Selling Cheryl Cole

The marketing campaign behind Cheryl Cole has helped to make her this year's pop sensation. Elisa Bray reports
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The Independent Culture

She scored the fastest-selling single of 2009 so far and sailed to the top of the charts last week with her debut solo album, 3 Words. The successful launch of her solo career marked the culmination of a phenomenal year for 26-year-old Cheryl Cole, cementing her status as national treasure. Having notched up seven million album sales in the UK, a massive 20 consecutive top 10 singles, two number one albums and four Brit Award nominations with the pop band Girls Aloud, Cole's debut solo performance on The X Factor broke audience records for the show, drawing close to 15 million viewers.

Look beyond Cheryl Cole's extraordinarily high profile – her appearances on the covers of tabloids and upmarket magazines, her berth in Girls Aloud, her marriage to the Premiership footballer Ashley Cole, her role as judge on The X Factor, and most recently, her ongoing stint as the cover girl of L'Oréal – and you'll find a carefully plotted marketing path leading her to the chart summit.

As record labels continue to suffer poor sales – album sales were down six per cent last year – and face limited resources for marketing their acts, combined with the demise of the high-street retailers (Zavvi and Woolworths) that stocked pop releases, they are forced to conjure up ever more creative ways of targeting fans. The internet and its download revolution, although responsible for the drop in sales, has simultaneously paved the way for creative marketing opportunities, via social networking sites like MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Twitter, and online retailers Amazon, and iTunes.

Fascination Records, the Universal-linked label behind Cole, made the most of such sites for their promotion of Cole's album, providing incentives to fans across the online retailers. Amazon were given 200 signed albums to sell, had personalised calendars, Orange had signed lyrics, iTunes had an exclusive track, a digital booklet and a remix bundle, while offered a shopping trip to meet the star. Peter Loraine, general manager at Fascination said: "We had to make sure we were catering to every fan out there. Every outlet felt involved and excited about the release – no one was left out. There is less money to spend these days and you have to be more creative with fewer resources."

Cynical as it may sound, it was also about capitalising on the fact that Cole is the celebrity of the moment, watched by 14 million people weekly on The X Factor.

"She is a phenomenon of the moment," says PR expert Mark Borkowski. "There is a time and place for opportunities driven by The X Factor. Marketing is built to capitalise on the moment. With every level of pop, it's going to be transient. It's about harvesting the brand at its prime, and knowing their sell by date is firmly tattooed on their arse. There's no long term future with Cheryl Cole. You drill your marketing through the ears listening at that moment in time to the music. They're sinking the drill into the deep well and sucking up the crude while it's where it is."

Aside from the profile and fame factor, there is another aspect that made Cole's marketing that much easier; her personality. She boasts a quality that has won over so many of the nation's hearts and made her so likeable; empathy. You see it each time she bursts into tears on The X Factor, prompting the sense that she feels each contestant's nerves. "I have always been like that. It's not nice to watch someone squirming. You want to prevent people from suffering," she has said in an interview. It's these attributes which create a star.

"You have to have the personality," says Borkowski. "Crucially it's authenticity. She's real, she's vulnerable, she was treated appallingly by her husband, and there's an honesty that her fans like while everyone around her is trying to be something else. You can dress and style her any way, but she is who she is, the ultimate north-east girl next door."

And it's this open aspect of her character that Fascination were able to capitalise on. In keeping with her down-to-earth humility, Cole isn't afraid of getting involved with her own marketing. Not only did she have to sign the 200 albums for Amazon, but she invited her fans to ask her questions for a live webcast via Myspace last month. A video-making competition on Bebo offered a prize of an interview with Cole, while she answered questions put by Twitter users on her own website.

The multi-tiered marketing strategy applied to 3 Words is no different to other releases. Peter Robinson, founder of the pop website, says: "It's a very well executed campaign, but there's nothing out of the ordinary about it. With any label there have been creative elements in terms of marketing and advertising, but it's no different to a Snow Patrol release. It depends on whether the artist is a household name. A lot of things depend on grabbing people's attention, and with someone who has a big profile, it can go directly to the fans. More interesting will be when Nadine Coyle releases her stuff next year. Until two years ago Cheryl had the same profile. Nadine doesn't have the television show, so it will be interesting to see the marketing campaign around that."

Cole's biographer, Sean Smith, whose book Cheryl is out now, agrees. "What's poor Nadine going to do? She sang most of the Girls Aloud records, but she's in danger of doing a Gary Barlow. With Cheryl's marketing, they're choosing the things that will catch the attention of young people at the moment. Alexandra Burke does The X Factor one week and has a number one single and album, Cheryl does it, and it will be interesting to see if JLS do the same. It's such a carve up, but who cares?"

And the result? At time of going to press, Cole's album had shifted 160,000 copies, 125,000 of which sold in the first week. Martin Talbot, of the Official Charts Company, said: "For the single to have achieved what it has, given the competition – Alexandra Burke and Robbie Williams – is fantastic. The beauty of online and social networks is that not only can the labels connect directly, but they can build excitement among fans. You can now buy music immediately after you hear it which means promotion can be that much more powerful."