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.

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