In fact, unless you are a teenage girl, it will probably surprise you to learn that Justin Bieber is the most viewed person on YouTube ever - having clocked over 3.5 billion views. In 2012, the fresh-faced 19-year-old super-star sold out all tickets for his US tour within an hour and took home $55 million. He whips his fans into such a frenzy that Forbes magazine estimates they spend four times the music industry average on merchandise. Despite his recent wobbles, the man is big business. And he's playing in South Africa in May.
How did a young boy from a small town in Canada catapult to international stardom so quickly? And what is it about the Justin Bieber brand that gets his fans so worked up? Justin has evangelised his fan-base of teenage girls, and he's done it by creating an experience that connects with his fans on all three levels of brand engagement: rational, emotional and social.
Great brands seldom have much to do with their products - engaging brands are more collective belief systems, shared values and stories than products or services. Apple lovers, for example, have bought into the ideals of a creative life more than they have bought into iOS 5. Nonetheless, the product needs to be right, and Justin had the fundamentals in place. He can sing. And, considering America's obsession with childhood stars, it certainly helped that he could sing early. He is good-looking, with a sweet smile and perfect hair. The Justin Bieber product is imminently marketable.
But the product is not the reason his brand is so powerful. The world is awash in Bieber fever because of four core disciplines that he has nailed: story, relevance, participation and community.
Those familiar with the art and science of powerful storytelling will recognise Justin's story as one of the seven archetypal human stories. These basic plot structures appear in all cultures across history because they connect with our emotions and resonate with our hopes. Justin's is the rags-to-riches story, where a good but downtrodden protagonist has his talents discovered by the world. Justin was born to a single mother in very modest circumstances, where he claims not to have had a proper bed or much food in the fridge. It's almost impossible not to get emotionally invested in a rags-to-riches story, and we mere humans are slaves to our empathy in this regard - we can't help but root for the main character. When Justin's mom began posting videos of her earnest and talented little twelve year old singing on YouTube, the world stood no chance of escaping his charms.
The fact that it was on YouTube that Justin rose from obscurity is not incidental. Though his story has been with us for millennia, there is something particularly digital about the Bieber brand. He is a product of the digital age, and a digital native (He's almost exactly as old as our democracy, if you were wondering). Justin has expertly used digital channels and thinking to build his community.
He taps into the same human impulse that makes reality TV so successful: voyeurism. Justin shows the behind-the-scenes back-story of his life; bringing disarming intimacy to everything he does, from sharing moments on social media to the way that he films his music videos. Unlike 90% of brands, he hides nothing. Video footage of his endearingly naïve, pre-fame years is still readily available online. And when fame and fortune dictate that he inject some styling and production into his music videos, he continues to give them a playful realness. The music video of his recent hit Beauty and the Beat is cut with alleged 'stolen personal footage' and appears to be filmed on his phone. This extended-arm, self-filming sends a powerful message to his young fan base: he is just like them. He documents his life like they do, his context is the same. He's also a young guy going through life trying to have fun and filming it all to share with his friends, like any of them would. It's this relatable realness that makes him resonate with teenage fans. It's a relevance that's most marketers find impossible to replicate without seeming try-hard.
Justin understands that social media needs to be social. He interacts daily with his fans, replying to them, retweeting them and sharing his life with them. A large portion of the content he shares on social media is evidence of him meeting people, collaborating with artists that his fans love and generally having fun with people. This makes him feel approachable, despite his millions of fans. It gives his fans the feeling that any of them could be up there with him. And his responsiveness massively incentivises participation - an endorsement or comment from Justin could lead to enormous exposure for the fan being mentioned.
His respect for his fans goes well beyond the smartphone screen. Justin makes a point of meeting fans in real life and sharing their stories and pictures. He'll spurn large media interviews to make time to meet a fan club, will hug his fans on talk shows and speak to them in a way that shows he is genuinely interested in what they have to say. It's not contrived or stylised. He pays them real attention - and there is nothing rarer in the world.
Essentially, Justin makes his fans feel special. And that simple feat is what separates noisy communication from engaging and effective marketing - it's all about making your consumers feel good about themselves for choosing you.
Justin repeatedly tells his fans how much he loves them. I imagine that this kind of message really resonates with a fanbase of teenage girls who often feel insecure and misunderstood. It's a message that reaches into their loneliness and makes them feel special. His tone and style are personal and real, making his fans feel like he is talking directly to them.
You don't get great brands without communities. Communities advocate and amplify, they participate in making the brand their own and telling its story their way. Great brands form movements of people. Justin understood this perfectly when he branded his particular tribe of fans. Much like Lady Gaga's Little Monsters, giving Beliebers their name created a home for a community with the universal human need to belong. People love to feel part of a special club of similar people, and, in the cult-like world of pop super-stardom, to feel like they are the chosen ones. The community wears his Belieber name like a badge that Justin loves each and every one of them.
In an environment where brands are trying desperately to rehumanise marketing and to transform their contact with customers into genuine, interactive relationships that matter, a brand like Justin Bieber provides excellent guidance on how to do it at scale. Justin Bieber weaves together primordial human story with tech-enabled, voyeuristic back-story. He says what he thinks while respecting and making time for the people who love him. He is a blend of globe-stretching superstardom and genuine, personal intimacy. What makes his fans adore him is that he still feels like a sweet guy from next door - a 'one of us' who made it big.
Give your customers the content they love and make them feel good about themselves, and you will build a loyal following. Do it in an authentic way that demonstrates an empathetic understanding of their lives, context and needs, and you may just have fans that weep in Checkers when they can't find your stock on shelf.
This article originally appeared in the July edition of Strategic Marketing Magazine