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Miley Cyrus: The Case for Branding Strategy

OCTOBER 2013 Millennial Marketing Insight from HypeLife Brands: "Miley Cyrus: The Case for Branding Strategy"

Here are some things that have happened within the last few weeks. At a family reunion, my 60+ year-old uncle asked the lot of us, “Have you guys heard of this twerking thing?” While ordering takeout at my favorite BBQ place in town, the at-least-75-year-old cashier overheard someone mention Miley Cyrus in line and interjected, “She’s a little hellraiser, isn’t she?” And then the thing that happened last night that pushed me to write this: A homeless man perched under his usual stoplight changed his sign. Gone was the standard dictum, “Hungry. Please help. God bless.” Newly drawn was the following: “Please help. I could be the next Miley.”

Surely you have your own Miley Cyrus story, some surreal encounter with the child-star-turned-megastar-for-the-masses that ended with you shaking your head, condemning her actions, but secretly wondering what in the world she’s going to do next. It’s okay. Us, too. But here’s the other thing we can’t stop saying: “This is brilliant.”

We’re branding folks after all, relentless marketers always on the lookout for what works, what’s next, what most resonates with Generation Y. And while many will tell you that this savvy section of the public simply doesn’t respond to advertising, that marketing isn’t the way to get through to them, well, these people would be right. But mostly wrong. It’s not that Millennials don’t want to be marketed to, it’s that they don’t want to FEEL like they’re being marketed to. 

Let's take the case of Miley Cyrus. She’s everywhere. She is THE most ubiquitous name in pop culture at the moment, and it’s no accident. And most people will say the beginning of this phenomenon was her VMA performance. While most of the country responded with shock and feigned outrage / disgust, Cyrus had this to say about it: It was a “strategic hot mess.”


So, back to “This is brilliant.” Here’s why: “Her latest album, ‘Bangerz,’ is at the top of iTunes in 70 countries, and the expectation is that she's going to arrive at the top of Billboard's 200 album chart as well.” (Source: And what it means is that Miley Cyrus is at the top of what is probably one of the most strategic, carefully executed, subversive marketing machines we’ve seen a long, long time. She’s hosted Saturday Night Live. She hasn’t missed a single opportunity to unleash her tongue when the camera is trained on her. She’s shocked, awed, and most importantly, she’s made people (all people) take notice. Want proof? Refer to the CNN stat above. 

While not every brand has millions to slide into creating a well-oiled marketing machine, every brand has the ability to employ what Miley did: strategy. Every decision she has made has been carefully analyzed, discussed and executed, whether it seems that way or not. In fact, her abiliity to make millions think she's 'out of control' is the biggest part of why this is all working so well. We don't know we're being marketed to.

And you know what? Your brand can do that, too. Stop playing it safe, take risks, do something you’ve never done, get uncomfortable – these are all things that CAN have massive upside for your brand, as long as it’s grounded in strategy. Planning on more of the same? Plan on Millennials tuning out. 

My favorite writer had this to say about the philosophies and forms of fiction, which, when applied to marketing (another form of storytelling), is pretty perfect: “Since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the 'goal' of the forward rush... We tend to forget: The rule-breaking has got to be for the 'sake' of something." Put another way, when rule-breaking for the mere sake of being avant-garde or to be a rule-breaker, then "shock stops being a by-product of progress and becomes an end in itself.”

Remember that. It’s one thing to have an idea, to do something never done before or shock millions with a performance in the VMAs. But it’s another thing entirely to do so in service of a greater strategy and plan, as part of a marketing machine in full swing designed to generate revenue and recognition at once. Miley Cyrus is a perfect example of this exacting strategy. There’s no reason your brand can’t do the same, and on 1/10 of the budget no less. Think big. Think different. Think. 


Zach Russell
Brand Strategist
HypeLife Brands