What David Bowie Taught the World about Branding

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What creates an iconic brand? Is it a logo, memorable packaging and design or is it something less tangible?

Brand values, if properly selected, become the biggest factors influencing a brand’s destiny. Brand values are the ideals and experiences that the brand claims as the golden standards for doing business. Despite the huge influence values have on a brand, they’re almost always seen as an ideal list of ethical and operational values, rather than a way to ensure the brand truly stands apart. Check out the list of brand values on almost any company website out there and you’ll notice that these not only describe the obvious, but are almost always identical to the competition.

So, how does a brand transcend ‘average?’

Business leaders identify a personality they feel their companies should benchmark against — a person who encapsulates the perfect collection of values that everyone is drawn to. Even though individuals like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jack Welch (given their amazing successes) should top these lists, they rarely do. Instead, Steve Jobs followed by Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and David Bowie appear in the top ten. Consistently.

What they all represent, and what seems so appealing for everyone, is their courage and rebellious behavior — a strong personality cocktail. Every time I’ve asked what made David Bowie so special, the feedback is always the same: he continuously transformed his brand and never stood still. He never got boring.

There are a number of household brands in opposition of this characterization. Conservativism, carefulness, conflict averse, and middle-of-the-road appearances represent the majority of brands. These brands often, more than ever, struggle in today’s fast-phased world, where courage defines nearly every success story. Yet, that very value is hard to find in any branding manual.

Remember, brand values are like a mandate for the future, that gives a path for growth. Once you’ve attached a value to a brand, by default, you’ve given those attached to the brand an ideal to strive for. But even the best brand values have no impact until they are truly lived by the entire organization.

Having worked with retailers for decades, I realize that roughly seventy percent of a company’s success is not due to what I call the “hardware” — the visual identity, the products, or store designs — but due to the staff. If they live edgy values, the brand becomes edgy. If they live by “safe,” staid values, then the brand becomes safe. A great brand identity and store design might have an impact for a couple of months. Then, as with everything, this becomes wall paper, fading into the background. The company soon returns to just… average. Yet, the staff mindset and their customer interactions refresh the brand impression. At end of the day, this turns the brand around.

Which leads back to David Bowie. Being at the top of pop music for decades is an almost impossible task, but check out iTunes today. You’ll notice that five of the top ten bestselling albums are David Bowie’s. And the reason is simple. Bowie truly embraced courage. Bowie was the first to foresee that record labels would become less relevant, that copyright soon would disappear and perhaps his most spot-on prediction: “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” according to a 2002 New York Times interview. Being courageous ran his brand, a core value most companies seem surprisingly fearful of adapting. But, the reality is that it takes no courage to be courageous, given the track record of artists and brands doing exactly that.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn, January 16, 2016, as a tribute to the world-changing life of David Bowie.

hc_author_1This article is authored by Martin Lindstrom. Martin Lindstrom, one of the world’s premier branding experts, is author of Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends. His previous books have been translated into 47 languages and have sold well over one million copies. He was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. In 2016, Thinkers50 named him one of the top 20 business thinkers in the world, and he has been ranked the world’s #1 branding expert for three consecutive years.

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