Five Things David Bowie Taught Me About Marketing


“The stars look very different today”


We were all shocked to learn of David Bowie’s death this weekend following an 18 month battle with cancer, a battle he kept hidden from the rest of us.  As the sense of disbelief begins to give way to acceptance, I am realizing just how much David Bowie taught me about marketing, branding, and business.

1. Consistency doesn’t mean always being the same. 

David Bowie taught me that consistency is about always living up to the expectations of your fans. Most bands do that by always recording similar songs in a similar way with a similar look. David Bowie did it by always reinventing himself. Every time Bowie reappeared with a new album, including the one released a few days before his passing, he amazed his fans with his new look, sound, fashion, feel, and persona. Great artists, and great brands, create a sense of excitement amongst their fans for what they might possibly create next.

2. You are a combination of everything you do.

David Bowie taught me that looks can influence sounds, and the impressions that people get are the culmination of everything you do, how you look, what you say, and who you associate with. Ziggy Stardust had a look, as did the funky Philly soul-inspired “thin white duke”. The darker Berlin Bowie had a fresh look, and it gave way to the fashionable “Serious Moonlight” Bowie. Each phase of David Bowie came with a sound, look, and texture. You could see the music. You could hear the look. It all came together.

3. Never be afraid to surround yourself with greatness.

David Bowie taught me to surround myself with genius, even if it is intimidating. Who did David Bowie work with over the years? The most famous Bowie duets are probably “Under Pressure” with Queen and “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. He also hit #1 with Mick Jagger doing “Dancing In The Streets”. His hit “China Girl” was written by Iggy Pop. He worked with Pete Townshend, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tina Turner, Pat Metheney, Annie Lennox, Brian Eno, John Lennon, David Gilmour, and many many others. David Bowie loved working with great people, knowing they helped him be his best.

4. Success doesn’t happen overnight.

David Bowie taught me that it takes hard work, and first tries often fail. From 1962 until 1969, David Bowie was in several bands, released numerous singles, recorded several albums, and appeared in TV commercials. Yet he was going nowhere until “Space Oddity” went Top 5 in the UK in 1969. Bowie wouldn’t have another hit until “Changes” in 1972. Although we think of Bowie as a dominating force in music, the early years of his career was filled with false starts, near misses, and flops. Winners don’t give up easy.

5. Do things that get people talking about you.

David Bowie taught me that having people talk about you is probably more important than what they say about you. Time after time, despite what people might have said about him, David Bowie made a statement with his music and his art. Even in death, David Bowie made a statement. His “Lazarus” video features him in a hospital bed, eventually retreating into a dark closet. The haunting lyrics sing “Look up here / I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”. David Bowie left this world with people talking about him once again.

For more lessons on business from the legends of rock, order Brand Like a Rock Star by Steve Jones, available in paperback and digital download.
PS – Being 45 years old, I came of age in the Let’s Dance era of David Bowie, one that many long-time fans dismiss as a “too commercial” Bowie phase. Yet even though Let’s Dance represents his commercial peak, the album stands up brilliantly against the rest of his life’s work. The lesser-known songs on Let’s Dance are among my favorites. “Cat People” is fantastic, and “Without You” is classic new wave Bowie.

Although I grew up on 80s Bowie, it was only the starting point. I went back and discovered his incredible catalog of songs from the 70s. There are few songs better than “Heroes”… “Spaceman” impresses me for than “Space Oddity”… listening to “Young Americans” is like watching a movie… and “Ashes to Ashes” is genius.

Thank you David.

David Bowie 406 Comments

Using Conflicting Messages To Build Your Brand

When you watch this video, your perception of the homeless might change.

You might start to think that some homeless people are talented and creative people who just happen to have fallen upon hard times.

You will probably hear a song you’ve heard a thousand times in an entirely new way.  I admit that until watching this video, I never once thought about this song as a cry for help on behalf of the homeless.  Now it will always be about the homeless.

This is brilliant use of what communications wizard Roy Williams calls “particle conflict”.

The essence of particle conflict is this: when communicating your brand’s message, you can either use pieces of information that stack upon each other to make your point, or you can use pieces of information that conflict with each other to make your point.

“Particle stack” puts pieces of the puzzle together in a way that fits and drives home the message.

“Particle conflict” puts several pieces of the puzzle together and then throws you a piece that doesn’t fit at all. Your brain cannot help but become engaged and connected, and the message is thus communicated.

The idea of a man using two Kermit The Frog hand puppets to perform “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is fantastic.  He does a wonderful job of capturing the song’s emotions through his own movements and expressions and the movements and expressions that he gives the puppets.

The particle conflict is that this man is homeless.  He doesn’t have a job.  He has two kids and a family to support and no way to support them. 

How can a talented and creative man like this be homeless?  Aren’t homeless people always drunk?  Aren’t homeless people homeless because they lack the talent and creativity to get a job?

Carefully using “particle conflict” in your branding message is incredibly powerful.

How can I prove it?

This video already proved it.  This touching video is a message designed to raise money and attention to the homeless situation.  Millions of people have seen the video in mere days as it spread virally on the internet, and many of them have gone here to learn how to help the homeless for free.  That was the point of the video, according to the man who performs in it.  This wasn’t about him, he says.  It was about the men, women, and children on our streets without green puppets on their hands, who aren’t always easy to see.  You can read more about Sky Soliel, the performer, in this interview.  It turns out, he isn’t actually homeless. 

Yes, this was an advertising message. And it worked.  Brilliantly.

David Bowie, Kermit The Frog, Queen, Roy Williams 189 Comments

Sound Is Worth A Million Pictures

John Hughes knew it. The director of “Sixteen Candles” and “Breakfast Club” died last week, but he left my generation a wealth of movies that defined growing up in the 80′s.

“Holiday Road” by Lindsay Buckingham and “Blitzkrieg Bop” by Ramones gave “National Lampoon’s Vacation” a new dimension.

“Sixteen Candles” would not have been “Sixteen Candles” without songs from The Thompson Twins, Billy Idol, Spandau Ballet, and the classic “Young Americans” by David Bowie.

Spending a weekend in detention with “The Breakfast Club” gave us an original movie soundtrack hit that has endured nearly 30 years. “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” by Simple Minds stands up as the most mass-appeal hit of their lengthy career. By the way, Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry both turned down offers to record the song before Simple Minds wisely picked it up. Billy eventually did his own little-known version, which you can hear if you’d like.

“Wierd Science” wasn’t my favorite Hughes movie, but how can you go wrong with “Oh Pretty Woman” by Van Halen, “Wierd Science” by Oingo Boingo, and General Public’s “Tenderness”.

Things really got cooking with “Pretty In Pink”. The movie’s title song by Psychedelic Furs is the band’s signature song in the US. And OMD raised their career through “If You Leave”, a song that went on to be their signature song as well.

There never was a soundtrack album to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, but the scene with Matthew Broderick performing “Twist and Shout” is a classic moment in 80′s moviemaking.

Some of the British neo-romantic acts like Thompson Twins, Psychedelic Furs, OMD, General Public, Spandau Ballet, and Simple Minds owe a great deal of debt to John Hughes. Without inclusion in his movies, those bands may well have been just a footnote in US music history despite their success in the UK.

Hughes intrinsically seemed to understand the need for every strong visual to have stunning audio to accompany it.

That’s a lesson lost today on many brands, who insist on filling their print and outdoor ads with “white space” and ignoring the power of radio and TV audio.

Billy Idol, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, General Public, John Hughes, Lindsey Buckingham, Oingo Boingo, OMD, Psychedelic Furs, Ramones, Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins, Van Halen 1,128 Comments