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Brand Bowie: he taught us what it takes to stay ahead of the game

Like millions all over the world, I am mourning the passing of David Bowie.

Bowie was, for me, far more than a superstar rock idol, flamboyant fashionista, musician, singer, lyricist, storyteller, model, and just utterly brilliant artist and entertainer. He is (still) the one who can take me back to my youth in a nano-second. I can remember where I was as a teenager in the 70s and 80s when I hear almost every one of those soundtracks from Scary Monsters, and then Let’s Dance. Usually hanging out in some dark, smoky, patchouli-infused, cavernous tearoom in the town where I went to school, where the owner knew how to keep his teenage customers happy with the latest chart hits, a bit of moody lighting and a blind eye turned when the Sobrani Cocktails came out as we planted ourselves with the best possible vantage point to observe and critique the visiting boys from the local Boys’ College. Bowie spent those hours with us, idling away the time doing absolutely nothing useful for hours on end. He was a friend; one of us, doing time in the tearoom. And even now he has the ability to transport me back to my happy teenage years whenever I want. That is truly a gift.

And how thrilling, on the release of another Bowie single or album, to discover the delights of another zany costume, another effortlessly bouffant/slick hairdo, beautiful make-up (and I never really appreciated just how beautiful his facial features were until now), another daring and different soundtrack, with a stunning set of lyrics which were delivered, time after time, by that oh so distinctive voice and those mesmerising eyes. And usually accompanied by some perplexing pop video which we probably never really understood at the time, but hey, we loved it all. I will never forget seeing him in concert on the Glass Spider tour. And I am still not able to get over the fact that my Mum threw out my precious vinyl collection when CDs came out and she thought I wouldn’t want it any more. I still miss the anticipation and joy of acquiring a new LP: the poster, the must-learn lyrics, the essential information about the artist or band that made you a nobody if you didn’t know it. Bowie. What an era. What a legend.

I couldn’t possibly write as eloquently and knowledgeably about David Bowie as so many have over the last couple of days. But two things have really struck me.

Firstly, Bowie was a brand in his own right: probably one of the most successful living brands of all time. And Brand Bowie (along with Brand Mercury) could teach us a thing or two about sustainable competitive advantage. Always innovating, inventing, pushing the boundaries, producing constant new and different products that surprised and delighted us as he switched from one musical genre to another, with different backing bands and partners, always experimenting, always in a different guise, and with his own unique take on it each time.  Yet delivering each time with that unique voice that made him so consistently safe, and which you always trusted, before disappearing to plan his next musical onslaught on the population of Earth. Each time he left you hungry for more, knowing that you could expect a delicious surprise the next time round. He never failed to deliver on his brand promise. Bowie was a master of surprise, yet 27 studio albums, nine live albums, 49 compilation albums and 58 videos later over several decades proves that he had exactly what it takes to stay ahead of the game.  Genius.

The second was the humility that never left him despite his outstanding success as a global rock star. Never a prima donna (take note Justin Bieber) he just quietly and cleverly moved on to the next Big Thing, his desire for privacy fuelling our desire to see more of him and satisfying us, albeit temporarily, when he reappeared. He consistently kept us on our toes, and it probably gave him the space he needed to create the magic he would then bestow upon us. I loved Brendan O’Neill’s article on this in The Spectator: it’s really worth a read, and reminds us that this intense privacy (almost impossible to achieve in today’s nosy world of social media) was – in true Bowie style – what made his death the ultimate surprise. David Bowie, with his enigmatic persona, stayed on brand right until the end. We didn't see this coming. And if you haven’t yet seen the BBC’s documentary ‘Five Years’, then get onto your iPlayer right now.

I apologise to those who think this little blog is a bit over the top. I am a little surprised myself at how sad I feel. But for those who are fans let’s celebrate. Preferably in Red Shoes and Dancing The Blues.

RIP David Bowie.