The Rise of the Weeknd – Mystery and Online Marketing

November 6, 2014

Written by Paul Monno


The progression from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 has opened a whole new playing field for brands and marketers, the new rules of the game dictate that brands need to be open and interact with their community much more than traditionally (Wind, 2008; Winter, 2009). However, what happens when brands ignore these rules? Is it possible to generate buzz and community engagement online with the minimum of communication and information? What are the roles of mystery and anonymity in marketing in the Web 2.0 environment?

On December 12th 2010, a blog run by R&B singer Drake released a mysterious song by an unknown and unsigned singer. The only information given was the name of the artist and song, ‘The Weeknd - Loft Music’. The post created a lot of buzz and confusion with members of the blog who liked the song, but had no idea who they were listening to. Two months later, on 24th of February 2011, a YouTube channel called xoxxxoooxo released a video of a new song by the the Weeknd called ‘What You Need’. The video contained just a black and white image of a woman’s legs with the song playing in the background. This video was followed up by another video 2 weeks later called ‘Wicked Games’. This new video was just as mysterious as the last, containing only the blacked out face of a man (fig. 1). By now the buzz surrounding the Weeknd had exploded online.


Wicked Games video

Wicked Games video

Figure 1: The accompanying image for the ‘Wicked Games’ video (xoxxxoooxo, 2011)

Moving forward to 2013 and the identity of the Weeknd has been revealed as 20-year-old Canadian rapper Abel Tesfaye. His rise to success in the music industry since 2010 has been astonishing, but even more so is how this success was achieved. Abel was able to create his own image and grab the attention of major record labels through the use of social network sites and word of mouth; however, the story of the Weeknd’s rise to success is not one of someone playing by the rules of online marketing and winning, but rather someone who bent the rules of the game to still come out on top.

Online Presence – Don’t Tell Anyone Anything

Finding the Weeknd online in the early days was difficult, since the misspelling of their name didn’t lend itself to productive SEO, with search engines autocorrecting the search term and directing users to results for Canadian 90s pop-rock band The Weekend. Yet, setting aside their disregard for SEO, the Weeknd understood the importance that existing on social media sites had when trying to engage consumers and create awareness for their group (Armelini & Villanueva, 2009; Hoffman & Fodor, 2010). YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr were all utilized to promote the Weeknd; YouTube allowed them to upload their music, Twitter to release ambiguous lyrics from their upcoming mixtape and their Tumblr blog helped develop their visual aesthetic. During the peak of their early hype, one music journalist labeled the Weeknd’s marketing campaign as being “to be on every social networking site, but not to reveal basic facts about himself” (Ahmed, 2011). Mystery marketing was used to a great extent by the Weeknd, to give consumers constant access to the group, whilst also giving them no opportunity to learn or get close to them.

The Weeknd’s choice to remain anonymous online and follow the route of mystery marketing played two key roles in generating online buzz; it allowed for differentiation whilst also helping to develop their authentic image. At a time when many artists and brands are embracing the transparent capabilities of the internet and implementing a campaign of “the-more-they-know-us-the-more-they’ll-like us” (Fournier & Avery, 2011), the Weeknd stood out, by using the internet to release cryptic messages to confuse and shock their consumers. When their debut mixtape was released, the only online promotion used by the Weeknd was a single photo on twitter (Fig. 2).

House of Balloons tweet

House of Balloons tweet

Figure 2: Tweet to promote the release of debut mixtape (@theweeknd, 2011)

Furthermore, their anonymity online also played another major part with creating an authentic image of the group. In an industry where having an authentic image is paramount to an artist’s success, hip-hop artists constantly try to secure their authenticity with their listeners. For a new 20 year old rapper who wanted to create a persona of partying, excess drinking, drug-taking and womanizing, efforts had to be a made to ensure that his private life and professional life remained separate to make certain no contradictory information could be leaked. No awkward high school photos on tumblr, and no tweets about staying home and eating pizza on a Friday night could be released as to break this authentic image. However, the separation of personal and professional personas on the blogosphere can be difficult, and members often resort to blurring the line between each (Pihl, 2013). Yet, by ensuring that their identity was kept a mystery online, and that their tweets and tumblr posts remained focused on the music, users were not able to doubt the authenticity of their art. The band’s Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube posts didn’t reveal anything that would take attention away from their music, or contradict anything they rapped about in their songs.

Community Building – Don’t Listen To Anyone While They Talk

Mentioned by Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden (2011) the aim of online marketing is not just to reach your audience through social media, but to also engage them. And through the use of mystery marketing the Weeknd were able to engage their audience by creating constant speculation and conversations about the group amongst the online music community (Christodoulides, 2009; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Members were able to create their own stories based on the group and their music, the mystery around the group allowed members to debate without ever being able to reach a consensus. In addition to debating this group’s background, community members also used their “expert” knowledge to analyze the production of their music and speculate which famous producers the Weeknd were working with. All this time when conversations and debates were happening in online forums, the Weeknd never took to twitter to clear up any questions their users had.

Following the rules of online marketing once more, the Weeknd utilized the power online community members have in creating cultural value and attracting new members to their music (Cova & Dalli, 2009; Muniz & Schau, 2011). Although the group would go on to receive praise and awards for their music; it was the initial enthusiasm and effort of the music community that got the group attention. By releasing their music for free and relying on word of mouth to spread their name, the Weeknd took a major risk. They could not be in control of what the community would be saying about the mixtape, and the community might have quite easily killed their young career by spreading negative reviews about their debut project online and refusing to share download links with other members (Armelini & Villanueva, 2009; Hoffman & Fodor, 2010; Akar & Topcu, 2013).

Although in some aspects the Weeknd’s use of social marketing was conventional, in other areas they appeared to be following a very traditional perspective on marketing their brand. Aside from their emphasis on keeping a mysterious online presence, there was also a lack of co-creation and dialogue between the group and the consumers. The group refused to take the recommended route of engaging with their audience; listening to what was being said by the community, gaining insight to what they wanted and possibly co-creating with other unsigned talent (Barwise & Meehan, 2010; Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy & Silvestre, 2011; Fournier & Avery, 2011; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Rather their approach was much more pushed based, almost leveraging their brand (Fournier & Avery, 2011), the group had their theme of mystery, drugs, sex and partying and were pushing it onto the community. Through their tweets, their music and the images they posted on Tumblr, it was clear from the offset that the Weeknd had designed their group around a certain lifestyle and were going forward with that image. The risk here was that the community was not going to buy into this life style, and forcing an unwanted message onto an online community can be a failure for many brands. However due to the mystery surrounding the Weeknd and their relationship with the music industry, pushing their image onto to the community only helped to further increase the buzz and perception of authenticity surrounding the group.

Relationship with the Industry – Just Say No

For almost two years the Weeknd remained unsigned and were seen as being independent and outside of the corporate machine, this is turn greatly helped to generate buzz and gained them credibility within the community. Consumers are attracted to brands which give them a sense of discovery, and allow them to feel as though they have made the brand; by remaining unsigned and giving away their music for free to their fans to share, the Weeknd was able to position themselves as being part of the tribal culture (Cova & Dalli, 2009).

As noted by several authors on social media marketing, corporations find it extremely difficult to enter into conversations online without seeming intrusive, their participation can often be seen as inauthentic and pushing a product (Fournier & Avery, 2011; Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2012). However, by remaining an independent artist who was releasing their music to the community for free, consumers got to discuss the Weeknd in an organic manner and had the feeling that the music they were listening to and talking about was cultural property that belonged to everyone, instead of to a private individual (Cova & Dalli, 2009). In fact, being without a label was so beneficial to the Weeknd, that they released three free mixtapes online in one year. When asked about this campaign in 2014, the Weeknd’s managers announced that “The music industry seems to run a lot on hype. Abel [The Weeknd] wanted to see where things would go with his songs living on their own merits” (Ugwu, 2013).

In 2012, after having signed a record contract with Republic Records, the Weeknd released an apology letter to their fans via their website, explaining why they chose to sign to a major label and how he is struggling with moving into the mainstream (Tesfaye, 2012). The risk of signing to a major label and becoming corporate was clear to the group, their brand was built by being independent, being unknown and belonging to the online community. By signing to a major label, the Weeknd had already begun to lose many characteristic that had helped in their rise. Their music was no longer released for free, and the mystery and discussion surrounding their identity had ended. The worry was, by creating this mysterious, unreachable online identity and refusing to play by the rules of social marketing had the Weeknd created a short-term brand (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Did they have the staying power to exist in an offline setting? Although still in the early stages, signs look good, when Abel released his debut album ‘Kissland’ in September of 2013, the album sold more than 96,000 copies in its first week and reached number 2 on the Billboard Charts, just behind established country singer Keith Urban with 98,000 copies (Morris, 2013).


What the rise of the Weeknd shows us is how young brands, whether they are corporations or artists don’t necessarily have to play by online marketing rules to succeed. By being independent and offering his music for free, Abel did not need to be transparent, since users had no reason to distrust him and were risking nothing by consuming his music. Furthermore, by using mystery as a marketing strategy Abel was able to engage his audience and push his own image. The community had enough to talk about and the harder it was to create a dialogue with Abel the more the discussions increased. Moreover, by remaining anonymous he was able to remain undeniably authentic, nobody knew any information that could detract from his core offering, all the community had was his music to discuss and create stories around.

The future discussion is how sustainable is mystery marketing in the long term once the brand becomes successful and moves into an offline setting. Pihl (2013) stated that the characteristics that are attached to a personality when they first emerge online usually remain with them throughout their career. It would be interesting to see how the Weeknd are able to continue to market themselves as being mysterious and unreachable now that they are no longer unknown and independent to the market.


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