The ’80’s was an era where, like many American teens, David Bowie filled my collection of eclectic albums from British artists. Mom wasn’t a fan, so of course every indulgent listening session represented a level of rebellion for me then. The creative genius of the musician most have come to know and what Bowie’s brand now signifies in death reveals how he not only lived his life, but a legacy he carefully crafted. There are three reasons to take note.
1. His is a status that sticks. Okay, the fact that most everyone in media is talking, tweeting or recalling a Bowie tune should come as no surprise, but when descriptive terms like “innovative and “iconic” fall off the lips of industry critics and headlines revel in how he “shaped” the landscape of culture as we know it without a major scandal, you know it’s more than an accomplishment. One Rolling Stone writer took it further noting how some see the musician’s death as “a work of art.” The newly released album “Blackstar” containing the song “Lazurus” was no accident. Bowie reportedly knew it would be his last and meant as a “gift” to his fans.
With a career spanning five decades, covering all mediums from art to music to film and television, who wouldn’t recognize this as brand staying power immortalized.
2. An ability to balance overexposure and relevance. Small business, pop star, cereal brand, politician or writer, there are levels of public intrusion each expect to maintain in order to be an authoritative voice in their respective marketplace. In an early morning post after learning about David Bowie’s death, the Daily Mail’s Piers Morgan described his decades-long coverage of the pop icon, detailing how the performer “rarely went to glitzy parties or premieres” and “shunned expansive” interviews. In other words Bowie knew when to get in, get out, weigh in, shut up and maintain a level of self-awareness that kept him humble and a fan base wanting more. It’s also clear Bowie adopted a long-term media strategy that ensured his relevance while preserving a level of personal privacy that carried him through his death. His 18-month battle with cancer wasn’t even announced until he passed Sunday.
In the age of social media, viral videos and hashtag campaigns, brands rely on any combination of luck and marketing genius to break through to short audience attention spans without compromising core beliefs. The line of demarcation is different for everyone but Bowie seemed to understand his strengths and advance his limitations and the press respected him for it.
3. Carving out a niche that is authentic. As if his talent wasn’t enough to carry him, in the brutality that is the entertainment industry, he knew it wasn’t. Critics describe how Bowie embraced an ‘I am who I am, take me as I am’ approach to life and craft. He knew he was different and refused to let naysayers or the industry define him. I think we could all see that he wasn’t shy about pushing the envelope outside of societal or cultural norms – from lyrics and appearance to who he married. But even more stunning – and what many may have missed – is this 1983 MTV interview I happened to stumble on. It reveals a very innate sense of authenticity in Bowie. With that same sense of self just described he turns the table on his interviewer to begin a dialogue about racial awareness and chastises the network’s lack of diversity in its primetime video rotation.
Bowie was clearly a trailblazer in more ways than one and captured what many miss – that authenticity is the very essence of branding’s secret sauce.