The Business of Being Beyoncé, According to Harvard
In late September, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse certainly grabbed everyone’s attention when she revealed that she and former student Stacie Smith were writing a case study on Beyoncé. Available now at HBR.org, the study was revised and published last week, and as promised, Elberse uncovered the real business behind being a global superstar.
The study itself looks at how Beyoncé and her team pulled off the ambitious, costly campaign behind her secret self-titled “visual album” that dropped last December—all while making the tactic seem very blasé. In doing their research, Elberse and Smith spoke to executives who work firsthand with Beyoncé at the superstar’s company, Parkwood Entertainment, as well as folks at Facebook, Apple, and Columbia Records, which partners with Parkwood.
Of course, the very act of considering what it’s like to be Beyoncé is surely beyond mere mortal comprehension, but after picking up a copy of the study, we did our best to break it down. Here’s what we learned.
First, Beyoncé is the president of her own company—she’s her own boss. Parkwood’s executive president Lee Anne Callahan-Longo told Elberse and Smith, “She challenges every single person who works for her. It is always ‘Well, why can’t we? Let’s try.’’’
Parkwood’s head of world marketing says, “She is sure enough of her own place in the artistic pendulum that she is willing to take risks… We work for a woman who has no fear.”
As a true artiste, Beyoncé was clear from the start about her vision for the album: the record will be released as a complete work, it will avoid being leaked, and each song will have a music video. A bossy request, but nobody says “no” to the closest reigning queen of America.
Next, it was time to figure out how to execute. Apple was a token partnership because making the album exclusively digital would avoid leaks. In the study, Robert Kondrk, Apple’s vice president of iTunes, described the launch as “something that only iTunes can do… We want to bring Beyoncé to millions of fans in 119 countries at the exact same moment and let Beyoncé tell an incredibly immersive story with the album and videos.”
As for Facebook, their role was to make sure every person on social media knew about it. Charles Porch and Jonathan Hull of Facebook’s “Public Content” group were the playmakers.
According to the study, “Even though they weren’t aware at the time that Parkwood planned to include a video for every song on the album, Porch and Hull recommended using a yet-to-be-launched Facebook feature called AutoPlay, which made it possible for videos to be played automatically in users’ news feeds.” And yes, by the way, you can turn off Autoplay on Facebook.
All that hustle and bustle came down to the album release, which was kept top-secret until that very day. Considering how Beyoncé’s iconic pink-on-black cover is now tattooed forever in our brains—the rest is history.
Anita Elberse and Stacie Smith’s complete case study on Beyoncé is available at hbr.org.