What David Bowie taught me about marketing

Photo via NPR
Photo via NPR

I thought I’d wait until all of the Internet tributes for David Bowie had passed before I published this post. But here we are, nearly a week after Bowie’s death, and the tributes, remembrances and reflections continue to stream in.

Which should come as no surprise. After the Beatles, David Bowie was perhaps the most influential musician in the history of rock music. “What Elvis meant to America, Bowie meant to Britian and Ireland,” U2 lead singer Bono said. “He was a radical shift on U2’s consciousness.”

Bowie was a huge influence on me and millions of other fans as well. His single “Space Oddity” was the first 45 record I’d ever purchased (I was in junior high school). A few years later, I traded my treasured copy of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid for a friend’s copy of Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs. Not an album typically listed among Bowie’s greatest works, but it holds a special memory for me. And I think I got the better end of the trade.

Last Monday, when I learned via social media that Bowie died of cancer on Jan. 10 at age 69, I was numb at first, then heartbroken. And I thought of that lyric from “Space Oddity” and how strangely fitting it seemed.

“Strangely fitting” seems to be an appropriate phrase for Bowie and his success. He was an amazing showman who influenced the genres of glam rock, punk rock and new wave but never falling into those categories. He created for himself strange personas that, no matter how odd, struck a chord with disenchanted youth everywhere.

For marketers, Bowie’s music, movies, life and legacy provide some valuable lessons.

Stand out

Some might attribute much of Bowie’s success to the shock value of his costumes and stage presence. But for me and many other American youth of the 1970s, we heard Bowie’s music before we encountered his stage personas.

When he hit it big with the single “Space Oddity” in the early ’70s, there wasn’t another song quite like it on the charts. It was an eerie, dissonant tune — with a quirky yet familiar title — that served a cautionary tale during a time of technological advances. Only later did we come to associate Bowie and his music with his shape-shifting personas — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, etc. It only added to the mystique that made Bowie stand out. But it was the music, as much as the stagecraft, that made Bowie Bowie.

Our brands may not be as glam or shocking as a Bowie persona. But to succeed, we must stand out.

Embrace the power of story

In addition to being a tremendous musician, Bowie was a great storyteller. “Space Oddity” is the musical equivalent of a Ray Bradbury tale. “Ziggy Stardust” is another great yarn. Bowie could make a three-and-a-half minute pop song into a powerful story as well as any songwriter.

These days, we hear a lot about the power of story for brand-building. Bowie is a standout example of how story can create powerful connections.

Turn and face the strange

In one sense, Bowie broke one of the most basic rules of branding: the rule of consistency. From album to album, his persona changed. I remember in the early ’80s when the album Let’s Dance came out. Gone was the Bowie of orange mullets and makeup. In his place was a clean-cut thin man in white suits singing disco-influenced tunes that made you want to get on the dance floor.

Bowie was not afraid to “turn and face the strange,” to borrow a line from “Changes.” He changed with the times. But even while he may have violated that rule of brand consistency on one level, Bowie remained consistent at his core. That’s what the best brands do. They stay consistent in all the things that mattered.

Art and artist

“Bowie was an artist — but he was also art, himself,” writes Margaret Rhodes in a WIRED article about the animated gif of Bowie’s many faces that went viral soon after his death.

This lesson is a bit of a stretch for some of us. But for many brands, there is a strong connection between an individual and a company or product. Think Microsoft and Bill Gates. Apple and Steve Jobs. The Dallas Mavericks and Mark Cuban.

Just as Bowie became inseparable from his art — whether music or movies, sound or vision — so do some of the most recognizable business leaders become inseparable from their brands. Often this is the case with entrepreneurs who, like Bowie, have a single-minded focus and vision for their business.

The best business leaders or brand ambassadors will never be Bowie, of course. There was only one. But they — and we — can learn a lot from him.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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