A Case Study in Branding: How David Bowie Stayed Relevant

“…remains as committed to novelty as anyone in pop.” – Billboard

“…urgent, contemporary and elliptical…”  The Guardian

“He is our eternal iconoclast, he is stardust, he is norm core Kryptonite.”   Entertainment Weekly

You’d probably assume such soaring hyperbole is reserved for some current chart-topping royalty. Kids must be flocking to the live shows of someone who can still draw such glowing reviews from the big name music critics. But, as the quotes suggest, there is nothing predictable about David Bowie. And that is why we have so much to learn from him.

On his 69th birthday, just days ago, Bowie released his 25th studio album, Blackstar. It is his first release since 2013, and only his second since 2003. By all accounts, his most recent effort is unlike anything he has ever produced before. Heavily influenced by hip hop, jazz and grim news reports, Bowie puts forth an exploratory piece that is more courageous than something most youthful acts would ever even think to attempt.

 

Built to Last

In his sixth decade of musical releases, Bowie proves to be one of our greatest professors of rebranding. Like some of our largest corporate entities, Mr. Stardust has been keen on recognizing the timing and rationale behind image reinvention. In the late 2000s, Netflix’s DVD service was threatened by online streaming. Now, they are the largest player in the space. Adobe, once measured by their amount of software licenses, made a complete pivot towards cloud-based services. Bowie, like Netflix and Adobe, was not afraid to reinvent his image in order to not just survive, but thrive in an ever changing marketplace.

In 1967, David Bowie looked something like the fifth Beatle that never was.

By 1973, it is safe to assume Paul wouldn’t have been asking Ziggy to fill in for Ringo.

 

In 1987, it would seem he abandoned the Beatles and moved onto Billy Idol.

 

Bowie, seen here in 1992 is right at home in the grunge scene.

 

Bowie Business

In the December issue of Harvard Business Review, in a piece titled, “Knowing When To Reinvent,” the authors contest that, “no business survives over the long term without reinventing itself.” The writers go on to note that organizations must be able to understand if they are serving the right audience, measuring success properly, and whether or not they are “positioned properly in its ecosystem and is deploying the right business model.”

Bowie understood that with intense competition in a highly crowded musical market, complacency was the enemy. In his youth, he played guitar-based rock and dreamed of being Mick Jagger one day. It is almost strange to think of David Bowie desiring to be anyone but himself, but as a young man at a technical high school with an ear for jazz, blues, and Elvis Presley, even he had north stars to follow. Luckily for us, ground control didn’t let him follow for long…

 

Planet Earth is Blue

There is a long standing idea in marketing called the “Blue Ocean Strategy” made famous by Kim and Mauborgne. Find success by inventing new markets where you can dominate, set the strategic direction and render competition irrelevant. No one’s ocean was wider or more vibrant than Bowie’s.

There is no way to be beaten in a space if you’re creating the space and continue to evolve.

A great example of this is the early days of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Consumers paid more because never before was there a premium ice cream line with completely new (and out there) flavors. It was considerably more expensive than other ice creams in the local grocer’s freezer, in part because of their commitment to local Vermont dairy farmers, but also because of the sheer novelty of flavors. They were alone in their niche – and they were profitable. Bowie, like Ben & Jerry’s, re-wrote the rule book and forged his very own market segment and the world has never been the same.

 

The Man Who Sold Conquered The World

While his music may have been unprecedented, if not disorienting, it is hard to dismiss the marketing brilliance of David Bowie. Two Grammy’s, three BRIT awards, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nine platinum albums, and 140 million albums sold worldwide.

Sometimes, it pays to float in a most peculiar way.

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