Beyoncé’s use of the element of surprise was genius

beyonce visual album

Isn’t it exciting when something unexpected happens? Something out of the ordinary?

Of course it is.

The shock heard around the world last week was how Beyoncé released her 5th studio album on iTunes without the typical marketing blitz that accompanies such album launches. I say shock because it really was a shock. Not only that, it’s also a non-conventional type album: titled “Visual Album” because every track has a video for it.

The album has already set iTunes record with over 800,000 units sold in three days. Some have even said that this is the best album of the year, as well as the best music moment of the year.

Does surprise cause such premature thoughts?

I believe so. But ultimately what matter is what fans have to say. Like what one commenter had to say:

I praise Beyoncé for releasing an album by surprise. She is focusing on nothing but the music. No media, no press, no hype, no 10 second previews. She is releasing it as a whole to re establish the beauty, the importance and the sincerity of her musical vision. She is an inspiration to everyone. Go Beyonce, Do your thing, cause it’s working and your making history.

And that she did. In a press release from Columbia, Beyoncé said she was bored with traditional album marketing and that she wanted to release the album in her own way. What she really did, however, was illustrate the true power of social media.

Here is Beyoncé talking about the album:

What is the marketing lesson here?

The best marketing plan is no marketing

Marketing as we know it is not promotion. It is advocacy. This has always been the truth, but companies lose sight of this. Every company, no matter the industry, has a group of customers who are advocates for them. But, companies rarely think about this and go straight to thinking about advertising that captures people’s attention.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Beyoncé is famous. Otherwise who knows what could’ve happened. But, when one starts thinking about developing a new product or service the conversation quickly shifts to promotion. It shouldn’t.

Even though, today, we can easily test a market before doing a full out launch, we shouldn’t start a conversation about promotion before thinking about the product idea. I’m pretty sure Beyoncé didn’t start thinking about how she was going to promote her next album, she started with the content (music, video) first.

Anyway, if you cultivate advocates, there comes a point in time when brands don’t need to market themselves. It is all about fandom, advocacy by the fans to do the promotion for the artist/brand. Traditional brands have been trying to replicate the connection that artists like Beyoncé have with their fans, even with social media this has proven to be very hard. I have a good idea why: most brands treat their customers like data on a spreadsheet.

Take the road of least expectation

Beyoncé’s direct-to-fan launch approach is a classic “road of least expectation” strategy. She says she was bored with the way albums are promoted, so she decided to leapfrog the middlemen and go straight to the fan. The idea itself isn’t surprising, but the way she did it is. It is one of those “why didn’t I think of that” ideas that got many artists to scratch their heads. Beyoncé took the road of least expectation, what no one expected, because no one ever questioned the way things are done.

Established companies have the most to benefit from being unexpected because they’ve been the same way for so long that if they suddenly do something that goes against convention, people will take notice. But this is rarely the case. If anything, being ordinary is fine with them.

If your brand doesn’t have an established fan base, no worries. The element of surprise is still on your side. Simply because no one knows about you. Here are a few questions I always ask myself to put myself in people’s shoes and reset my thinking:

  • What are the existing beliefs/expectations people have about ____topic/theme____?
  • How might we reset/exceed these expectations in a way that is unexpected?

Yesterday I wrote about how challenging assumptions lead to discover alternative ways to achieving outcomes. Consciously or not, this is what Beyoncé did. Calling something boring, to me, means that something is stuck. When the system, industry, is stuck in a mental model, doing the unexpected will undoubtedly create surprise. The key, is having a feel for when the system is  stuck. Or simply be dissatisfied with the status quo 🙂

Bottom line: Normal is boring. Being unexpected is the only advantage that matters. And as I’ve said many times before, the element of surprise is the ultimate equalizer. It is a strategy that everyone has at their disposal, but it’s rarely used because most people are like a fish in an ocean: they don’t know how they got there.

So, do as Beyoncé did and take the road of least expectation. Unexpected ideas have fewer competitors.