– Randall Hull, The Br@nd Ranch®
On January 10, 2016, David Bowie “left the building” after an 18 month battle with cancer — a complete shock to many of us who were fans. We didn’t know David was ill. Yes, there were the rumors of his death triggered by his heart attacks, six of them in total. But nothing could make Aladdin Sane mortal, or so we thought.
The sense of loss was palpable — like the death of Steve Jobs.
Bowie was not only a pop icon, he was an innovator, entrepreneur, media manipulator, ever-evolving his image over the decades. He was a brand and his own chief strategist.
Born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947, Bowie worked in marketing, as a graphic designer, for a very short time before pursuing music full-time. But his eye for color, composition, and contrast was ever present.
His first metamorphosis was in 1960 when he changed his surname to Bowie. This ‘rebranding’ was necessitated by the well-known Davy Jones, lead singer of The Monkees but was not his last transformation.
Bowie’s constant image altering would give most brand practitioners headaches. But there are lessons to be learned by observing his ability to change yet remain himself.
What can be called ‘Brand Bowie’ meant willingly embracing the freedom to transform, to fuse the thing he experimented with into something new, sometimes disconcerting, but always ahead. He was glam before glam rock and his influence reached into hip-hop with samplings from the likes of Jay Z and Notorious B.I.G.
As noted by a recent article in The Verge, Bowie saw the technological evolution of the Internet approaching and wanted to leverage it for marketing his material to larger audiences and allowing the fans to interact with his art. His prescience signaled the thinking of a brand strategist before the term was part of our lexicon and practice. He foresaw what has become reality for most of us — Instagram and Twitter, to name two — as digital venues for artist and audience interactions.
Bowie explored interactive CD-ROMs in 1994 with the release of Jump. He was one of the first major artists to initiate an online-only release of a new song exclusively on the Internet — 1996’s “Telling Lies”. It topped 300,000 downloads.
Through UltraStar, the Internet company Bowie founded, he developed the initial website for the New York Yankees, predating the formation of MLB Advanced Media. This was fandom in the dial-up age.
Sorry Kim Kardashian, in 1997 Bowie was the first to “break the Internet” with a live ‘cybercast’ of his Earthling concert in Boston. I remember watching buffering and pixelated images as the available bandwidth could not handle the demand.
Bowie also created his own service, BowieNet, launched in Fall of 1998. It was an ISP for fans offering ‘unfiltered’ access to the Internet and your own BowieNet email address. No, I don’t have mine anymore!
According to The Guardian, he said at the time, “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet.”
In 2000, Bowie took what was considered a controversial step, extending his brand to an online bank, BowieBanc, which offered a credit card with Bowie’s image and a free subscription to BowieNet. Toke on that Snoop Dogg!
Bowie understood the power of subtlety, demonstrated in January 2013 when, without fanfare, he uploaded to his website the video for his single “Where Are They Now”. It became available immediately in 119 countries on iTunes. Social media did the heavy lifting for Bowie.
Brands can learn that to remain relevant, to keep the experience current in our constant state of flux, the one thing that must remain consistent is sense of self.
‘Brand Bowie’ was an iconic and formidable exemplar of experimentation, foresight, adaption and metamorphosis. He showed us how rigid rules could be flexed and yet return to a recognizable shape.
This form of existence on the ‘bleeding edge’ may not be appropriate for all companies and their brands but we have learned from David Bowie that ch-ch-ch-changes can create a lasting legacy, a dynamic brand, and loyal followers.
RIP David. Long live Brand Bowie!