The Genre Crossover

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” –– Walter Lippmann, writer and journalist

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” –– Walter Lippmann, writer and journalist

Genre is one of the most powerful marketing tools available for reaching niche audiences. Yet many people fail to realize that using genre to promote and sell products is not creative. It’s lazy.

Indolent marketers use genre to make assumptions about the success of a product, brand or content, and about the target audience. When marketers rely on genre, they sacrifice creativity; when brands rely on genre, they risk becoming cliché. They unknowingly alienate prospective audiences while pigeonholing existing ones.

Now more than ever, marketers need to pay attention to the genre-less audience of the digital era. The non-conforming. The consumers that refuse to fit in predefined boxes. Genre limits marketers from putting in the effort to keep creativity alive, to generate fresh ideas and to attract new audiences, especially the younger generation. Millennials and Gen Z not only forego genre categories in entertainment, they apply the same approach to other aspects of their lives.

Old-timey brands and marketers must adapt their products and strategies to appeal to a generation of genre-fluid consumers.

Genre limits marketers from putting in the effort to keep creativity alive, generate fresh ideas and attract new audiences.

Market to diverse audiences without relying on genre

Derived from the French word for “class” or “kind,” genre is a system of classification used to categorize works of art, literature, film, music and theatre. People generally rely on certain conventions and tropes to define various genres and sub-genres. In an age where digital reigns supreme, marketers and brands need to embrace unconventional, hard-to-categorize ideas. Companies like Netflix and Spotify are leading the pack already. Their success is partly because streaming services cater to the “mixed-format consumption habits” of audiences, according to Carrie Battan, a staff writer for The New Yorker.

She also explains that many digital platforms “do not consider any sort of formal taxonomies,” so they don’t bother with the genre gatekeeping that we experience with traditional media. This defocus from genre-based content and marketing is not only embraced by streaming services, but it is also evident in how artists like Taylor Swift reinvent themselves. Her transition from country singer to pop star is a perfect example of how blurring the lines of genre can help advance a person’s ambitions and dreams while earning them profit.

Harness the power of reinvention

In June 2006, Swift made her debut with “Tim McGraw,” a single from her eponymous album. In a matter of weeks, the country song went platinum and ranked in the Billboard top 10.

This release also marked the last time Swift released an album that strictly abides to one specific genre. Over the span of five albums, she switched her musical identity from that of the country girl next door to America’s pop sweetheart. Her reinvention did not come easy. In the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she points out that beyond changing her musical style, she also needed to shed the “good girl” narrative that she was known for. Breaking her silence on politically charged topics is one way she presented her new, authentic self to the world. Swift was warned by her label and loved ones that all these changes could jeopardize everything she worked so hard for. It was a gamble she was willing to take.

It paid off. Beyond album sales, Swift was able to pave the way for new artists who want to break away from specific genres and experiment with different sounds.

The power of reinvention and the blurring of genres isn’t limited to the entertainment industry. It’s a common trend in politics and culture. Malcolm X is a prime example of how the ability to recreate our own selves can result in a powerful legacy. He wore many hats in his short lifetime––an entertainer, a petty criminal, an intellectual, a minister, a human rights activist––each identity requiring him to transform himself by any means necessary.

During his Detroit Red phase, he played drums at jazz bars under the stage name Jack Carlton. However, to get his political and religious views across, he had to reassess his musician identity. During his incarceration in the 1950s, he spent time working on his transformation. Malcolm’s willingness to pivot his identity is one of the key factors in his designation as one of the most influential figures in history. As Manning Marble writes in his book, The Reinvention of Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself.”

As a Black man, his message and experiences with poverty and racial injustices resonated with Black people in the U.S. and in Africa. As a Nation of Islam leader, his views on religion connected him with Muslims across the world. Up until his assassination in 1965, Malcolm, later known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, remained a non-conformist who never stopped challenging the status quo.

Swift and Malcolm X are two strikingly different people from different worlds. Yet they share some commonalities. Both of them made deliberate moves to throw off the shackles of genre to become prominent figures in world culture. Even in the face of adversity, they both dared to reinvent themselves by taking risks. In doing so, they were able to reach levels of creativity, passion and authenticity that made them transcend social, cultural and artistic boundaries, further catapulting them to prominence. While there is no special formula for reinvention, creators, brands and marketers can draw inspiration from the way these famous figures challenged the different systems of classification.

Marketers can step out of the confines of genre and the siloed thinking that comes with it if they’re willing to continually adapt, improve and challenge themselves.

Continually adapt, improve and challenge yourself

Breaking from the confines of genre doesn’t necessarily mean one must fully disregard tradition. It just means that one should be willing to break the rules in order to progress, create something novel and be more inclusive.

The topic of ditching genre is more important than ever today. As the world embraces the Black Lives Matter movement, many companies and marketers are shifting away from the archaic structures that have both intentionally and unintentionally sidelined Black creators. Republic Records is an example. The label recently announced it will remove “Urban” from its music categories, because the company no longer wanted to “adhere to the outdated structures of the past.”

Republic Records executives believe that changing the verbiage will open up more opportunities for artists, especially Black musicians, to experiment with different types of sounds like their white counterparts. This change is also expected to give more marketers, promoters and radio stations the freedom to share works by Black artists outside of the R&B and hip-hop realm.

In marketing and communications, genre fluidity can be applied to how we approach strategy, how we design our teams, and how we adopt and exercise tone and style to our writing.

1. Mix up the skills and experiences of teams to break down silos. Encourage collaboration among people with different personalities to generate a blend of approaches and ideas that lead to success. Creating teams of T-shaped people is one solution.

2. Promote a culture of experimentation and challenging tradition. Make it very clear to employees and clients that your teams aren’t afraid to push the limits.

3. Foster an environment of diversity and inclusion. Give women, people of colour, neurodivergent people and people with disabilities a seat at the table and encourage them to contribute ideas. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be limited to just HR practices and policies; it should be extended to the day-to-day culture of the workplace.

When we reduce our thinking to fit within the boundaries of genre, we’re supressing our ability to generate original ideas and solutions. After all, conformity kills creativity. As marketers, we need to create spaces where we can push the limits of our creativity, even if it’s risky business.

It worked for Swift and Malcolm X. It’s working for Netflix, Spotify and Republic Records. It can work for you, too.