands. In hopes of benefitting from her star power, brands are doing the heavy lifting to align themselves with Swift or play into jokes from her fans.
Notably, purveyors of ranch dressing are attempting to reap such benefits.
The condiment made a noticeable appearance during the game, when an X fan account described Swift eating a piece of fried chicken with ketchup and “seemingly ranch.” It quickly became a meme, which ranch brand Hidden Valley quickly capitalized on by changing its Instagram bio to “Seemingly Ranch” and filling its X account with memes about Swift, Kelce and the new catch phrase.
Fast food chain Arby’s also joined in, recreating Swift’s plate of food with a boneless wing and some “seemingly ranch” and posting it on X. Heinz even mocked up a fake product photo of “ketchup and seemingly ranch sauce,” which it jokingly called “Seemingly Ranch (Heinz’s Version).”
KidSuper Studios, the makers of Kelce’s post-game outfit, a blue-and-white denim ensemble that he wore while walking out of the stadium with Swift, also seized the moment by renaming the print from“The Bedroom Painting” to “The 1989 Bedroom Painting.” The jacket has since sold out.
“It's very smart given that partnerships are time intensive to create and often budget intensive,” notes Dipti Bramhandkar, executive strategy director at Iris. “Taylor is unlikely to partner with most brands, so the fact that brands have an editorial approach and are being really responsive to these moments is a good strategy.”
These opportunities allow brands the chance to “get in with the Swifties who are notoriously fiercely loyal,” says Thaler. “Brands love it, and Swifties love it too because it makes them feel like they're in on the joke.”
This is a particularly good move for brands that “are not in social conversations that are meaningful to younger audiences in particular,” adds Bramhandkar. Though it may not offer lasting impact, “this is a pretty quick and safe way to get thrust back into that conversation”
That said, some brands can continue to capitalize on their ties to Swift. Thaler notes that brands hitching a ride to Swift’s wagon offers continued social currency. She “gave Olive Garden the gift of a lifetime” by name-dropping the restaurant chain in her song “No Body, No Crime,” and “to this day, they still tweet about her — and their tweets about her outperform all of their other tweets by an embarrassing amount.”
Social sway works both ways — and Swift needs a big boost for 1989 (Taylor’s Version)
Kelce isn’t the only star to benefit from Swift’s stardom. Sophie Turner, currently embroiled in a divorce and child custody lawsuit with estranged husband (and Swift’s ex-boyfriend) Joe Jonas, was spotted out at dinner with Swift in New York City last week.
Turner has been the subject of what fans and PR professionals speculate is spin from Jonas’ camp, after various TMZ articles quoting inside sources seemed designed to portray her as a bad mother. The actress remained silent throughout the press storm, but used her alignment with Swift to send a message to her ex, PR pros agreed.
But Swift is in need of positive public opinion just as much as those she’s aligning with. Though she’s no stranger to shattering records — just this month, her forthcoming Eras Tour movie garnered the most pre-sales of any film — she has to compete with her past self when re-releasing albums.
Her upcoming re-release of 1989 is her most daunting challenge yet. The original 2014 album is her most successful, with over 14 million copies sold worldwide as of 2022. Half of her 10 top-performing songs are from the album, according to Billboard.
To outdo herself — a tall order after a record-breaking global concert tour — Swift needs public perception at its best to ensure that her version of the album overtakes the original. Her choice to align with Turner, who the public now views as a wronged mother, gives her an air of an empathetic friend setting aside her past relationship to do the right thing.
Pairing with Kelce, on the other hand, gives the public an American power couple, with the most famous pop star in the world dating a football player at the height of his career. It’s a universally appealing story — the most popular girl in school (or the world, in this case) in a relationship with a leading sportsman. Nationalism comes into play as well, with many pointing out that this is Swift’s first American romantic interest in years, after a stint of dating exclusively Brits.
“All of this attention she's getting right now is just creating the groundwork for when that marketing machine around 1989 really starts to ramp up,” adds Bramhandkar. “The increased visibility, credibility and cultural relevance generated by her affiliations and partnerships are essential for sustaining and boosting album sales beyond the initial launch. Since she never ‘disappears,’ when her marketing machine around the re-release really ramps up, she’s already ahead of the curve.”
Fueled by nostalgia, Swifties are at their peak
Swift has undoubtedly succeeded in taking back her masters, as sales of re-recordings of her albums have overtaken the originals manager Scooter Braun bought in 2019. And her ongoing Eras tour is on track to become the highest-grossing tour of all time.
One could characterize the choice to re-release her life’s work and tour it around the world as a powerful move to capitalize on fan nostalgia, which is all but proven to sell.
What’s interesting is that the public seems well aware that they are bearing witness to a certain level of coordinated media attention. Swift and Kelce’s pairing was described by one X user as a “CIA-level op” and the supposed PR strategy has been compared to the tireless work of Kardashian-Jenner mom-ager Kris Jenner.
But, while no one is entirely fooled, Swift’s positive brand image and ability to tap into an entire generation of nostalgia give her a bit of leeway to engage in a little harmless spin.
And after being in a secretive relationship for six years, speculating over Swift’s relationship status is a bit nostalgic in itself.
Thaler adds that this media cycle is “extremely reminiscent of all the fun things she was doing in the original 1989 era: The girl squad, dating like the hottest celebrities at the time. I don't think it's coincidental.”
“Strong brands resonate deeply with their audiences and always keep them coming back for more — and that’s exactly what she does,” she adds.
Plus, this one is literally a rom-com plot.