Three years ago, Scott made the 30 Under 30 based on his music credentials. Now he’s helping major companies rethink their brands—and changing how celebrities and corporations interact.
The afternoon after Election Day, Travis Scott pilots his Lamborghini SUV, a rolling hotbox, down Melrose Avenue, the thudding beats of his friend, fellow rapper Don Toliver, keeping him awake and aware.
Like the rest of America, he’s been following the vote totals (“Looks like Biden, right?”), and political discord seems everywhere, his Los Angeles streetscape largely boarded up. Hip-hop’s lyrical currency is metaphor, and Scott can’t help but notice the sight. “They’ve got to have understanding,” he says of those anticipating civil unrest that never came. “It’s bigger than these stores.”
Arriving at a recording studio, Scott seeks to clear his mind before getting to work. He grabs a basketball to avail himself of the hoop in the parking lot, sparks yet another blunt (a regular activity for him) and eventually pulls out a glass beer bottle filled with a clear liquid.
“Tell me what you think,” he says, handing it over. According to the plain white label affixed to the bottle, it’s a preliminary batch of Cacti, a forthcoming—and until now, top-secret—hard seltzer he’s been working on with AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer. This one’s purportedly strawberry; it tastes generally crisp and fruity. “We’ve got other flavors,” Scott says. “Like lime. I was actually just trying it. I kinda like it.”
Hey, what’s not to like when you’re Travis Scott? At 28, he’s arguably the most vital rapper in the world. Since making the Forbes 30 Under 30 three years ago, he has made us look smart, earning more than $100 million through chart-topping singles (“Sicko Mode”), a multiplatinum album (Astroworld) and the top-grossing rap tour in 2019. The latter is key: Scott is a famously raucous MC. Once he takes the stage, fans are “ragers” (his term), and he is “La Flame” (ditto), the spark that sets it all off.
What’s far more interesting, though, is how La Flame lights up the business world. For decades, celebrities have translated their renown into remunerative gigs as corporate shills. Then, for much of this century, fame instead yielded entrepreneurial opportunities far more lucrative than typical endorsements. Scott, to successful effect, has pursued a hybrid model in which he’s working with and within big brands, but in ways where he’s telling them what to do or say, rather than the reverse. “Those guys are allowing us to really dive in and create our own world,” he says.
Scott’s endorsement roster is formidable, ranging from brands that revel in their appeal to youth (PlayStation, Epic Games) to staid old brands that need to recapture it (General Mills, McDonald’s). Either way, he’s not interested solely in spiffed-up TV ads. For Epic, he conceived a new type of performance art, playing a live concert within Fortnite that drew 12 million viewers. For McDonald’s, he developed a Scott-branded menu item, one so popular the restaurant giant suffered a rare calamity: supply shortages. Not that the company minded much. “Travis is a cultural icon,” says Jennifer Healan, vice president of U.S. marketing for McDonald’s.
“The larger story here is that brands historically have told celebrities how to say their message. I think it’s very clear that Travis Scott and his team have gotten through to these brands that they have a very clear aesthetic, messaging and strategy,” says Blake Robbins, a partner at Ludlow Ventures, a Detroit venture capital firm that focuses on the overlap of consumer goods, media and gaming. “If he can make McDonald’s cool—the thing of pop culture right now—that’s the ultimate sign he’s made it.”
Before he was Travis Scott, the guy who could turn flash-frozen beef patties into zeitgeist fodder, he was Jacques Webster II, who usually went by Jack or Junior. He grew up near one of America’s most dynamic cities—in Missouri City, Texas, just outside Houston—but spent most of his childhood trying to escape to the bright lights of Los Angeles. To accomplish this, he decided, he needed “to use [my] imagination to the max. Like, the max.” His father, an amateur musician, taught him to play drums. (His uncle Travis, a musician, served as the source of his eventual stage name.) Scott first put those lessons to work in high school, performing in a string of rap groups with friends. While his dad tried to pursue music full-time, his mother kept things together with a job at an AT&T store. Scott’s smarts got him to the University of Texas at San Antonio, but his ambition, to his mom’s chagrin, drove him to drop out. L.A. would become home at last.
On StockX, a site for reselling luxury clothes, Scott’s kicks now sell for up to $22,500. “For the next generation of consumer, he has a tremendous influence,” says StockX CEO Scott Cutler.
Scott’s big break came via a cold email to music manager Anthony Kilhoffer. “I can usually tell an artist just from the way they write,” Kilhoffer says. “[Scott’s] intelligence level is super-high.” After listening to a few of his sample tracks, Kilhoffer arranged a production gig for Scott at Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. Scott learned by working on West’s Yeezus and Jay-Z’s Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail, focusing all the while on one thing: his own solo career.
In 2015, he released his first record, Rodeo, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s top-albums chart and eventually went platinum. At the time, Scott didn’t have the clout to release Rodeo as he had envisioned: in the toy aisle, on a USB drive, packaged with a Travis Scott action figure. “I had to settle for a jewel case,” he says, still apparently sulking. A year later, he pumped out another LP, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. It too rose to the top of the Billboard chart and went platinum.
As he toured to promote these albums, his performances garnered a reputation for their manic mosh pits, a febrile atmosphere Scott stoked from the stage. One night at a show in Arkansas, this won him the attention of the cops, who arrested him and charged him with inciting a riot (he later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct). More consequently, his antics brought him into the Kardashian omniverse, which mints fame and money nearly in lockstep. According to Rolling Stone, Scott’s performance at Coachella in 2017 commanded the attention and affection of Kylie Jenner, who at the time was leveraging her derivative fame into a marketing-driven cosmetics empire. She and Scott already had plenty of connections—among them the fact that Jenner’s sister, Kim Kardashian, had married Scott’s mentor, Kayne West, three years earlier. Within days of their first meeting, Jenner reportedly joined Scott on the road. The following February, their daughter, Stormi, was born. And Scott’s star wattage increased exponentially with his move under the Kylie-Kim-Kanye big top.
Scott won’t talk about Jenner or her extended clan. (He hasn’t always been shy about the subject. In “Sicko Mode,” he rhapsodizes about Jenner’s success—and a profile we wrote about her: “Baby mama cover Forbes, got these other bitches shook.”) The couple’s status is a mystery, though Jenner has posted pictures of herself, Scott and Stormi on Instagram over the past few months. No matter: The Kardashian fame machine had bestowed on him enough juice to permit him to enact his creative vision. In 2018, that meant bundling concert tickets, merchandise and a new album. Astroworld hit No. 1 upon its debut, with Scott’s marketing strategy turning heads. Its success gave him the confidence, with regard to corporate partnerships, to attempt an even more radical extension of his brand.
Scott’s first major move was a traditional go-to for both rap superstars and Kardashian family paramours: shoes. Kanye West was well on his way to a billion-dollar score, not from music but his Yeezy sneaker collaboration with Adidas. Scott, in turn, began working with Nike and its Air Jordan line on Cactus Jack, a sub-brand he created. Like West, Scott does much of the design work himself. Not so much as an eyelet gets altered without his approval.
Scott’s shoes have quickly become grails—quest-worthy must-haves for sneakerheads. On StockX, a site for reselling luxury clothes, Scott’s kicks now outperform even Yeezys, albeit at a far smaller volume. A pair of Travis Scott Nikes there regularly move for 400% of retail compared to the 60% markup Yeezys typically fetch. (Both cost around $200 a pair at retail.) One recent afternoon, StockX had a listing for a bright-blue pair of Travis Scott x Air Jordan 4 Retros for $10,000. A purple pair carried a $22,500 price tag. “For the next generation of consumer, he has a tremendous influence,” says StockX CEO Scott Cutler. “He’s advanced into the stratosphere within a few short years.”
Scott probably earns about $10 million a year or so from his Nike deal, but that figure belies its true worth. His shoes’ popularity has granted him tastemaker status. That, in turn, has led to more deals—and, most significantly, the standing to change the rules of celebrity sponsorships.
Take his partnership with Epic’s Fortnite. Haven’t ever led an assault on the Agency or razed storefronts on Retail Row? Then think of Fortnite as akin to the world of The Matrix. In the immersive online experience, Fortnite players customize their appearance and do battle across an island as competitors zap in and out of the game. Buoyed by his success as a live act, Scott pushed for a partnership in which he’d perform inside Epic’s virtual world.
He and Epic spent months going back and forth, the company sending emissaries to consult Scott at his Hollywood studio. (He did not visit Epic’s headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina.) By the end, they’d worked out a four-song, nine-minute set and chose an attention-grabbing moment to stage it: in April, just as the coronavirus was making clear that any sort of live event was out of the question for the foreseeable future.
In the performance, a digitally rendered Scott avatar stands 1,000 times taller than the players in the game, his bare-chested body shaped to Scott’s exacting specifications, down to the Cactus Jack x Nikes on its parking garage–sized feet. At the beginning, the colossus falls from the sky, bringing play to a halt—much as an immense extraterrestrial visitor dropping to Earth might briefly pause normal activity here. The performance ends with the debut of “The Scotts,” a new single recorded with Kid Cudi. “It was an opportunity to go to the max, to create a world that permits won’t let you do, fire marshals won’t let you do, building codes won’t let you do,” Scott says. “To have unlimited fun.”
Scott met McDonald’s supersized requirements for pursuing a celebrity partnership: He had an enormous cultural following and an authentic love for the fastfood restaurant’s grub.
The implications of his Fortnite concert quickly became evident. For Epic, it proved that the company was well on track to becoming more than just a maker of video games. For Scott and, really, the entire music industry, it laid a path to a new revenue stream. Scott likely earned close to $3 million for it, more than triple what his concerts typically gross. It showed that a virtual performance, once dismissed as a gimmick, could be as much an act of artistry as an old-fashioned live show. And it drove home the benefit of a closer relationship between brand and celebrity. “The landscape is changing,” says Epic’s Phil Rampulla, its head of brand. “You’ve got to bring something that’s awesome. Otherwise it’s, ‘That’s just an ad.’ And those things are just getting glossed over.”
With sales declining amid the pandemic, McDonald’s came to a similar conclusion this spring, realizing it needed something special to spark interest. When company execs spotted an Instagram post by Scott about a trip to the Golden Arches, they decided to link up with him, kicking off a series of Zoom meetings this summer. Most importantly, he met the company’s supersized requirements for pursuing a celebrity partnership: He had an enormous cultural following and an authentic love for McDonald’s grub.
The fast-food giant had been considering something along the lines of a branded celebrity meal and asked Scott to work out the details. He suggested a menu item based on what he’d been ordering at McDonald’s since his Texas childhood: a medium Sprite, a Quarter Pounder and fries with barbecue sauce. Scott next worked on the TV commercial, hand-drawing animation for it and writing a portion of its script, including the now-popular line “Tell them Cactus Jack sent you.” He also negotiated the full rights to and developed an array of merchandise including a blanket, boxer shorts, T-shirts and hoodies. There was a McNugget-shaped body pillow, too. Scott and his Cactus Jack team even designed apparel for the McDonald’s crew. Scott says McDonald’s took a little convincing to enact his vision. “After a while, they allowed us to do it,” he says. “Ended up working out.”
Yes, it did. And it was compelling proof that Scott is peddling something that sells. McDonald’s debuted the meal in September, and its U.S. same-store sales, a key indicator of a restaurant company’s health, swung from a 8.7% drop in the second quarter, at the height of virus lockdowns, to a 4.6% gain in the third, due at least in part to the Scott Meal. Forbes estimates Scott earned at least $5 million from the traditional endorsement part of the deal and another $15 million from merchandise sales, collecting on the deal for the merch rights that he worked out for himself. “We’re super-thrilled with the demand this partnership created,” says McDonald’s Healan.
A month after McDonald’s put him on the menu, Scott unveiled a new partnership, this one with PlayStation, another deal from which he earned at least $1 million. As with all things, Scott likes to maintain an air of mystery—the better to fuel discussion about whatever he’s selling—so details about his work with the game-console manufacturer remain scant. A PlayStation press release said only that Scott had joined the company as “a strategic creative partner” to “produce innovative projects that we hope will delight.”
Back in Hollywood on the basketball court, a half-stoned Scott is no more forthcoming. “It’s all going to roll out in the next couple of weeks,” he promises. A source later says that it’s a multiyear deal that could involve a co-branded console and perhaps even a game designed by Scott. Expected earnings: $20 million or more.
As Scott’s jump shot swishes through the net, he pauses and calls to one of several large guys—it’s never clear precisely how many—who follow him around. They are there, seemingly, both to provide security and ensure that he actually arrives wherever he needs to go. In fact, they have an additional purpose: “Can I get some Backwoods?” he asks. They’re also on hand to keep Scott well-stocked with blunt-making supplies. One of the big guys withdraws from his pocket a pack of thin cigars—Backwoods brand. Scott plucks one out, expertly re-rolls it with a healthy dose of marijuana inside and lights it, inhaling deeply as if he needs to wax extra-philosophical for a moment.
“I don’t think utopia is about high currency with everything being like, a money thing,” he says. “I think it’s about people being naturally happy. The society we’re living in right now, it’s super-depressing in a sense of everything that’s happening in the world.”
Forgive him: He’s been thinking a lot lately about utopia, he says, and why America doesn’t resemble anything like the image in his head. Why is it on his mind? Well, his next album is tentatively titled Utopia, and he seems determined to wrestle with the topic. The record is due out next year, though the release date is an open question given Scott’s bundling strategy and uncertainty over when large-scale live concerts might recommence. Lately, he says, he finds himself thinking about stories like that of Sandra Bland, the Black woman from near Houston who in 2015 ended up in jail over a traffic stop and was found hanging in a cell two days later. Utopia must be “about less self-hate,” Scott declares from within a cloud of smoke. And something else: “It’s about opportunity.”
For Scott, the next step toward opportunity means more ownership. All told, a source in the Scott camp claims Scott is on track to bring in more than $100 million in earnings this year through creative corporate partnerships, much of that delivered through branded merchandise. That puts him in the upper echelon of pitchmen, in terms of both income and creative impact. Without ownership, though, he’s not rich, just very well-paid. After all, he had a front-row seat to witness the mother of his child sell 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics to Coty for $1.2 billion.
Which brings us back to the mysterious drink in the glass bottle, the strawberry-flavored Cacti beverage. Hard seltzer is a popular category in the liquor business, particularly among young people who also dig Travis Scott and his music. Plenty of his hip-hop peers have gotten rich from booze: Jay-Z did it with D’ussé Cognac. Ditto Diddy with Cîroc vodka. A spokesperson for Scott declines to give details about AB InBev, but all signs seem to indicate a partnership, which would be a natural evolution of Scott’s La Flame endorser-consultant model.
“Right now,” Scott says, keeping matters intentionally vague, “we’re so locked in and we’re so ambitious on the next level—to just show people what we can do.”
-By Abram Brown, Forbes Staff