"Savage is really about taking complete ownership of how you feel and the choices you make,” Rihanna told Vogue last week. “Basically making sure everybody knows the ball is in your court."
From her multimillion-dollar cosmetics line Fenty Beauty to her iconic collaborations with Puma and now her Savage brand, the singer is setting new standards for brand partnerships in the music industry -- all while working on a new reggae album. Forbes estimates that the star banked $12 million in 2017 (one-third of her pre-tax earnings that year) from her fashion ventures. Fenty Beauty -- notable for featuring 40 different shades of foundation to accommodate different skin tones -- racked up $27 million in earned media value within just one month of launch. Annual revenue for Fenty Beauty is on track to surpass those of rival lines like Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics and Kim Kardashian's KKW, according to Slice Intelligence.
How does Riri do it -- and how do her peers in the music business stack up?
A rep for Rihanna declined to comment, but sources tell Billboard that Roc Nation’s CEO/co-founder Jay Brown is one of her secret weapons, overseeing her deals. Rihanna first signed with Roc Nation’s management arm in 2010, and later joined the firm’s in-house label imprint in 2014; Roc Nation hired new president of management Phil McIntyre just a few weeks ago, allowing Brown to turn even more of his focus on Rihanna, sources say. But because Rihanna is leveraging her own brand to sell her products, she's directly involved in every step of the design and manufacturing process, and goes above and beyond to pull back the curtain for her fans -- visiting facilities, picking out color palettes, filming DIY makeup tutorials and regularly seeding previews of upcoming products on her Instagram account, which boasts 62.5 million followers as of press time.
“One thing that’s always stood out to me is how unapologetically human Rihanna is,” Aleesha Smalls-Worthington, senior brand director, marketing & e-commerce at Scotch Porter and former digital marketing exec at Iconix Brand Group and Roc Nation, tells Billboard. “Whether in person or on social media, that element of humanness is still missing from a lot of relationships and interactions. Many celebrities set up their business objectives based on the 10 million views or $10 million in sales they want in return. Rihanna’s ‘return’ is simply what her fans want from her: inspiration, aspiration, a piece of Ri. That in all-caps spells HUMAN.”
A huge competitive advantage for Rihanna in the current brand landscape is her focus on diversity and inclusiveness in her products. According to Slice Intelligence, African-American, Hispanic and Asian shoppers comprise the largest proportions of Fenty Beauty's customer base, while white shoppers are the brand’s smallest consumer group.
Rihanna's successful launches with brands like Puma and TechStyle also highlight a key discrepancy between the high-end fashion brands that artists tend to cite in their lyrics -- e.g. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Valentino -- and the types of deals that actually lead to meaningful, sustained revenue for artists and a closer, more accessible relationship with fans.
“Every single artist I’ve talked to wants a Gucci deal,” Marcie Allen, president of music experiential agency MAC Presents, tells Billboard. “Guess what? Unless you’re The Rolling Stones, your fans can’t afford Gucci. Most of the artists coming up today are younger, and their key fan demographics are Gen-Z and millennials. Last time I checked, my stepdaughter who’s Gen-Z is not going out and buying a Gucci bag. I tell these artists, you can wear Gucci all you want, but you also need to work with brands your fans can afford."
In fact, for artists with avid online followings, making products more affordable could actually lead to more aggregate spending and income, not less. According to Slice Intelligence, Fenty Beauty consumers spend an average of $471 annually on makeup, outpacing shoppers of Kat Von D who spend $371, KKW shoppers who spend $278 and Kylie Cosmetics shoppers who spend $181 -- a testament to how an eye for diversity and accessibility, plus unparalleled cultural clout, equals an unstoppable driving force for business.
Normally, music partnerships with fashion brands involve the artist and their team receiving a flat fee or commission to license music for advertising, and/or to be featured in official ambassador programs that brands already have in place. Depending on the turnaround time, payments can start as low as $10,000 for one to two days of production and social posts.
But deeper, more integrated deals like the ones Rihanna and Roc Nation are brokering also involve equity and royalties on unit sales, in addition to steep upfront fees. Sources tell Billboard that A-level artists can command advances as high as $2 million for each branded clothing and footwear line, plus anywhere from a 7- to 15-percent cut of gross sales.
"If I can do your job better than you, I can't hire you. That's a waste of my money and time," Rihanna said at Vogue's Forces of Fashion conference in Oct. 2017. "But if you have something to offer, I know there's an expertise that I can respect and I put people in place based on what their strengths are … I'm only as great as my team, and I pay very special attention to that.”
Rihanna was first appointed as Puma’s creative director and global ambassador for the brand's women's collections in Dec. 2014. Her first branded sneaker, launched in May 2016 for $140 a pop, sold out in just 35 minutes.
Though Rihanna's appointment with Puma arrived amid a flurry of other corporations hiring celebrities as creative directors and chief creative officers, in a mutually desperate attempt to increase brand exposure -- Lady Gaga and Polaroid (2010), will.i.am and Intel (2011), Alicia Keys and BlackBerry (2013), Justin Timberlake and Bud Light Platinum (2013), Nick Cannon and RadioShack (2015) -- Rihanna retained her branding power even as most "creative directorships" proved to be unfeasible and shut down within just a few years.
“From the artist's perspective, the title of ‘creative director’ is actually very limited,” Mara Frankel, senior creative director, brand partnerships at Atlantic Records, tells Billboard. “Brands aren’t going to change their entire media-buying strategy to suit what artists are looking for, and artists aren’t really meant to work for brands in that way because they want to focus on being in control of their own music and art. This can lead to a less authentic relationship, which could be why some of these deals didn’t work out in the long term.”
Part of Rihanna's outsized branding success comes from her reputation and devoted following online. According to Nielsen Music’s N-score talent tracker -- which assesses endorsement potential for U.S. celebrities across 10 attributes, and which brands rely on to maximize ROI on their campaigns -- Rihanna outranks the average music celebrity on marketability with an overall N-Score of 78, compared to the music average of 65. On the “Stylish” and “Trendsetter” attributes in particular, Rihanna outranks much of her competition at 48 and 35 respectively, compared to the music norms of 26 and 19.
In addition, Rihanna fans are 3.7 times more likely to purchase from Rihanna herself than from other celebrities, according to research from The NPD Group -- which reflects a wider trend across the industry of artists becoming the new influencers of note for retailers. “It used to be that all these fashion houses were seeding their products only with social-media and YouTube influencers, but now, there’s a huge paradigm shift towards artists,” says Allen. “You used to see an actor or model like Kate Moss as the face of a Gucci campaign, not Harry Styles.”
The major labels are growing their own brand partnership teams, which are dedicated to securing strategic deals for their artists that drive both visibility and market share. The types of deals range from product placements in music videos and sync licenses for commercials to private events and tour sponsorships. Fashion has become one of the hottest partnership targets, as clothing and beauty brands naturally cover an expansive amount of real estate, from social media and TV campaigns to billboards and brick-and-mortar stores -- compelling some industry experts to call retail “the new media.”
While some in-house label departments handle merchandising and e-commerce directly for their artists, like Universal Music's Bravado, third-party fashion deals continue to flood the marketplace like never before. SZA, Metro Boomin, Future and Cher have all appeared in Gap commercials over the last nine months. Justin Timberlake debuted his branded Air Jordans during his Super Bowl Halftime Show performance in Feb. 2018; just this week, Nike launched another special-edition Air Jordan shoe with Travis Scott. Gucci recently tapped Harry Styles as the face of its upcoming tailoring campaign, while Lil Yachty, A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$ all have their own capsule collections with Nautica, Guess and Urban Outfitters, respectively.
“The landscape is extremely competitive right now,” says Allen. “I’m pitching artists to brands every single day and telling them, ‘Listen, in two months, you won’t be able to get this artist for less than half a million dollars. If you don’t jump on this artist now, you won’t be able to afford them down the line.’ My biggest advice to brands is to listen to your peers in the industry, and not to underestimate the importance of being part of an artist’s career when they’re on the rise.”
Of course, no one celebrity or even a large management company like Roc Nation can pull off an entire product launch alone, which is where TechStyle comes in as an invaluable partner for Savage x Fenty. In a similar vein, Fenty Beauty is tapping into Kendo Holdings, a division of French conglomerate LVMH that has incubated products with other celebs like Kat Von D, for manufacturing and distribution.
In the fragrance world, Parlux Fragrances handles manufacturing and distribution for Rihanna and Jay-Z, while Elizabeth Arden handles logistics for the likes of Shawn Mendes and Britney Spears -- the latter of whom still makes an estimated $50 million from fragrances alone every year.
“What Rihanna’s doing right now is creating a dominating mix of products that she knows she has the right to be a resource and creative authority for,” says Smalls-Worthington. “You have a lot of celebrities trying to put a square peg in a round hole, but Rihanna's going wide and deep in a smart way: carefully studying her consumers and how they express themselves across multiple touch points, and delivering on that expression in an inclusive way, without forcing anything. Her products are empowering people to express their best versions of their best selves -- to get a piece of Rihanna without sacrificing who they are as individuals. She’s set herself up in a way such that she is it, and her consumers also want to be it. And I don’t think she’s done yet.”