April 12, 2011
Why Your Brand Doesn't Need Bieber

The marketing industry has been whipped into a frenzy by a 17-year-old Canadian pop star. Justin Bieber has been hailed as Master of the Twitterverse while most brands are still trying to figure out what a Twitterverse is. A quick tour of Google yields pages and pages on social media marketing a la Bieber, creating Bieber-based marketing strategies, and adulations of Justin Bieber as an "Internet Marketing Guru." While many of these articles contain not entirely un-useful platitudes along the lines of "listen to your customers" and "respond to your fans," the fact is that brands simply shouldn't try to out-Bieber Bieber.

To know Bieber is to understand why your brand cannot really learn from him. Yes, he's a master of social media; yes, he's a master of activating fans; yes, he's a master of being cute in a non-threatening way--all of this is true. While he's good at marketing himself, Justin Bieber is not a proxy for your brand, and most brands are never going to see the exact flavor of success Bieber has enjoyed in social media.

Here's why:

  1. Your brand is not like Justin Bieber, and that's ok. Bieber has millions of fans because he has a giant platinum-record-making recording, producing, and touring machine behind him. Does that description in any way sound like your brand, product, or service? Unless you are Bieber, the answer is no. (And if you are Bieber, please follow me @shelila.) Most of the things people claim you can learn from Bieber have nothing to do with Bieber. Cliches gleaned from a cursory perusal of the Bieber literature do not a social strategy make. Want to know what's really behind Bieber's huge success in social? He makes music that a lot of people like. In fact they like it (and him) so much that he incites very public and sometimes violent outbursts amongst his global army of fans every time he cancels a mall concert, takes a picture with a Kardashian at the White House or kisses Selena Gomez. When was the last time anyone rioted about your brand? Do you want people rioting about your brand? Bieberizing your brand--making people love your brand so much that they riot when it's not where it should be or threaten the life of its significant other--would be noteworthy for its sheer difficulty, but it's not a good PR strategy. Your brand should be your brand, not Bieber's brand.
  2. Teens don't actually use Twitter, so don't try to reach them there. We've all heard the fantastic assertion that somewhere upward of 3% of Twitter servers is dedicated to Bieber-related traffic. We know about the legions of kids whose lives are forever changed by a mere follow from @JustinBieber. We know that Twitter actually had to modify its algorithm to make sure that Bieber was not always a trending topic. But Beliebers are the exception to the rule. Research has shown time and again that teens and tweens just don't use Twitter. True Beliebers were driven to Twitter because Bieber was there, not because they care about Twitter. So, unless you are Bieber, don't go looking for your teenage demographic on Twitter. And don't try to ride the Bieber wave to fame and success. Bieber-baiting--the practice of taking the Bieb's name in vain to drive traffic to your Twitter handle, blog, or website--is an Internet crime as transparent as black hatting, and just like black hatting, you can fear the wrath of the machine if you get caught Bieber-bating. Teenagers may love Mr. Biber, but they won't love any brand that uses Him for anything other than spreading Bieber love.

  3. Even Bieber cannot live on social alone. Bieber's social media empire is driven by a regular media empire. Bieber got his start on YouTube, but his use of YouTube had nothing to do with being social. He used web video as a way to publish his work and was lucky (and arguably talented) enough for people to share his content and watch it more than anything else ever on YouTube. The content he put on YouTube was media content, not social content because there was no call for interaction with fans. Bieber's music isn't intrinsically social just because it was put on a platform that allows comments and sharing. Further, the end result of Bieber's phenomenal YouTube success was a record deal, product endorsements, and a 3D movie. Bieber didn't use YouTube because he wanted to be social; he used it to get into traditional media. Now, because his records are hits and because he's so lovable, his adoring fans want to socialize with him. Bieber's traditional media empire--the records, the tours, the commercials--fuels his social empire.

All this talk about Bieber may just be part of the ever-growing number of marketing aphorisms claiming there's a perfect analog for social media strategy in something seemingly unrelated like gardening or teen sex (SFW), but the difference between Bieber marketing and comparisons to kindergarten, cooking, or drug dealing is that Bieber actually is a social marketing success, not just a proxy for a vague concept. That's precisely why you have to be careful. Comparing social media to gardening is just a clever heuristic, but beliebing that your brand can rise to Bieberdom is seductive trap. Remember this next time you're tempted to click on something that decodes Bieber's magic formula: there is no magic formula. Bieber's social media genius is Bieber-specific. It works because he gets to the right people, with the right message, at the right time, in the right place. And isn't that really what marketing is all about?



Fantastic, Sheila. First, thanks for posting. I've said to many companies along the way, "Sure, that's what Apple does." Or "Sure, that's what Zappos does." Or "Sure, that's what Southwest Airlines does." But you're not Apple/Zappos/Southwest. You shouldn't want to be. You shouldn't imagine you are.

I've been known to write pieces along the way just along the lines you're describing. What can marketers learn from pro wrestling or Mr. Rogers. The metaphors can be helpful to catch people a little off-guard and then point to some lessons they might learn that really have to do with their own strategy. So I don't have a problem with the "what can you learn from XXXX" numbered list genre. The problem, as you say, is the all-encompassing nature of some of them, that reduce it down to "you can be Bieber." Or "it's as simple as this."

It's not as simple as anything. There are some general rules/philosophies that hold true of almost any company. I have no gripes with a world where "transparency" and "authenticity" and "listening" and "participation" and "engagement" and so on are the buzzwords, if there have to be buzzwords. But these are all concepts that are big, and vague, and that have to be brought down to how that applies and what that means for your company, your audience, your way of doing business.

I don't want Justin Bieber as my insurance agent; my pilot; my doctor; or my plumber...It's like that old sitcom where you go to a town and suddenly one guy is the mayor, the store clerk, the lawyer, and every other role in town. It's ultimately the hard truth that, while it's good to look at "best practices" everywhere, there's no silver bullet in social media. Your strategy ultimately has to be yours and no others. Learn a lesson or two along the way from other places, sure, but follow some cookie-cutter way of thinking and you'll never be using social media as part of a larger strategy and in a meaningful way for your business, your employees, or your audience.

Thanks for the post!

On April 14, 2011 at 11:20 AM, smseles Author Profile Page said:

That's exactly it, Sam. We look for shortcuts and heuristics to make new things easier to understand, but at a certain point they break down.

But I'm totally in mourning today because JUSTIN BIEBER QUIT TWITTER! I hope it doesn't last because it's so interesting to watch how Bieber fandom keeps pushing the boundaries.


I must disagree with the idea that teens don't use twitter. True, there aren't as many using Twitter as there are using Facebook, but the teen user base of twitter is growing. Look at the nielsen report you linked to.

I also personally think that most teen users on twitter are early adopters and influencers. Although we may only directly hit 3% of the teen population by marketing on twitter, those 3% are more likely to spread the message to the other 97%.


Thanks for the comment, Brandon. I'm glad you've been able to find a strategy that's allowed you to reach teens on Twitter. And it does seem like the landscape is changing. It'll be interesting to see if more teens use Twitter. The bigger point I'm trying to make is that there's no one strategy that works for every brand. Maybe some can engage their customers on Twitter, but that strategy isn't going to work for everyone. Knowing your customers is more important than knowing a bunch of platforms and using them even if your customers aren't. Social media is about behavior, and I think we can only be successful once we understand behavior and cater to it.


Justin Bieber is all about niche marketing, albeit a big niche. What works towards marketing teens and preteen will not necessarily work towards marketing adults. You need to understand your target audience when you market.


Yes, Eric. I agree absolutely. Social campaigns should be more about appealing to behaviors rather than just plastering platforms with your marketing messages.


You were right with this marketing strategies flocking on the net, they are not Bieber that could fill the arena in just 2 hours..they keep promising of a boost on ranks and visibility in just one week or so. they should be realistic enough to be acknowledge..