What we can learn from Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” and the record-breaking run.

Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” just broke the record for number of weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts. It is a catchy song and he is a talented man. But that can be said of other songs and other people who don’t sell 3 million plus copies and get their song streamed hundreds of millions of times.  So what makes this different? Lil Nas X may be as brilliant a marketer as he is a musical artist.
He released the song in 2018, and it didn’t hit until this year. He used basic elements of a modern successful campaign better than anyone has in recent years. Here are just a few of the things he got right:

1. He gave ownership to his fans.

In the old days, a company owned its brand and pushed its message out to its audiences. That doesn’t work anymore. Your brand mostly (or at least in part) belongs to your customers. As Leigh George of Freedom Marketing in Washington D.C. said to me, “Brands have to fulfill their customers missions, not the other way around.”  Lil Nas X did this brilliantly.
He worked with Nice Michael, an expert on TikTok , who developed “The “Yeehaw Challenge.” They invited people on TikTok to drink “yee yee juice” (a drink of your choosing that makes you turn into a cowboy) then upload videos of themselves making the transition to their cowboy selves.
More than 140,000 video uploads later, the song was on the country charts. The challenge was fun, engaging and gave ownership to their audience.  That last part is important. Younger audiences, especially, want to feel that there is a part of them in your brand. This makes your content shareable and stream-able.

2. He used crisis and controversy to his advantage.

With momentum from TikTok, the song reached 19 on Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” charts. Billboard then removed the song because they said it “didn’t embrace enough elements of today’s country music.”
Cue fans.
Remember those 140,000 plus people who now felt they were part of this song? They let billboard know how they felt in a loud way. Tweets and memes of billboard excluding a black artist from the country music genre exploded on Twitter, catching the eye of prominent people including country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

3. He expanded his reach through partnerships.

Next step was inviting Billy Ray Cyrus to create a remix version of the song with him. The remix catapulted the song into the stratosphere. That opened the door for Lil Nas X to invite other artists (partners) to create remixes including Diplo (Electronic Dance Music artist), RM (A Korean Rapper), Mason Ramsey (Country Singer), and Young Thug (rap artist). Suddenly, all of these artists’ fans were listening to, buying and sharing the song.

4. He used the “A’ word.

We use the word “authentic” a lot in our business, but being completely truthful requires risk and a willingness to admit vulnerabilities. So brands sometimes fall short. Throughout his campaign, Lil Nas X has remained approachable and genuine with is fans. He even came out on Pride Day.  For an artist whose song teeters between the rap music and country music worlds to come out takes a lot of guts. Those two genres aren’t traditionally known as featuring gay artists. Yet out he came, and it hasn’t hurt him a bit.
I love Lil Nas X’s story (and the song). He bought a backing track for $30, created a wonderful piece of music then created a course on how to win over and audience.
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