A thunderous bang quiets the roughly 40,000 fans who’ve gathered at Houston’s NRG Stadium. The lights click off, plunging the venue into darkness. A spotlight appears, silhouetting a figure on the stage. Beyoncé, sporting a wide-brimmed black hat and clad in a shimmering, rose-colored bodysuit, is flanked by a dozen dancers.
She starts bobbing her head along to the now-familiar twanging noise that opens her politically charged single "Formation." It takes a few moments to notice that the sparkly image displayed across her chest is a black panther, baring white teeth through its roaring red mouth. "If you came to slay tonight, say, ‘I slay!’ " she shouts. Her acolytes obey, screaming the words in unison as the music soars.
It’s around 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, and Beyoncé’s latest album, Lemonade, has been out for two weeks—almost to the hour. Unveiled during an April 23 HBO special that had been advertised as a "world premiere event" (with no further details), the 12-song collection was streamed 115 million times in the first six days alone. Each song has a unique music video, and together they make up a 65-minute film that weaves evocative imagery, wrenching poetry, and a rumored-to-be-autobiographical story line about infidelity. Lemonade debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, making Beyoncé the first artist in history to hit the top spot—and also the first to debut at No. 1—with her first six albums.
Yes, Beyoncé knows how to slay. And her impact is much greater than even these statistics imply. She has become one of the world’s most distinctive brands, a single-name powerhouse. She’s not only redefining how artists market themselves, building an uncommonly loyal customer base known as the Beyhive, but her successes are reverberating more broadly across the business landscape, too—prompting a reevaluation of rules, tactics, and strategies as enterprises large and small consider the pros and cons of cultivating their own Lemonade moment.
Beyoncé’s career has both closely tracked the rise of the digital age (her first solo album, 2003’s Dangerously in Love, came out five weeks before the launch of MySpace) and encouraged its evolution. No pop star has better navigated the tectonic shifts in the music industry, from iTunes to YouTube, Facebook to Spotify. What’s more, she has traversed the ever-more-complex tendrils of global culture with cleverness, discipline, and sophistication. "As a product, she is incredibly consistent—every album, stage performance, video, interview, and marketing deal," says Jonathan Mildenhall, chief marketing officer at Airbnb. "On top of that, she has something that not a lot of contemporary artists have, and that’s an understanding of how to evolve the brand. The brand of Beyoncé shapes and leads pop culture."
Beyoncé is unique. (It helps to be one of the world’s great singers and performers.) But that doesn’t mean we all can’t learn from her moves. Not unlike Steve Jobs during his triumphant stewardship of Apple, Beyoncé offers a window into a new, more modern way of approaching the marketplace.
The core of Beyoncé’s business is Parkwood Entertainment, a relatively small operation perched on an upper floor of an unremarkable office tower in an unglamorous neighborhood just south of Times Square. Parkwood’s employees quietly guide an enterprise that has an enormous impact: from music to film to ancillary businesses such as the exercise-clothing line Ivy Park that she recently debuted in collaboration with British retailer Topshop. Beyoncé is the CEO and has been known to sit in on meetings and walk from office to office to query her deputies on details of upcoming projects. "There’s nothing that happens in that organization, either businesswise or artistically, that Beyoncé doesn’t fully sit on top of," says former HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo, who helped negotiate the Lemonade TV special. (Beyoncé and her team declined to speak on the record.)
Though Beyoncé’s label, Columbia Records (a subsidiary of Sony Music), is a partner in Parkwood, the company still approaches business like a startup, leveraging its scale in all kinds of ways.
One of Beyoncé’s key vehicles is video. As digital culture has become ever more fixated on moving images—at a conference last fall, Facebook ad exec Ted Zagat said he thinks in less than two years the platform will be mostly video—Beyoncé has intuitively grasped the form’s power. "I see music; it’s more than just what I hear," she once said. "When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams, or my fantasies."
When Beyoncé released the "Formation" single in February, the accompanying music video made powerful use of imagery nodding to issues of police brutality and black pride, including a particularly pointed shot of a young, hoodied black boy dancing in front of cops who have their hands raised. "[It’s] clearly reminiscent of ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ and instantly strikes a chord in us that generates emotion," says Sophie Lebrecht, whose company, Neon Labs, analyzes images and predicts their virality. When people react emotionally to something, Lebrecht says, especially something visual, their instinct is to share it. And they did: A search for "Beyoncé Formation" on the GIF-indexing site Giphy yields more than 14,000 results.
Beyoncé has long experimented with ways to amplify video’s impact. With her second solo effort, 2006’s B’Day, she released an alternate "visual album" version that included a separate video for each track—something she would repeat with her self-titled 2013 album. In hindsight, it’s clear that Beyoncé was testing video’s potential, getting comfortable with the format in a post-MTV digital world as a way to expand her artistic vision and marketing muscle. Her 2008 song "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," with its Bob Fosse–inspired black-and-white video, is among the earliest—and biggest—examples of music-video-as-Internet meme, transforming the song from a hit into a phenomenon.
Lemonade is the next turn in this evolution, tapping name-brand music-video directors such as Mark Romanek and Jonas Åkerlund and collaborators like Serena Williams. "The role of video in pop culture is just going to get increasingly valuable for brands and content creators," contends Airbnb’s Mildenhall, who increasingly relies on video to help promote prospective rentals and offer information about neighborhood amenities. "Video is the most important form of content for any brand that has a narrative they want to share. [When there’s] a visual narrative, it goes deeper and deeper into your own psychology."
Two years ago, Beyoncé appeared in another video. This one, however, she would have preferred nobody ever watched. Security-camera footage from inside an elevator at the Standard Hotel in New York, obtained by TMZ, caught Beyoncé’s younger sister, Solange Knowles, punching and kicking brother-in-law Jay Z as Beyoncé stood in the corner. Much of the ensuing speculation about the incident focused on the possibility that Jay Z might have cheated on Beyoncé, prompting Solange’s fury. The incident was an ultrarare breach in the famously guarded couple’s personal life.
Most successful brands deal with public blowback at some point. Recently, Chipotle has been scrambling to overcome fallout from a series of food-poisoning incidents, while Facebook is battling the perception that its news-feed system privileges liberal content over conservative posts. There are lots of ways to deal with these kinds of PR debacles, of course—crisis management is an entire public-relations subindustry. But Beyoncé’s response to the elevator video has been a fascinating experiment in PR disaster–as-opportunity narrative redefinition—a transformation of lemons into Lemonade.
Though she hasn’t explained the genesis of Lemonade or how much of it is truly autobiographical, many Beyoncé fans have read it as an album-length exploration of whatever led up to the elevator incident (and its aftermath). A big reason Lemonade has connected is that it makes fans feel closer to Beyoncé—like they’re part of her struggles rather than outside observers. Sure, she’s made a great piece of confessional art, but she’s also, by opening up her life (or at least appearing to), changed the story: No longer are fans gawking at gossip; they’re now emotionally invested themselves.
The effect has been to reclaim all that bad press and retroactively use it as part of the album’s narrative. "The marketing for Lemonade started back in that elevator," says Kelly Schoeffel, director of brand innovation at advertising agency 72andSunny. "I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth [about what happened], and that’s part of the excitement of it all." What’s more, Lemonade has made Beyoncé—not previously known for self-revelation—more human, strengthening the bond with her audience. Beyoncé’s example illuminates the potential of redefining the narrative, as well as the deftness it takes to make it work.
In the process of repairing one PR problem, Lemonade ended up generating a whole new controversy. Beyoncé has always been a strong voice for female empowerment, but she’s generally avoided political topics in her songs. With "Formation" and Lemonade—as well as her February Super Bowl performance, during which she appeared with dancers in Black Panther–inspired garb who formed a giant X and raised their fists, Black Power–style—the singer embraced stickier subject matter, wading into the Black Lives Matter movement, police shootings of unarmed black men (the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner appear in the video for "Freedom," Lemonade’s galvanizing, modern-day Negro spiritual), and other subjects.
The backlash was immediate. Police groups organized protests and called for a boycott, and the FCC received a deluge of complaints, which the agency released online. "Up until last night, I was a fan of Beyoncé," wrote one typical disgruntled viewer. Beyoncé didn’t retreat, which made sense from an artistic standpoint—but also, counterintuitively, from a business one.
"Don’t alienate your customers" seems like one of business’s givens. But sometimes taking a stand is the right move. Sure, Beyoncé might have lost some fans over her political statements, but she also no doubt earned new ones. And the loyalists who remain feel even more bonded to her. "The thing she does really well is understand the importance of true movement-building," says Hugh Evans, cofounder and CEO of the Global Poverty Project, at whose Global Citizen Festival Beyoncé has performed for the past two years.
Target is going through something similar with its stand against transgender discrimination (the retailer announced in April that its customers could choose which bathroom to use based on their gender identity, a rebuke to the recent law in North Carolina). The ensuing outcry might hurt temporarily, but it is also likely to endear the company to customers who strongly support LGBT rights, contributing to a general sense that Target is a progressive brand worth patronizing. Harry Román-Torres, cohead of strategy at Droga5—which recently produced a campaign for Honey Maid that celebrated families of diverse ethnicities and sexual orientations—cautions that brands should only tackle polarizing issues if they have good reason to do so. "[Brands should] ask themselves, What’s my credibility in this space?" Román-Torres says. "What’s the currency we have in this, and what is my relevancy? If you don’t have those questions answered, then you shouldn’t touch these things." Beyoncé wasn’t just diving into a hot-button topic to get attention. She and Jay Z have demonstrated interest in these issues, joining a crowd of hundreds in New York for a 2013 "Justice for Trayvon" protest and reportedly spending tens of thousands of dollars bailing protestors out of jail during uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
At Beyoncé’s May 7 Houston concert, a police group protested nearby. Though a few news organizations picked up the protest story, it barely registered in the sold-out venue. The only visible sign of controversy was a quintessentially Beyoncéan reclaiming of the narrative: At the venue’s official merch tables—where fans scooped up posters and phone cases—the superstar was offering $45 T-shirts that screamed, in red all-caps block letters: boycott beyoncé. That ironic embrace of her detractors’ outrage might have been the loudest statement of the night.
Traditionally, the promotion around a product release has existed on a separate plane from the product itself. With Lemonade, Beyoncé blurred the lines between them—to the advantage of both.
For Lemonade, Beyoncé orchestrated a clever strategy that combined the HBO special, the surprise album release, and the conversation-sparking music videos as a cohesive string of smaller parts that added up to something much bigger. "She developed a concept," says Wieden+Kennedy managing director Neal Arthur. "Story line and concept become really important because it can play across different media. It played out on television. It plays out in video form. It plays out in social. It plays out in editorial." (It even plays out on the red carpet: At this year’s Met Ball in May, Beyoncé wore a dress that, according to much Twitter speculation, might have contained subtle references to Lemonade’s now-infamous villain, "Becky.")
As a result, Lemonade’s imagery, ideas, and sensibility have developed into its own brand—a shorthand for a certain emotional and cultural mind-set. In early May, Candice Benbow, a young doctoral student, made a free downloadable syllabus that lists hundreds of black and feminist authors and literary works to be used as a companion to Lemonade. Soon #LemonadeSyllabus was trending on Twitter, and 40,000 people downloaded it in less than a week.
Lemonade is bigger than a mere product: It’s a cultural space that fans feel a part of. That approach has proven highly successful for other brands, Apple being perhaps the most prominent example. Eyeglass purveyor Warby Parker, another practitioner, has created a recognizable sensibility—young, smart, design-driven—that defines everything it does. "We’re experience-focused but medium-agnostic, from the moment somebody thinks about the brand: their decision to shop, waiting on the frames to arrive, understanding that [if you buy a pair] another pair goes to somebody in need," says Neil Blumenthal, Warby’s cofounder and co-CEO. "Similarly, Beyoncé thinks about the entirety of the experience."
"Surprise!" With that single word—posted to her Instagram account at midnight on December 13, 2013—Beyoncé changed the music business. Accompanying the text was a video clip promoting the singer’s self-titled fifth album, which she’d just secretly dropped on iTunes.
It was a bold move for a superstar artist. No prerelease hype, no late-night TV appearances, no magazine covers, no advertising, no fanfare whatsoever. And yet this unusual approach was brilliantly tailored to the new realities of how information gets disseminated online. With hype-weary consumers increasingly wary of prerelease marketing, Beyoncé circumvented buildup fatigue by ditching it altogether.
In the days before the album came out, the singer’s team visited Facebook’s headquarters to negotiate a deal for the platform to alert users as soon as the album hit iTunes. The ensuing excitement felt like something new. "She’s changed the way superstar artists have looked at dropping music," says Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of brand marketing firm Translation and a former record-company executive who once worked at Columbia Records, Beyoncé’s label. "That element of surprise and getting it all at once—she found a way for artists to do that digitally." In the first 12 hours after the album came out, it was the subject of roughly 1.2 million tweets, and it became iTunes’ fastest-selling album of all time. Soon other big stars—including Drake and Kendrick Lamar—adopted the surprise-album model.
Of course, that sort of release works best for well-established brands—and it certainly helps if what you’re hawking is a genuinely great product. But the concept is really about something much broader: creating urgency. To make consumers covet a new product, brands need to convince them they’ll be missing out on a cultural moment if they don’t participate. It’s all about shared experience: Most people want to be part of the conversation.
Stoute points to Nike as a master of this strategy. The shoe company has learned how to build buzz by producing high-end, limited-edition sneakers that have fans queuing up for hours. Sales from these connoisseur offerings are less the point than the excitement that trickles down to the company’s mass-produced wares. In January, customers braved near-arctic temperatures in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, forming blocks-long lines just to snag a pair of Air Jordan Retro 2 "Just Don" sneakers (retail price: $650). Nike limits production to ensure the sneakers sell out fast—and get huge attention on Instagram.
With Lemonade, Beyoncé again created must-have excitement. Rather than repeating her previous album’s surprise release, she tweaked the formula, finding a new tactic by partnering with HBO for the special. As Steve Jobs proved, the best way to keep your brand relevant is to continually intrigue your customers. She even connected her high-wire project to cultural hotbed Game of Thrones, which had its season premiere on HBO the same weekend. Notes 72andSunny’s Schoeffel: "It is so hard to surprise people these days, you know?" But that’s exactly what happened.
When disruption hits, some businesses cling to the old, hoping to ride things out. Others race to the new without fully comprehending the implications. Beyoncé straddles both approaches.
The music business has been in a state of disruptive chaos for years, and lately, confusion has only accelerated as listeners have rushed to adopt streaming—leaving artists, labels, and music-download retailers struggling to adjust. In the same way Facebook and Apple use their clout to influence behavior, some music superstars have tried to push the industry in new directions. Taylor Swift yanked all of her content from Spotify in protest of its free-tier model, which she believes deprives artists of income. Other artists have signed exclusive deals that limit highly sought-after albums to a single outlet (such as Drake and Radiohead, whose recent albums were initially only available on Apple Music). Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, which came out in February, was originally intended as an exclusive on the streaming service Tidal. West tweeted that Pablo "will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale," which drove new users to sign up for Tidal. Six weeks later, West reneged on both promises, prompting a class-action lawsuit. "In the model of exclusivity, the fans get lost in the process," Stoute says. "Big companies are fighting for market share, forcing fans to make a decision by holding their favorite artists hostage."
Because she is married to Tidal’s primary owner and is herself an investor in the business, Beyoncé easily could have fallen into the Kanye West hole. But with Lemonade, she forged a smarter strategy. Nobody would have been surprised if the album had been a pure Tidal exclusive. But she realized that you don’t have to disrupt everything to be disruptive, and as aggressive as she’s been taking risks with her marketing, she’s also recognized that if you go too far, you’re more likely to cause problems than to reap rewards.
Beyoncé’s fan-friendly compromise: Though Tidal was the only place to stream Lemonade, it was widely available a short time later as a download on iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere. And unlike most HBO content, the Lemonade TV special wasn’t walled off from nonsubscribers either. That weekend’s programming was open to every cable subscriber, and Lemonade was also available via a 30-day free trial on HBO Now. The strategy worked. Beyoncé steered fans to Tidal, which attracted 1.2 million new users (including free trials) in the week after Lemonade’s debut; the album and its songs became iTunes best sellers.
Beyoncé’s career has had several inflection points where she’s boosted herself to a new level of popularity and cultural clout. Surprisingly, those moments haven’t always come when she’s reached out to the mainstream. Instead, she’s often defined herself by making unconventional choices.
Her first solo album, after Destiny’s Child had evolved into a pop-chart juggernaut, was a return to hip-hop and R&B, which both distinguished her from her group’s recent work and helped define the kind of solo artist she wanted to be. Lemonade, similarly, is not just a personal album in terms of subject matter; it also explores sounds and themes that are less targeted at broad audiences. She’s emphasized a distinctive artistic vision—not what focus groups and big data might predict—and it’s worked: People are talking about Lemonade not because Beyoncé is reaching out, but because she’s looking within.
It’s an approach that applies beyond the music world. GE vice chair Beth Comstock has recently grappled with a tension between her brand’s heritage and a desire to reach the broadest possible audience. The result has been a series of clever (and much-discussed) ads in which the company gently tweaks its own fuddy-duddy image—and in the process makes itself seem cooler. "For us it’s being comfortable with who you are," says Comstock. "We decided that at this stage as a company and brand, we’re just geeks. That’s who we are. I like the word vulnerable. You don’t think of that in terms of branding because everybody thinks brands have to be perfect: so packaged, so produced. And in some ways Beyoncé got that right—she’s so well packaged. At the same time, she exposed herself to some criticism. She’s opened herself up to a lot of scrutiny. Brands have to be more open—there’s a vulnerability. You’re saying to people, ‘Come with me, I’m going to go figure it out.’ People want to know you’re not perfect."
Multiplatform triumphs like Lemonade aren’t just rare for creative reasons: They’re also expensive. Creating an epic 65-minute film along with an album requires major front-end investment with no guarantee it will ever pay off. It’s a situation companies often face: Do we have enough faith in this vision to accept the risk involved?
Taking big leaps isn’t just about guts; it also requires careful planning. Beyoncé’s 2012 endorsement deal with Pepsi is a powerful example. She had worked with Pepsi previously, but this time broadened the partnership to include a multimillion-dollar "creative development fund" that she could tap for various projects—Pepsi-related or otherwise. Neither Beyoncé nor Parkwood have confirmed that money from this fund went toward Lemonade, but what’s important is less the specifics of the Pepsi deal than the foresight it indicates. As a business, you need to build the likely necessity of future risk-taking into your strategy from the start.
Beyoncé has avoided the kind of slap-your-name-on-it partnerships that many celebrities favor. Instead, she responds to opportunities where her marketing and cultural know-how can add legitimate value. Ivy Park, the line of stylish performance wear that she launched with Topshop in April, could have been a one-off collaboration, but Beyoncé opted to form a joint company, Parkwood Topshop Athletic—and she reportedly tried on each one of the 220 items herself during the design process. "It would have been easy for Beyoncé to jump on the athleisure bandwagon, quickly bang a collection out, and ride the hype," says Clare Varga, active director at U.K.-based fashion consultancy WGSN. "But they took their time finding the right designers from performance-sport backgrounds and invested in design and R&D. She’s playing a longer game."
Her discipline has prompted Beyoncé to walk away from deals, too. In late 2010, the singer pulled out of a planned video game called Starpower: Beyoncé because, she claimed, the developer had not secured the level of financing that she’d expected. That precipitated a lawsuit (which was settled out of court). She chose to deal with the controversy rather than attach her name to what she feared would be an inferior product.
As Beyoncé’s first stadium-only headlining tour continues across the country—with her perfectionism on glorious display—it’s not a stretch to wonder what her restless mind is planning to do next. How do you top Lemonade? What will be as electrifying, as unexpected and game-changing and awe-inspiring?
She isn’t the only one wrestling with those kinds of questions. Throughout the business world, marketers are looking at Lemonade’s success and wondering how to concoct something similarly effective and iconic. "We’re asking ourselves, ‘So what’s our Lemonade?’ " says Airbnb’s Mildenhall. "Because we don’t ever want to become predictable. Every time we engage with our consumers, our target audience, our community, we want to surprise them, to inspire them, to delight them. And we want to do it in a way that then drives a disproportionate share of popular conversation."
And that’s really what it all comes down to—owning the moment. Beyoncé’s vision and business acumen are inspiring people far outside the music world, challenging executives to up their game and offering an example of how they can better cut through the overwhelming information roar of our ever-noisier culture. "Since it came out, pretty much every creative presentation I’ve seen has had some reference to it," says 72andSunny’s Schoeffel. "It’s really interesting to see—overnight—a work of art just rock the way creative minds think. It gets your competitive and creative juices fired up. It’s made a lot of us pick our heads up and be like, ‘We have to try harder.’ "
A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine.