David Deal is a marketing executive, digital junkie, and pop culture lover.
When hip-hip artist Travis Scott appeared on Fortnite for a 10-minute virtual concert in April, he created one of the culturally defining moments of 2020. At a time when a global pandemic has put a halt to the concert industry, Scott managed to attract an audience of millions without even technically showing up for a live show. His avatar did all the heavy lifting during a 10-minute fantasy designed for Fornite, “Astronomical” It didn’t matter whether you were a gamer -- you probably knew about his appearance even if you didn’t show up. And Scott -- whose meteoric rise to fame in the 2010s has made him both popular (all 17 songs from his 2018 album Astroworld charted on the Billboard Hot 100) and wealthy -- is on fire.
Travis Scott’s Fortnite moment demonstrates how an elite group of musicians, the new music moguls, have become brands unto themselves, wielding power through their cultural relevance, and oftentimes through digital.
Musicians used to align themselves with non-music brands such as McDonald’s to gain more power, visibility, and wealth. But an elite group of musicians, such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, have become so powerful that they’ve inverted the model.
Some have changed the model completely by creating non-music brands. For example, Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line is credited for compelling the beauty industry to create more inclusive products, a phenomenon known as the Fenty Effect. Arguably, Rihanna as a fashion and beauty brand has eclipsed Rihanna the musician. Travis Scott is inheriting the mantel from this high-flying group — a next-generation music mogul.
Travis Scott is firing on all cylinders as a musician and a brand. He ranks among the Top 20 most-listened-to artists on Spotify. With Kid Cudi, he released a song, “The Scotts,” that became his third U.S. Number One single.
His collaboration with Rosalía, “TKN,” became a viral sensation on TikTok. A virtual performance on Fortnite attracted 12 million viewers in April. But his popularity extends beyond music. He’s also a culturally relevant brand.
Brands become culturally relevant when they connect with an audience through their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes cultural relevance means shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, too. When brands achieve cultural relevance, they become so inextricably linked with our lives that we become lifelong members of their tribes. Scott defines cultural relevance in 2020 by connecting his music and his brand with people through mainstream behaviors such as:
Online gaming is a $159 billion market in 2020, and Travis Scott is positioning himself to get a chunk of that money. His April Fortnite appearance had the same show-stopping power as any Coachella main stage performance — in fact, probably more.
The performance drew 12.3 million concurrent players (i.e., watching at the same moment) and 27.7 million unique players (i.e., the number of different people who have signed on) globally across five airings over three days.
But that’s not all. The concert generated a boatload of cash for Scott, including his appearance fee (estimated to be $500,000) and millions from the sale of in-game virtual merchandise such as a replica of Scott’s performance avatar and tons of other branded goodies — the online equivalent of concert Ts and sweatshirts sold at physical concerts.
In this era of social distancing, physical concerts are not going to be feasible for a long, long time. “Astronomical” could be a template for the music industry, or at least one segment of the industry consisting of stars with the power to connect with fans through the rapidly growing online gaming industry.
As Mark Mulligan of MiDIA Research told Billboard, “Games are the new venues of tomorrow. Travis Scott performing in Fortnite was the gaming equivalent of having a stadium-sized setup.”
Scott, an avid gamer himself, follows a long line of musicians who have connected with fans through online gaming. Snoop Dogg, David Bowie, and Nile Rodgers are among the musicians who pioneered commercial collaborations with games such as NBA Live (Snoop Dogg), Omikron: The Nomad Soul (David Bowie), and HALO 2 (Nile Rodgers).
The pioneers inspired many musicians to form relationships with gaming experiences. But Scott has taken the model to another level with the “Astronomical” concert.
Fast food and hip hop are culturally intertwined, with a rich history that arguably dates back to Run-DMC name checking KFC and McDonald’s in “You Be Illin’” and NWA and LL Cool J both showing Burger King love in “I Ain’t That 1” and “The Bristol Hotel,” respectively. L.A.-based Fatburger achieved national fame in 1992 when Ice Cube name checked the chain in the song “It Was a Good Day.”
After that, Fatburger became the unofficial burger stand of choice for the hip-hop world, with artists such as Biggie Smalls calling out the restaurant either in song or word. Another famous L.A. eatery, Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles, is so beloved by hip-hop stars that Snoop Dogg offered to buy the joint when it faced financial problems.
The fast food industry understands the power of hip-hop to confer cultural relevance, too. Back in 2005, McDonald’s enlisted the help of a marketing firm to recruit hip-hop artists to mention Big Macs in their songs. Having deep pockets doesn’t make you culturally relevant, of course. But you can borrow cultural relevance by forming the right relationships. And that’s what McDonald’s did by co-branding with Travis Scott recently.
From September 8 to October 4, McDonald's partnered with Scott on a marketing campaign that featured the Travis Scott value meal, which became so popular that shortages resulted. The Travis Scott meal promotional campaign also included the sale of related merchandise such as a $90 pillow that sold out in days, and Scott starred in a commercial for Mickey D’s.
In turn, Scott made himself more relevant to one of the most powerful cultural institutions in the United States, Fast Food Nation.
McDonald’s US chief marketing officer Morgan Flatley told Business Insider that McDonald’s decided to team up with Scott because of his cultural impact, especially when it comes to younger customers:
His ability to kind of see where culture is going and have a hand in where culture is going is really unique. Then you couple that with his huge followership and his fans, social-media footprint, and . . . 3 billion streams. He just has an incredible audience.
The relationship with McDonald’s also spawned an amusing behavior among younger customers who rolled up to McDonald’s drive-through lanes and placed their orders for the Travis Scott Meal with their own creative spin, such as announcing cryptically, “You know what I want,” or “You know why we’re here,” and then blasting Scott’s hit song, “Sicko Mode.”
The “Sicko Mode”-style ordering also lit up TikTok, with fans posting their “Sicko Mode” moments on videos that went viral. Fans had so much fun coming up with their own distinct ways to order the Travis Scott Meal that McDonald’s executives sent a memo to employees, giving a heads up regarding the different vernacular one might expect in the drive-through lane, and encouraging employees to just roll with it.
“To reduce confusion, please make crew aware of these monikers or alternate ordering methods,” the memo said.
This is what cultural relevance is all about: influencing how people actually talk and behave. And all this happened in just weeks.
Hip-hop has wielded such an enormous impact on fashion that entire books have been written about the subject. Hip-hop artists have taken their influence to the bank, such as Cardi B teaming up with the viral brand Fashion Nova to launch her first clothing collection or Kanye West teaming with the Gap to sell his own Yeezy line. Travis Scott turns heads with his many signature looks, and he’s also been a fashion creator. For example:
In 2019, he collaborated with the Houston Astros to launch a limited edition baseball cap.Since 2017, he’s worked with Nike on many redesigns of popular Nike styles such as Air Force 1 and the Dunk.In 2017, he collaborated with Helmut Lang on a clothing collection that included denim, shoes, and shirts costing anywhere from $175 to $1,715.
His record label, Cactus Jack, has morphed into an all-purpose merchandise operation that includes clothing ranging from hoodies to T shirts, and the way he combines T shirts, flannel, and jeans has influenced the way his fans dress. As Mike Destefano of Complex magazine points out, Scott makes it easy to adopt his various looks:
Part of the appeal of his style is that it’s relatively accessible. Fans can buy the same Supreme Kermit T-shirt (at Grailed, eBay, or stores like Round Two), Stone Island jacket, and Jordan 4s Scott rocks. Even if they can’t cop the exact same pieces, his rockstar look can be easily recreated.
“Travis cuts through because he’s authentic,” Ksubi CEO Craig King told Complex. “He has a true street style and his followers clearly relate to him.”
Without question, Scott’s biggest influence is seen in sneakerhead culture. His own designs, such as the Jordan 1 Retro High Travis Scott, regularly sell out instantly and command huge premiums on the sneaker resale market.
According to sneakerhead site JustFreshKicks, Scott’s Air Force 1 collaboration with Nike is one of the most highly coveted Air Force 1 styles ever. He’s managed to crank out a number of Nike collaborations in a short amount of time, and each one has been wildly successful. Part of his appeal is how he drops sneakers to coincide with show-stopping events, such as the release of a Nike Air Force 1 “Sail” variation right before he released his popular Astroworld album, or the Travis Scott x Air Jordan 1 Low “Cactus Jack,” which he wore during his Super Bowl appearance in February 2019.
Why has Travis Scott become such a powerful force in sneakerhead culture? Well, he’s a sneakerhead himself who gets the nuances of sneakerhead style. As Yu-Ming Wu, Stadium Goods’ chief marketing officer, told Cam Wolf of GQ:
A lot of rappers and entertainers like to think of themselves as sneakerheads, but Travis Scott is a rare breed with a deep appreciation of the culture. He often brings back older, hyped sneakers which helps educate new heads and remind the old heads. His love and respect for the industry is a big part of his sneaker cult following.
His collaborations with Nike are a natural by-product of his love of sneaker style, not the other way around. As Cam Wolf noted,
Those on the other side of the taste spectrum will tell you that his shoes are a reflection of the personal style that has made Scott a beloved fashion figure. Over the years, Scott has built up his fashion bonafides by wearing archival Raf Simons — the really good stuff from, like, the fall/winter 2001 collection — in the “Antidote” music video or taking a vintage Celine blouse seemingly pilfered from Kanye West on a seaside vacation (a dream!). Past Nike press releases detail Scott’s influences: everything from lil’ military-inspired pockets and Houston-Oilers blue, to burlap accents, a reference to farm product and a metonym for resilience and hard work.
Sneaker influencer, DJ, and consultant Kish Kash also said that Scott’s personal style “adds the respect . . . It means [the shoe designs] aren’t contrived.”
Travis Scott could have coasted through 2020 dropping songs and riding the wave of his success with sneakerheads. Instead, he made one of the defining cultural events of the year with his Fortnite concert. The COVID-19 pandemic will influence how his brand evolves in the near term. Physical tours, once a crucial element of any musician’s ability to extend their influence commercially and culturally, are not an option. Scott, whose Astroworld concert featured him singing on a roller coaster, would be the perfect choice for branded theme park attractions, but theme parks are struggling.
Arguably, a Travis Scott-themed ride could help bring back fans to parks.
Whatever he does, his Cactus Jack brand is key. I expect him to follow in the footsteps of Kanye West and launch his own Cactus Jack clothing collaboration with a major retailer. Of course, brick-and-mortar retail is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Everything will come down to how well Scott can hustle Cactus Jack fashion online by leveraging the reach of a well-known retailer that can endure the ravages of the pandemic — I’d predict Target or Walmart. It’s not a question of if, but when.
Given Scott’s love of world building (as demonstrated through his immersive appearance on Fortnite), I could easily see him embracing augmented reality and virtual reality in a creative way. These two technologies (especially virtual reality) would have limited appeal — their use is growing, but they’re not exactly mainstream.
But a Travis Scott virtual reality title is not out of the question given the popularity of his Fortnite appearance.
Travis Scott is winning in 2020 by capitalizing on the power of digital and choosing his offline opportunities carefully and wisely.
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