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Rebranding the King of R&B


The Backstory:

A Rare Opportunity

A very specific and very special team was put together for a huge task, but one that could make history on one of the biggest celebrity brands in the music industry.

In 2014, a few of us were tapped to be a part of a very small in-house creative team, independent from the record label, for Usher–one of the most famous and universally loved artists in the world. With 20 years of relevance, record album sales, very little scandal attachment & a global fanbase, he is easily one of the most valuable and marketable brands in music history. Many even consider him to be the top male R&B artist of all time. With this said, a huge oppportunity was upon us, but not without its challenges.

The prior 5 years, Usher had been relatively absent from the scene, both musically and within the public eye. Although understandable (as he had multiple personal traumas outside of music), a lot of his core fanbase was left in the cold. Within this same time, other R&B acts (most notably Chris Brown) has risen to stardom and filled some gaps that Usher once occupied. Now with the past behind him, his label in full support & a huge platform to leverage (The Voice), it was time to re-emerge in a big way. How? that was for us to decide.


The Objective:

Increase popularity by 40% using digital & creative tactics by EOY.

We had a year to re-establish his brand with a 7-figure budget, however, there were big factors to consider:

- A confirmed hosting spot on NBC's "The Voice"
- A tentative album release in Q3 of 2014
- A confirmed world tour in Q4 of 2014

To fully utilize these moments in favor of the goal, cross-marketing on many platforms was required, both for his personal brand and his album promo rounds. We settled on these tasks:

- Pick 2 radio singles + concept for music videos
- Tiered social strategy for UR's personal accounts
- Strategic digital activations
- Album creative (art direction + branding)
- Strategic brand partnerships

A Word On The Subject:
"The thing that make rusher so unique as a brand is that he is one of the only global r&b artists left. While other mainstream R&B acts can only fill small venues or one-show runs in cities during their tours, Usher can still sell out stadiums in Europe and beyond. That is rare and something we have to preserve. We cant go too far niche ‘soul’ where he can be marginalized, but can’t go too ‘pop/edm’ either in respect to his core fanbase. Therefore whatever we do both musically, and creatively, has to have the balanced but authentic approach in mind. There, we will find the sweet spot."

Grace Miguel - Manager for Usher

Step 1:

A New Brand Presence

In-person and on wax, Usher's brand has been very prevalent for decades. It was time to solidify a brand for him outside of those meduims as well.

First step in the rebrand was to define a core public image that Usher wanted to protray for himself via his music, his social media, and other creative outlets. He had been very keen in protecting his public image and not puting much out there outside of his music. This has proven successful in keeping his brand clean, but also has left fans wondering "Who is Usher, really?"

For the new rebrand he wanted to have design that was modern and also enforced his creative direction and taste in art. Therefore we started with taking high-quality image and video of not just his performances, but his lifestyle off the stage as well. From there, we enforces the new creative direction in all forms of design that touched Usher's brand.

A New Brandmark

A universal symbol that was modern, identifiable, and had a personal touch.

Prior to this point, not many artists had invested in a brandmark for themselves. Now was the time to establish something concrete that would be present on all marketing and product permanently.

We aesthetically liked the original logo, but found it to be generic and non-memorable. We found out it was made in attempt to play it safe & be clean. Although sensible in strategy, Usher didnt feel connected to it. This go around, Usher made it clear that he wanted something he could personally identify with. That notion + incorporating marketing data + design trends landed us on the new version. Its a take on Usher's own handwriting with corrected symmetry. It also accentuates "U", which is a nickname that Usher has been branded with over the years.

Branded Marketing

Applying the brandmark + new creative direction to all promotional material

Once approved by the management team and Usher himself, we started to apply the new brandmark to all design-focused projects that involved Usher's brand. We became the in-house creative agency that produced all of the design work as well

On behalf of Usher and his management, we worked with his record label (RCA Records) and his touring partners (Live Nation) to produce all creative collateral for his singles, press kits, tour marketing material, and even a piece of the set design for his 2014-2015 international tour "The UR Experience".

Step 2:

Upgrading the Social Outlets

A mix of original content + strategic social activations would be key in boosting his brand.

Prior to us coming on, Usher had 28M followers on Facebook, 7.9M on Twitter, and 1.1M on Instagram. With the decline of Facebook as an engagement tool & Instagram rising to become king, this was obviously an issue, and ultimately an opportunity. Luckily, we had big media moments to leverage via Usher judging on NBC's "The Voice". The strategy was to use those on-air moments to spark fan engagement on Facebook, and then creatively marketing those engeged fans to further engage on Instagram.

First step in that process was to define a core public image that we wanted to protray via social media. The key characteristics Usher wanted to emote were "down-to-earth", "principled" and "creative". We decided to use light-hearted humor as a primary tactic in his posts and activations to knock out 2 birds with 1 stone. This is specifically demonstrated in how we activated & leveraged his social outlets during his time on the voice, and then used the momentum to boost his personal brand in time for his album release.

TV to Social Activations

Using Usher's TV visibility to get fans to interact with his social platforms

We worked closely with the Usher, his photographer and NBC to vigorously promote the season across social media by creating #TEAMUSHER, Usher's online fanclub for "The Voice". Posts were used to call fans to download his artists' tracks and vote for them during prime time. It wasn't long before #TEAMUSHER embraced mentee, Josh Kaufman, propelling him into the finals and helping him reach top 10 on the iTunes Top 200 Singles chart.

We were closely observing Usher's interactions and tonality throughout the season, and ultimately found that "light-hearted humor" and "sexual innuendo" were the core things Usher's fans liked to see that drove social engagement. We used this insight + his mentee's momentum on the show for personal brand gain that would make it all worthwhile.

In a flashback to a quirky confessional from episode 623, Usher admitted to millions of TV viewers that he "cooks in his underwear". For weeks after, fans kept flooding his Facebook and Twitter asking him to "show them". We used this mass curiosity to set up a simple bet: If fans voted Josh Kaufman the winner of The Voice, Usher would cook everybody breakfast in his underwear.

Anytime an R&B sex symbol with a primarily female fanbase mentions cooking and underwear in the first person, the world pays attention. Ultimately, Josh Kaufman did end up winning & although it cant be 100% proven, it is highly likely the call to action had a lot to do with it.

The next morning, we posted the "cooking in my underwear" video on Instagram only for the first 3 hours, while simultaneously making the IG page private for the first hour, and used Facebook and Twitter to point users to the IG post. This caused a surge in follow requests on Instagram that ultimately gained Usher's IG account an additional 230K followers in a sigle day, while also increasing Twitter following by 404K and Facebook by a whopping 713K. This activation + total social activity during The Voice netted an additional 927K followers on instagram alone. Mission accomplished.

Original Instagram Content

We curated videos on IG to show Usher's fans a glimpse of his humorous side.

Shortly after the success of "The Voice" activation, we realized that video content on all of his social platforms were soaring in engagement, well beyond any other post method. With this in mind, we made a trip to Atlanta to capture additional content in an effort to continue driving awareness and engagement with Usher's audience - especially to his newfound Instagram following. Highlighting the artist's personality and sense of humor were key focal points.

We shot a series of loosely scripted, :15 videos that leveraged his recent victory, while also creating content around the NBA playoffs - both of which were trending topics in social at the time.

We curated multiple campaigns with different concepts over the course of the year to gradually increase engagement and followership from 2.8M in June 2014 to 3.7M in February 2015. To date, they are still some of the most highly-engaged posts that his Instagram has ever had and have set the tone for how he engages with his fans in an organic and light-hearted way.

Step 3:

Strategic Partnerships

We aligned proper brands to create further innovative activations

One of the greatest accomplishments was our ability to secure partnerships with quality brands to produce unique and effective activations and campaigns.

From single releases, music video product placement, tour sponsorship, philanthropic initiaitves & special activations, Usher was positioned well to gain international exposure and plenty of marketing dollars.

Usher x Cheerios

A common sense partnership between two classic brands

To enforce his brand as a family-friendly musician in preparation for his upcoming tour, Usher partnered with Cheerios to produce a series of custom box covers for their cereal with the addition of a TV slot to promote the brand. Although the box covers never came out, the TV slot aired for the Q2 cycle of 2014 (see video on right).

In addition, we released one of Usher's new melodic, child-friendly tracks "Clueless" via the inside of Cheerios boxes to further garner engagement for both brands.

#HowUSeeIt App

Usher x Target linking to give fans hyper-exclusive content

We designed and developed an app that was intended to give fans exclusive song releases, show locations, behind-the-scenes content, and even free fashion giveaways during the 2014 album cycle and 2014-2015 tour duration. We also worked with Target and DAQRI to produce a 4D Activation within the app during his performance at the inaugural iHeartRadio Music Awards

Although it ultimately didnt get produced due to scheduling conflicts, the concept inspired further creative advertising for the tour and other celebrity apps that are in the market today.

The Outcome:

A huge return on the investment in his brand

At the end of the day, the creative design, marketing, and digital strategy efforts paid off immensely. For starters, the label (RCA) loved his new brand logo and found it much more marketable on all collateral from therein. According to independent data from the label's analytics team, the single artwork was highly popular amongst fans and had the 2nd most social engagement amongst release of single art on the label in 2014. The music videos that we had a hand in creative directing had more-than-favorable engagement. The video for "Good Kisser" reaching 4.4M views on VEVO within the first week of its release, and 36.9M views in total to date while "She Came To Give It To You" reached 900K within the first week and 4.1M in total to date.

From a digital KPI standpoint, we exponentially increased Usher's social platform followership and engagement rates. Twitter followership went from 4.6M to 9.1M during our tenure while Instagram went from 1.1M to 3.5M. The initial goal was a 40% increase in all social followership–aggregately it was raise by over 165%. We also had some Facebook breakthroughs during his time on the voice by organically reaching a record breaking 75% of his Facebook fanbase and engaging 45% of that same fanbase. According to the Facebook analytics department, that was the highest engagement percentage of all entertainment public figure profiles in 2014. These stats helped leverage joint ventures that netted Usher a profit well beyond his 2014 goal.

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