After 12 years on the air, Ru Paul’s Drag Race has finally sashayed its way to the top, winning the hearts of viewers, and now marketers. Lee Beattie, chief executive at John Doe Group, explains why the show’s rise as a media property is an inspirational example of what can happen if more brands look beyond the same old demographics and take unconventional routes to market.
It’s Thursday. And this means I can’t look at Twitter from 6pm in case of spoilers. My WhatsApp is already popping off. A message lights up on my family group: “We’re watching at 9pm, bitches, don’t be late.” It’s from my mum.
She’s talking about the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK – the scrappier, bawdier and funnier spin-off from the US cultural phenomenon. The show sees drag queens compete to be named as the next drag superstar, and the popularity of this year’s series has been co-credited with securing BBC Three’s move back to a proper broadcast channel.
In 2015, RuPaul (the show’s host, producer and most successful drag queen in the world) told the Guardian that drag would never become mainstream. And while it’s not for me to disagree with Mama Ru lightly, the climbing viewing figures of the Emmy award-winning US version coupled with the runaway success of Drag Race UK test that statement.
So how did this happen? How did a niche cable TV show become a global sensation – and what can brands learn from the journey?
In Sex & The City, Samantha Jones once said that there was a three-step formula for breaking into entertainment. First win over the gays, then the girls, and then the industry. And over the years Drag Race has ticked all three of these boxes.
Too many brands talk about ‘building communities’ rather than ‘nurturing them,’ but at the heart of the global Drag Race brand has been a simple understanding of how to nurture, leverage and then maintain relevance with a fandom.
Entertainment has not historically been made for LGBTQ+ communities. Instead, we have been stupendously good at co-opting things and drawing subtext where we can, but it has rarely been made to represent us, or tell our stories with any diversity or depth. Moreover, the stories that are told have often focused on our trauma at the exclusion of much else.
So, when Drag Race came along in 2009, dripping with pop culture references, rich, diverse stories, and teachable moments from our history – all tied up with a massive bow of positivity – it quickly established an emotional connection with a ready-made community that was already hungry for joyful, authentic content.
And the producers fed us like greedy little puppies. They offered us spin-off formats, podcasts, stage shows, tours, books and merchandise. The writers served up enough catchphrases to launch a million trending memes. And the language of the show infiltrated everyday conversations to the extent that fans can recognise each other in seconds simply from their reaction to a very loud “Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeee.”
Globally the fandom became advocates for the brand. The show brought people together online, in bars and on family WhatsApp groups to talk about it, share hot takes, make fan-art, vlogs and podcasts – and in turn they influenced the broadening of the fanbase to include (mainly) cis-het women.
And once the cis-het women began to show up weekly, the celebrities and the column inches followed. Major Hollywood stars are now guest judges and the Queens have sashayed from the LGBTQ+ press into everything from Vogue to The New York Times to The Sun and BBC Breakfast news.
But even now that Drag Race has crossed over, the show has stayed true and relevant to the core fanbase. Rather than the format adapting for a broader audience, they are instead invited into our world to explore queer themes in an unfiltered way. For example, in the current UK series, we saw a rare, positive conversation between two non-binary queens trending globally across Twitter. This was followed by reams of press coverage quoting young people talking about how much the episode helped them come to terms with their own identity. As Bimini Bon Boulash, the hot favourite to take tonight’s crown, said: “How nice was it to hear two gender non-conforming people discuss identity politics without Piers Morgan.”
By solving a problem for a marginalised community and serving them authentic, universal stories in a new way, Ru Paul’s Drag Race has become a multi-million-pound empire with the kind of fan loyalty that most companies can only dream of. It’s an inspirational example of what magic could happen if more brands were willing to look beyond the same old demographics and take more unconventional routes to market.
Lee Beattie is the managing partner and chief exec of John Doe Group. She is also #TeamBimini and tweets at @leebeattie.