What Makes a Real Brand: A Bowie Fan

A few months ago I was having lunch with a friend at a trendy Madison Square area eatery where they pipe ridiculously hip music everywhere, including the rest rooms. And as I was washing the remains of chocolate soufflé off my face the familiar piano riff of David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things” radiated out from somewhere in the WC cubicle. I stood transfixed at the sink.

I’ve carried David Bowie with me for the greater portion of my life. And each time I hear – really hear a Bowie song, it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. It’s not just the melodies, which can run from soulful to bouncy to highly dramatic and everywhere in between; it’s those lyrics. And the messages that they held for me both as a teenage NY kid and as a grown up: The world is an uncertain place, where change will be the only constant. Deal with it head on. Being true to oneself is the only way to navigate chaos. Life needs to be lived at all costs.

In the wake of Bowie’s death much has been written about his work and his personal life. Much has also been written about Bowie as an expert in his own brand – always on the leading edge of innovation, jumping from persona to persona and setting higher levels of expectations from his fans (myself included). My own faith in Bowie the Brand allowed me to live through the death of Ziggy Stardust and still embrace the Thin White Duke and the Man Who Fell To Earth.

Behind Bowie the Brand was Bowie the Marketer. A man who understood the implications of a changing environment and could spot industry trends from a far distance, particularly with technology.

Bowie the Marketer was among the first to come out and acknowledge the transformation of how we buy music. In the late 1990’s Bowie had started Bowienet, which was meant to be a sort of online marketplace for exchanging music and information. Bowienet even had a social network component – a good five years before My Space. The Bowienet platform hosted the famous online auction of Ziggy Stardust’s Rabbit Costume, which was purchased (and worn) by Kate Moss.

Yet even well-managed brands that embrace change can fail, particularly “celebrity brands.” So why was Bowie’s brand such a North Star? Why was he never out of style?

The answer may be in Bowie’s authenticity itself. Real brands are 100% transparent, not manufactured. They need to reflect their own core values, celebrate their differences and live true to themselves. David Bowie was his own man and hid nothing.

Case in point: Hunky Dory was the first full Bowie album I ever heard. And the song I loved the most on that album received little airplay against the big hits like Life on Mars and Changes. Kooks, as Bowie fans know, was written by the artist to welcome his son, Duncan Jones into the world. The song expressed the joy of parenthood in a uniquely Bowie way:

“Will you stay in our lover’s story? If you stay, you won’t be sorry, ‘cause we believe in you…”

There you have it. The soft side of the man revealed. A Glam Rock star known for outlandish costumes, shocking hairstyles, overt sexuality and cosmic weirdness confesses love for his child. And lives it.

This is what makes a real brand.