Anyone who works with brands should care about Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road“. It was the song of the summer, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks. As a meme artist, Lil Nas X intuitively understood how to create the conditions for fame, giving the song the best chance of catching fire in digital culture. Marketers should take note — it’s a master class in fame campaign mechanics.
Fame is money for brands. When a brand does something surprising and creatively interesting enough to enter the cultural conversation, it gains market share as much as 11 times more efficiently. Unfortunately, there’s no reusable formula for it. What made something famous this year won’t work next year. It always takes creativity (and a little luck doesn’t hurt).
How Fame (Often) Works
There’s no guarantee that something will be famous, but three conditions typically have to be met: appeal, social diffusion, and mass exposure. For something to be famous, we have to like it, talk about it, and have a chance to be aware of it. And Lil Nas X carefully cultivated every condition.
Theories explain the workings of fame, but they can be hard to grasp without real-life reference points. A successful brand campaign can make a great test case, but pop-cultural phenomena like Old Town Road can be just as educational.
The song has appeal, fitting perfectly into the psychological Pleasure-Interest Model of Aesthetic Liking (PIA model). In simple terms, people enjoy culture that feels familiar, but they also like when it sparks their interest. Lil Nas X blended country and trap music in a way that felt familiar but fresh to fans of both genres. On social media, he connected the sound with a look – the growing yee-haw agenda. It worked. When Wired’s review called “Old Town Road” “both familiar and strange to the ear,” we can see the PIA model in action.
2) Social Diffusion
Lil Nas X relentlessly promoted social diffusion, seeding over 100 different memes for “Old Town Road” in digital communities over a period of months. Most marketers know Jonah Berger’s 6 STEPPS for word of mouth, but information cascade research shows that the network itself also matters. Culture spreads better among groups of individuals who are well-connected and open to new ideas. By seeding in high-sharing networks like Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok, Lil Nas X increased the chances of person-to-person sharing at scale.
3) Mass Exposure
Finally, the song benefited from key mass exposure events. In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson coined the term “dark broadcasts” for these unseen moments of mass exposure that are often the true cause of viral hits. Lil Nas X cultivated exposure from TikTok influencers first, which spiked streaming numbers among other TikTokers. Listing it on less competitive country charts earned it early exposure. Then, it earned even more attention from the controversy around being de-listed from country charts. An early social share from Justin Bieber was a stroke of luck, but it was built on earlier dark broadcasts.
None of these tactics guarantee fame, but they do increase the odds. Brands have taken notice, and are starting to emulate this approach. Netflix’s recent Bird Box campaign, especially its use of Twitch influencers for the Bird Box challenge, shows that they can succeed with them. Others are sure to follow.
Brian Williamson is a Strategy Director at Critical Mass