Marketing

Dixie Schtick: Miranda Lambert's Business Empire


Photograph by Boru O’Brien O’Connell

Miranda Lambert doesn’t start side businesses the way most people do—by figuring out what she’s good at or sensing an unmet need. “I don’t even know what’s in style,” says the multiplatinum country singer about her latest project, a shoe brand named Miranda by Miranda Lambert she launched in June in tandem with her fifth album, Platinum. When Lambert was designing the line, her manufacturing partner told her that crystal-bedazzled boots—which are also platinum—might be too intense for the shoppers at DSW (DSW), a discount store that carries her collection. So she had a sample pair made in her size and has been wearing them onstage and in photographs for months. “I just decided we’d see what people start responding to,” she says.

In the decade since her first album made its debut at the top of Billboard’s country charts, Lambert’s had some practice getting people on board with her personal brand. She’s also proven she can plop her personality—blonde, concealed-weapon-carrying, feisty, down-home fun—on virtually anything. She runs two Pink Pistol retail stores, one where she lives in Tishomingo, Okla., and the other in the tiny town of Lindale, Texas, where she grew up. (She named the boutique Pink Pistol in 2012, she says, by combining her two favorite words.) In August she’s opening a bed-and-breakfast in Oklahoma. Her wine company, Red 55 Winery, will soon be distributing nationally, to complement her Miranda Lambert coffee. She’s also signing a deal to put out a clothing line of affordable jeans and T-shirts next year, followed by a similar endeavor for dog accessories. “I’ve always said I want to build an empire,” she says during a stop in L.A. to see a taping of NBC’s The Voice, on which her husband, country singer Blake Shelton, is a judge. “I don’t think my empire will be in New York City in a high-rise. My empire is more of a backyard circus tent.”

“My empire is more of a backyard circus tent”

​Her timing is right: Country music is now America’s most popular genre, outpacing classic rock for the first time​ last year, according to research firm NPD Group. Lambert, 30, and Shelton, 38, have risen to become the industry’s most powerful couple. Depending on your age, they’re either the new Faith Hill and Tim McGraw or the new Johnny Cash and June Carter. Lambert earned $8.8 million in 2013, according to Billboard, placing her 36th among all musicians. Shelton took in $10.3 million. She won’t share revenue figures for her dozen or so nonmusic projects, but Lambert’s on track to out-earn most country artists in record sales alone. Her new album sold 175,000 copies in its first week, topping the Billboard 200 and putting her in the same ballpark as other country-pop crossover artists such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Those two stars still sell more albums, and Swift has a popular line of perfumes, but Lambert’s the only one reaching their shared fan base with tank tops that say things such as “Southern Mess.”

Many women buy the shirts to wear to Lambert’s concerts, where the audience—about 75 percent of whom are female, mostly young, often in sundresses and boots—pump their fists as she strums a guitar and belts out songs of empowerment from behind a microphone stand made of an old shotgun. The showstopper at her performances is usually Gunpowder & Lead, which is about an abusive relationship:

His fist is big but my gun’s bigger
He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.

When Lambert was 16, music agent Joey Lee heard her demo, then called to tell her to stop by if she were ever in Nashville. “A month later, the receptionist said, ‘There’s a girl out here to see you,’ ” Lee recalls. “She comes in all by herself and puts her boots on my desk, crosses her legs, and says, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ ” After Sony (SNE) said it wanted her to go with a different producer than the one she chose, Lambert, then 19, told the president of the record company that she was going to wait three years until her contract expired and make her album with another label if he didn’t change his mind.

This nerve is apparently inherited. When her mom, Bev, was approached by a winery offering free bottles for one of her daughter’s tours, she got an idea. “I didn’t know jack about wine,” she recalls. “But I said to my husband, ‘Hey, babe, we’re in a dry town. Let’s see if we can get a license for a winery.’ ” They soon discovered that Governor Rick Perry had passed a law allowing the Texas Department of Agriculture to classify wine as a souvenir, then started selling Crazy Ex Girlfriend sweet white muscat at their daughter’s fan store.

When Lambert was 6, her parents’ private-eye/nanny-referral business collapsed. They lost their home and car and had to move in with a relative. When they restarted the business a few years later, they lived mainly off vegetables from the garden, along with rabbits and chickens they raised. “It’s a that-will-never-happen-again-type deal,” Lambert says of her empire-building. “I can’t tour my ass off forever.”

Early on, ​the singer stayed away from endorsement deals, which can overwhelm a singer’s persona. “We kept the brand clean,” says Marion Kraft, her manager. After turning down contracts with an acne treatment and a soft drink, Lambert did her first commercial in 2007 for cotton. (“Endorsing cotton is like endorsing fresh air,” Kraft says.) Now Lambert shills for Pedigree dog foods, with proceeds going to MuttNation, her dog-rescue charity. She chose Crystal Light to sponsor her most recent tour and created the Randa-rita: Bacardi, raspberry lemonade Crystal Light, and a splash of Sprite Zero, a recipe that spread quickly among young women on Pinterest. When she was 19, Lambert told her team she was going to wear only vintage T-shirts, nothing too fancy or branded. Today, on her day off, she’s in a pair of American Eagle jeans with several big holes and a black T-shirt from Target. She’s forgotten to put on the sparkly boots she fought to have made, which are selling well at retail.

“She’s, like, ‘I’m not going to give up beer and barbecue to look thinner.’ There’s nothing polished or fake about what she’s doing,” says Corey Isaacson, who works with celebrity brands as a partner at marketing agency Walton Isaacson. “One of the girls in our office said, ‘There’s no way she’d put out a shoe that wasn’t looking out for me.’ Talk about brand affinity.” Lambert’s wisely cashing in on this young following while she’s young, too, a reality she indirectly references in one new song, Gravity Is a Bitch. Most of her resulting money, she says, is stably invested in real estate, including a 700-acre ranch she bought 10 miles from her house in Tishomingo.

Photograph by Boru O’Brien O’Connell

After Lambert moved there in 2011 to live with Shelton, she got the idea to open her first Pink Pistol. “I wanted to put down roots. And I like to go junkin’,” she says. “Now it’s nothing like a junk store at all. It evolved into what it was supposed to be.” Shoppers can sign the floor and get a root beer float from the pharmacy soda fountain, near a sign that says, “All shoplifters will be prosecuted and tweeted about. I have over 4 million friends on Facebook (FB).” Her mom describes it as “a five-and-dime on crack.” Misty Walker, the manager of the Oklahoma store, says its credo is to sell stuff Lambert would like. “We sell too many wine glasses,” she says. “The W doesn’t work on the cash register anymore.”

The Pink Pistol doesn’t have a website, because Lambert wants to draw people to the towns. “The first two weeks we were open, we had people come from 22 states to Tishomingo,” she says. Several stores have opened nearby, and she bought a building for $180,000 for her bed-and-breakfast that she plans to paint pink. The main street of Tishomingo (pop. 3,100), which was almost all boarded up before the store opened, no longer has any vacancies, and parking is tough on weekends. It’s an idyllic small town seed-funded by someone who sings about idyllic small towns.

Occasionally Lambert has had to fire people who stole from the stores, which was difficult since her employees are usually ardent fans. Now that she’s found people she can trust, she instituted her management style: There’s an inspiration board for employee ideas and “Mirandatory Fun Days” when she takes the staff on overnight trips. Lambert often reminds employees that profits aren’t crucial to her bottom line. “I have a job. I make money,” she tells them. “There’s a bar called Judy’s right down the street. I had a wooden sign made that says, ‘S— hit the fan. We’re at Judy’s.’ We’re not saving lives.”

Lambert recently had an idea for a new business, a hotel made up entirely of Airstream trailers. And a few days ago she told her husband, who started doing Pizza Hut (YUM) commercials last spring, that Tishomingo needs a bait shop and that he should open it. He quickly replied: “I would never want to be as exhausted as you.”

Stein is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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