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THIS BRAND IS MY BRAND

The conversation about brand partnerships is shifting. Country music is crossing over, and Nashville is diversifying. Country fans are loyal and engaged. The artists are passionate storytellers—ones who take pride in what they do, eat, drink, drive and wear. They have direct personal relationships with their fans because of their shared, similar lifestyles. And the format thrives on careers, as opposed to singles. The future of branding in Nashville has never been brighter.


“As an artist, it’s more important than ever to align with brands that share your values and enhance your own personal brand,” shares Sony Music Nashville EVP/Marketing & New Business John Zarling. “When I started digging into the brand world—about eight years ago now, at Big Machine—there really wasn’t (in Nashville, at least) a position or department within the labels singularly focused on strategic alliances and partnerships. The definition has really morphed from sponsorship. Back then, I think we were in a world where a brand was writing a check, versus the association with an artist’s name, image and likeness, and not necessarily getting a ton in return. Today, more is expected from both sides when investing both time and resources in an artist and a career.”

As Big Machine CMO Mike Rittberg points out, “There was a point in time years ago when everybody was so scared of partnering, and now I think we’re just trying to figure out who’s the right partner.”

Social media has a lot to do with this vitalization. You can even take the artist out of the equation. When it comes right down to the modern American citizen, everyone has their own “brand,” so to speak. Your neighbor has a story to tell and so does her cousin, and they want to share it quickly and immediately—with anyone and everyone who will listen.
“It’s become more acceptable,” Rittberg adds. “People are sharing what they’re eating, what they’re driving, what they’re doing. You know what makeup they’re putting on, what they’re drinking. It’s all shareable. Fifteen years ago, there was that stigma of a brand partnership; today, it’s not a big deal. It’s so common now.”

“Ten years ago, it was beer, trucks; that’s it. And now it’s everything,” MAC Presents President Marcie Allen agrees. “The diversification in the types of brand deals happening right now is so inspiring. Take Kenny Chesney—look at Blue Chair Bay rum. That started in 2013. And I want to say a year or so ago there was something like 100,000 cases sold? It’s one thing for an artist to create a rum; but this really embodies everything about Kenny Chesney as a brand. Whether it’s Brad Paisley in the Nationwide commercial with Peyton Manning doing the jingle, or it’s Carrie Underwood creating her own athletic line, you’re seeing all different types of brands work with country artists. And it’s only going to get bigger, because country artists are open to brand partnerships. There are plenty of artists who aren’t. I think the Nashville community in general has embraced brands in a special way. It’s very rare that you hear of a brand having a bad experience with a country artist.”

“It’s really about the country consumer,” asserts Rittberg, who spent much of his career working in rock. “Unlike pop and rock consumers, they are the most loyal group of people ever. I think that’s what makes the relationship between artist, country music and the brand more authentic. With country music, our bands are definite brands, and in some cases, the last remaining rock stars. Go see the shows. The rock-star part is missing from all the other formats. And the truth is, they’re nice, real people. They’re weirdly like NASCAR drivers: They know how to show up, they know how to say please and thank you. They come in, they do what’s expected right from the beginning, and it’s a success. It’s not the same problem that exists with other formats. With them, it’s like, ‘I gave you my word, I’m going to show up and do this.’”
“And the artists are living the same lives their fans are living,” WME agent Shari Lewin points out. “Luke Bryan is actually living on a farm and goes fishing on the weekends, so when he’s talking about using brands that associate with that lifestyle, people believe it. I think that with some of the non-country artists, pop or whatever it might be, their lives might differ more from the lives their fans are living. It’s not as easy for somebody in the middle of America to associate with their favorite pop artist.”

It’s also important to realize that a strong campaign should tell a story; it should be relatable. And who knows how to tell a story better than a country artist? “Luke’s partnership with Bayer Crop Science surrounds his Farm Tour, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary,” Lewin goes on. “Luke grew up on a farm with his dad, and his dad actually used Bayer products. He had this idea of giving the farm families in each community gift certificates. So, Bayer was nice enough to—on top of our deal—give them $5,000 each night that first year. They’d bring a farmer from the community up on stage, give them a gift certificate and create a really great moment.” 


UMG Nashville
VP Marketing Brad Turcotte turns to Chris Stapleton as an example: “When we released Traveller, it was a bit difficult to find strategic partners. Obviously, we had a much smaller interest than we do now. But the one thing that Chris kept saying? ‘You know, I drive a RAM. When I wrote this record, I was in a Jeep traveling coast to coast.’ So we put together a very organic pitch, because Chris had a story to tell about RAM. And they really were the only partner we had until his Timberlake moment happened and he shot out of the atmosphere. It was authentic. Quite honestly, for the sake of being fully transparent, when we sat down with Chris to pitch for that record, we wanted to do something with Nissan because their North American headquarters are in Nashville. We hadn’t done anything with Nissan before, and we had this road-trip idea. We pitched to Chris, and he says, ‘Look, man. I don’t drive a Nissan. My song is not about road-tripping. Why don’t we re-craft this? Because I drive a RAM.’ It was so much more rewarding with his point of view.”

At the end of the day, authenticity is at the core of the conversation. “Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s Jeep project for Soul 2 Soul 2007 is of the ones I’m most proud of,” says Allen. “They first decided to date exclusively while they were riding around in one of their crew guys’ old 1976 Jeeps. When Jeep came out with the four-door, we went and pitched it, and it was perfect. They have a family of three girls. The trucks had five seatbelts, and we went and pitched this whole thing about how times have changed. And we ended up getting the ‘date Jeep.’ I believe Faith had given it to Tim as a gift, bought it from the crew guy and got it restored. So, we took it on the road. That’s a story; it’s a country song. Just 10 years ago, you wouldn’t hear about these types of brands doing so much business in Nashville. And I think it’s just a testament to how country music has grown.”

Naysayers may argue that they can’t reach as far with country stars as they could with pop stars, but this seems to be a common misconception. “Quite honestly, it’s a struggle,” Turcotte admits. “Only because we all assume, in Nashville, that everybody knows the power of country music. Instead of coming out to a brand and meeting about an artist, what we’ve had to do is re-shift and do Country Music 101 to explain the power and reach—and not only in demographics. Hey, we have the most radio stations; almost double. Our footprint is large. I think that’s what we lose sight of sometimes, because we’re in such a bubble here.

“Some of these brands really could care less,” he continues. All they’re interested in is a number. Ariana Grande might have 50 million Twitter followers, while Carrie Underwood or Luke Bryan, who probably have the most for those in our format, might have 10 million. So I have to come up with different pitches. Pop is a very singles-based format, and country is more artist-driven. We grow and hold our artists longer, and you see that with these superstars. They’re 40- to 50-year-olds. It’s more of a long-term play. When I pitch to brands, I’m not calling you for a one-off relationship. I’m calling you because we have an organic pitch with an artist who we’re going to keep for years. By and large, these artists don’t change their taste; they drove a Ford truck when they were 16 and they drive a Ford truck when they’re 40, and they have a great story to tell about it.”

“And we really try to stress the engagement level, versus just that number,” adds CAA Music Partnership Agent Megan Sykes. “What’s important is that these fans are going to pay attention and engage when an artist posts about the brand and when they release exclusive content. That’s how we detail that and transition that in focus.”

And then there’s the recent diversification of the genre, as well as its ongoing globalization. “When you say ‘Nashville artists,’ it doesn’t just mean country music anymore,” notes Allen. “Nashville is the home of Kings of Leon, Cage the Elephant, Jack White and Third Man Records. And as a Nashville native, I think one of the most fabulous things is that it’s become a melting pot. In a lot of ways, Nashville became what New York and L.A. wanted to be. It’s such a wonderful place to raise a family, but it’s also a fantastic place to be in your 20s. You have an NFL team, you have the Predators, now you can watch soccer and you can see all different types of music, whether it’s hip-hop, country, rock, pop. When I was in high school in the late ’80s, early ’90s, you really only saw country music. Not as a negative thing, but people referred to us as ‘Country Music City,’ and now we’re ‘Music City.’

“When I started MAC Presents back in 2004 in my dining room in Green Hills, music sponsorships were at $550 million,” Allen presses on. “Now it’ll surpass $1.5 billion, according to the IEG sponsorship report this year. Even though we’re still substantially less than sports sponsorships (at $60 billion), there’s not a lot in the music industry—minus streaming—that has tripled in value over the past 14 or 15 years. And I think that if we can continue to slowly capture some of those brand dollars away from sports and away from traditional advertisements, you’re going to see that number grow more and more. I really think we could be $5-to-6 billion in the next five years. That’s massive.”

“And it’s not just for Generation Xers,” Allen continues. “Millennials love country music, Generation Z loves country music, Baby Boomers love country music. There aren’t a lot of genres that are so cross-generational as far as their fanbases. That’s what country music brings. Look at Maren Morris crossing over with Zedd on ‘The Middle.’ There’s Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line. You’re seeing the power of country music because it’s being pulled outside of Nashville. It’s really a global genre now. Look at the success country music is having in Europe, in the U.K., in London. I’m on the CMA Board, and they’ve been putting a ton of events on over there. It’s an exciting time.”

“In the recent past, one of the most effective campaigns was our Bud Light Dive Bar Tour series,” Zarling notes. “We know that Old Dominion’s music and their audience reaches well beyond the core country audience. For us to be able to align with Budweiser on a campaign that also involved Lady Gaga and Post Malone, along with several others, was a great positioner for the band. While launching the last album, it allowed us to get in the markets, do underplays, build in opportunities for radio, digital partners and media partners and turn a multi-state trek into something really exceptional.”

“A big part of what CMA does is go out into major markets globally,” explains CMA CMO Damon Whiteside, who recently launched brand-marketing summits in New York, London and Toronto. “We do a lot of education around the consumer, our industry and just why brands should choose country artists. We over-index when compared to other genres. Let’s say a country artist is endorsing a product; that has a lot more influence on country fans than with other genres. There’s a real one-to-one relationship that country artists have with their fans. We’ve become coast-to-coast in terms of popularity, the appeal is growing and we have the data to support that. All 50 states, evenly spread—we’re not a Middle America genre by any means. The demographic is very broad, and we over-index in terms of income, education, and things like social-media usage. On average, the country fan spends more on music annually. We check so many boxes.”

And when it comes to reach, the CMA holds the keys. “We have the biggest country music festival, and what I believe might be the longest-running music festival, out there,” Whiteside points out. “If you or your brand wants to reach country fans, there’s no better way than being present at CMA Fest. Part of that is just because of the volume of people that come in over the four-day festival, but we get fans from all fifty states, including a huge influx from the coast. It’s one of the few global festivals out there. Typically, we get well over 35 brand partners; they do activations and seriously want to tap into our fans. This year, we were off the charts in terms of our social engagements with close to a billion in social reach. We have 350 artists. I don’t think you can name a festival that has that many; virtually every major country artist was there.”

“Right now, 46% of the adult U.S. population are country fans—over 115m,” Sykes states with confidence. “Everyone from Millennials to Baby Boomers, and brands really want to capitalize on that. The opportunities are endless.”

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