People tend to underestimate brilliant strategies for a number of reasons – they seem too simple, or it’s something that “just happened” and couldn’t have been planned. Strategic genius is even harder to spot when examining one phase of a longer term strategy in isolation, something that happens quite often. I would argue that one of the best examples of underrated and misunderstood strategies being executed right now is coming from Miley Cyrus. It’s one of those, “if you don’t get it, you aren’t meant to and that’s part of the plan” kind of deals. Let me explain.

Before jumping into the twerking tongue phase, we have to go back to the start, sometime after “Achy Breaky Heart” but before the VMAs.  Much of the Miley discrediting has focused on her age, that at 20 she’s too young to understand “the business”. Well, ‘they’ are right, she is like any other 20 year old, except this one has lived for the past decade working in and around the music and television industries, be that throughout her father’s Achy Breaky days or as Disney’s Hannah Montana. I think we can agree, 10 years experience within any business will give someone more than a basic understanding of its workings.

So you might be thinking sure, she’s an extremely savvy 20 year old with more than 10 years experience in the music industry, that doesn’t automatically make her a skilled brand strategist. It’s a fair assumption, but I believe Miley has already proven you wrong.

To understand the strategy of Miley, you have to start with her comments from the recent MTV mini documentary, The Movement. When talking about her approach, she mentioned that everything she does has been thought through and serves a purpose, she went on to say, “Everything we do has to be a moment. If I’m going to do it, it has to be the best, so every detail seems much more magnified to me”. It’s fairly obvious that these are not the musings you would expect to hear from a child caught up in the moment, trying to act out publicly for attention.

Thinking of Miley as a brand, you can begin to see the challenge she faced when trying to  transition from a very defined and controlled property under an umbrella brand (Disney) to a new and independent entity. Trying to retain a current customer segment while growing into a new territory is a challenge many businesses face and many fail at. This is at the core of the strategy: aligning the brand with the overarching mindset or life stage of the audience.

As Hannah Montana, Miley amassed young fans within a certain developmental phase, specifically young adolescence. These fans were in the process of defining their identities and establishing role models. The issue for Miley was that new fans were entering the target range (early adolescence), but older fans were growing out of the range and into middle and late adolescence. The Miley brand didn’t have anything to offer these fans and they scattered off to other artists. Essentially they were brought along a path, and as they reached a point of becoming high value customers (independent, personal income) they were gift wrapped and handed to a competitor.

Miley was adamant that ‘We Can’t Stop’ would be her lead single on the new album, and wouldn’t have it any other way. This was a signal to all those fans who had entered into those final stages of adolescence that Miley was growing with them, that she understands what they’re going through. It’s not a new approach for an artist to tap into the teenage rebellion, but few have had the foresight and self awareness  to position themselves so perfectly with their audience. As the flood of letters and disgust pour forth from upset parents, they only fuel the brand. Miley isn’t meant to appeal to them, if she did, her strategy would have failed. Everything she does screams classic youth rebellion, from the outfits she wears to her haircut and recent photo shoots, it’s about giving her fans the ability to push away from parents and earlier role models (including Hannah Montana) and create their own identity. The fact that commentators are saying things like “she’s confused” or “She’s just finding herself” means they are focused on one phase of the strategy in isolation, and it’s hardly the last one.

What Miley has successfully done (so far) is a controlled burn of her career, something other former Disney stars were not able to manage. By controlled burn, I mean control over the beginning and end of specific phases of her career, and creative control of the delivery and mediums that she’s goes to market with rather than allowing others to dictate it for her. Extrapolating this strategic approach, you can assume that over time Miley transition into the final developmental stage with her audience as they move into adulthood and begin producing music that speaks to an older and more mature audience.

It’s no surprise that parents watch the transformation of their young children’s idol and transpose their concerns and fears onto their own offspring, but with every negative comment and ‘open letter’ they inadvertently validate a brilliant and well executed strategy. Personal music taste aside, we are watching a skilled tactician at work and as strategist I find it very entertaining in and of itself, all other shenanigans notwithstanding.