Consider the rollout of Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean” the anti-surprise release: bucking the current trend of big pop projects issued with little to no forewarning, the 21-year-old has preceded the highly anticipated new single with a month-long social media extravaganza.
Beginning on July 29, when Bieber announced the title and Aug. 28 release dateof the lead single from his new Def Jam album (which sources tell Billboard is due out on Nov. 13) on Ryan Seacrest’s syndicated radio show, the pop star has commissioned at least one celebrity per day to hold up a sign teasing the new track and counting down the days to its release. Big Sean, Halsey, Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have all held up signs and appeared on Bieber’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds. Ed Sheeran taped a ’17 Days’ sign to his chest while playing guitar, Tony Hawk skateboarded in a video with 13 days left and Shaquille O’Neal was called out for misspelling Bieber’s name with 24 days to go. With one week left before the song’s release, Bieber posted pictures of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Gigi Hadid and Carly Rae Jepsen all holding up ‘What Do You Mean’ signs and helping to stoke anticipation.
Scooter Braun, Bieber’s manager and head of SB Projects, tells Billboard that the idea for the “What Do You Mean” social media campaign came together in the days prior to last month’s single announcement. “We were doing Knock Knock with Ryan Seacrest,” says Braun, “and I was like, if we launch the single on this day, it will be 30 days beforehand when we see you. And I want to start a countdown. I love countdowns.”
Following Bieber’s radio show appearance, the singer snapped a photo of Seacrest holding up a sign teasing “What Do You Mean’s” release in 30 days. “I wrote him that sign and I made him hold it,” says Braun. “I was like [to Justin], ‘You should put it up on your Instagram, and we’ll try to do a new person every day.’ Then I started reaching out to people, and everybody was down. It just kind of happened.”
“He’s got a big Instagram [following] and is shouting them out, but they’re also rooting for him,” Braun says of the artists in the campaign. “They want to see him win, and they’re encouraging him through their participation. I can’t tell you how easy it’s been, because of all the good will people have towards him. There’s been a real sentiment of, ‘All right, young man. Let’s kick some ass.’”
On Wednesday (Aug. 19), the rollout kicked into high gear when Bieber direct-messaged different lyrics from “What Do You Mean” to 49 randomly selected Twitter followers. Each message included a clock animation with a different time that corresponded to the lyric’s placement in the song, and Beliebers spent Wednesday collectively piecing together the upcoming single’s lyrics in order.
Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels says that the extensive “What Do You Mean” rollout reflects the nature of the “music, visuals and overall creative marketing” of Bieber’s next studio album. In other words: “What Do You Mean” is only the beginning of a months-long Bieber blitz.
“Sure, a surprise element adds excitement,” says Bartels, “but we are confident that the anticipation and sense of community we’ve built through our strategic marketing initiatives will outweigh the popular ‘surprise release’ trend.”
The past few weeks of teasing “What Do You Mean” have also given Bieber an opportunity to rehearse the song live, shoot its corresponding music video (which was completed, along with a new lyric video, earlier this week) and to finish the rest of his as-yet-untitled album. The “What Do You Mean” campaign has been “so much fun” for Bieber, says Braun, but the pop star’s real prize is the release of his first proper full-length since 2012’s Believe.
“He’s more excited and anxious about the album coming out,” says Braun. “He’s worked on it so hard, and it really is a body of work in which he opens up in a way he’s never done before. I think that there’s a truth in this music that he’s never exposed. When you’re baring your soul, once you finally get it on wax, you just want the world to hear it, to know it exists. You’ve made that move of being willing to say it, and I think he’s just anxious for the people to hear this music.”
Some of the artists that have participated in the campaign — Jepsen, Grande,Tori Kelly and Dan + Shay — have standing business relationships with Braun and his SB Management company. For the most part, however, Braun says the social posts have come as the result of a quick text message to longtime friends, from Ashton Kutcher to Ellen DeGeneres to Fifth Harmony, who have all been featured to Bieber’s 66.6 million Twitter followers and 36.8 million Instagram followers over the past month.