What Brands Can Learn from RuPaul’s Drag Race

If a brand is the ultimate representation of the sum of all it’s parts, then RuPaul Andre Charles is nothing short of the ultimate personal brand. Emerging from the underground scene in the 80’s to become a mainstay of the LGBT cultural landscape, RuPaul is revered and respected for pioneering the crossover of illusion-based cabaret from fringe culture to the pop culture phenomena it is today.

Sadly, season seven of his eponymous hit reality TV show Drag Race (America’s Next Top Model meets Project Runway, meets the Miss America pageant for drag queens) comes to a conclusion this evening on Logo TV. While Drag Race owes much of its success to the cast of characters, tightly edited episode format, and featured appearances by superfan celebrities, make no mistake that the real star of the show is its charismatic and telegenic host. Fans and critics universally credit RuPaul as the central force behind Drag Race’s wild popularity, making it an excellent case study on how to create a global brand phenomenon.

So what are the lessons brand marketers can learn from Drag Race?

Create an Emotional Connection
Storytelling has become a coveted staple for brands, as a content marketing strategy that aims to bring the brand narrative to life. And nowhere is this done better than Drag Race, a show that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve, creating a voice for a segment of society that has historically been marginalized. On any given episode the storytelling is fearless, showcasing countless examples of drag queens tackling difficult emotional demons that range from abandonment issues, bullying, body dysmorphia, and relationship abuse. Known as mama Ru amongst the queens, RuPaul’s compassionate advice and sometimes tough love is never off hand, always delivered to inspire and motivate. By creating a platform that encourages self-expression where no subject is taboo, contestants are allowed their own narrative arc that lasts well beyond their TV shelf life. And in the process, the viewer establishes a powerful emotional connection with the Drag Race brand – not just because it’s fun, quality entertainment, but because it’s authentic.

Loyalty, Likes and Superfans
One could argue that a show with an admittedly niche following needs to try twice as hard as its counterparts to sustain mainstream loyalty. Little has changed over the seven seasons, and they say that the hallmark of any good brand lies in its ability to deliver a consistent brand experience. Fans devour the zany mini-challenges and catty banter zealously, with each episode culminating in the pinnacle of expectations: the lip-sync battle. The most visible enhancement of the production has been around the adoption of social media. Catchphrase hashtags and quotes from the drag queens now appear on-screen as an inherent part of the show to generate buzz online. Then there’s the ultimate nod to fan loyalty – allowing viewers to take part in deciding the season winner through likes and tweets, creating an inclusive, participatory experience where fan recognition rules. Brands, take note.

The 3 C’s: catch phrase, cult following, cultural zeitgeist
Like any TV show that’s ever managed to influence popular culture, Drag Race has provided us with an ever-evolving vernacular of catch-phrases, witticisms and “no-you-didn’t” style backchat that’s become legendary. From ‘kai-kai’ and ‘what’s the T?’, to ‘throwing shade’, the show and its cult following of ardent fans have embraced the lingo wholeheartedly, succeeding to create a special sort of cultural zeitgeist that transcends mainstream audiences, both gay and straight. In an era when every brand craves attention, constantly cooking-up gimmicks with the hope that they catch-on like wildfire, Drag Race doesn’t need any word-of-mouth trickery, because it already gives the viewing public something that’s worth talking about.

One content size does not fit all
The ubiquity of content marketing has given birth to an entire sub-industry dedicated to helping companies master the art of delivering the right content to the right audience through the right medium. Part of the success of Drag Race, has been its ability to spin-off original content – both official and otherwise, to connect with audiences through different vehicles. We get Untucked, a behind-the-scenes deconstruction of the previous evening’s episode that airs on Logo TV. Then there’s Oh Pit Crew, fronted by Season 5 drag superstar Detox and Whatcha Packin, hosted by series judge Michelle Visage created specifically for the YouTube audience.  There are the usual social channels offering bite-sized content to fuel the fan dialogue. And of course the plethora of fan-produced chat shows and panel commentary, which churns out self-made content to continue the dialogue well beyond the screening of each season.

The Cross-sell and Up-sell
For countless brands, the opportunity to cross-sell and up-sell to consumers is a revenue stream too lucrative to ignore, and brand RuPaul is no exception. This side success may owe thanks to its marketing vehicle, as not every brand will have a showcase with the same enormous reach. Nevertheless, I admire how promotional merchandise is integrated into Drag Race through the use of clever motifs. We all dislike the hard and fast sell, but what if the latest single you wanted to plug was the show theme for an entire season? Or the prize for the mini-challenge win included gifts from a certain own-brand cosmetic line? We come to expect branded apparel as a given these days, but how about a mobile app where you can download animated gifs and emojis of the queens? The promotional opportunities aren’t just commodity based; the inaugural DragCon event wrapped up last month, and the winner’s tour has been a permanent fixture for cabaret venues worldwide for several seasons now. And to top it off, rumor has it that the UK will be getting its very own version of Drag Race, coming to a living room near you in the not-too-distant future.

But back to the season seven finale, where we spare a thought for the triumphant finalists. In the end it all comes down to whether you’re #TeamGinger, #TeamViolet or #TeamPearl. Who will I be rooting for during the final? Now that would be telling. Instead, I’ll leave you with the infamous words of RuPaul himself:

Gentleman, start your engines. And may the best woman win.


Image credit: Ru Paul’s Drag Race

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