David Bowie and Innovation Excellence

Like many people I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of David Bowie this week. Full disclosure, I am a huge fan. He was one of my musical heroes, and coincidentally, I had been jamming his classic songs Suffragette City and Ziggy Stardust with a band on Sunday just before the news broke.

Bowie was a musician, but his skill as an innovator went well beyond music.  A brilliant synthesist, he took ideas from a wide variety of sources, and blended them to create emergent art, branding and business innovation that transcended the source material.

I often cite Picasso as an example of how art can teach us about how to innovate. He proclaimed that great artists steal, and blended, for example, influences from African sculpture and Matisse to create analytical cubism. Bowie did much the same, fusing a dizzying array of influences from Japanese fashion, science fiction, Anthony Newly, technology, mime, folk music, rock, jazz, disco, and many others at different points in his career.

There is much we can learn from his skill at synthesizing.   He almost routinely blended surprising combinations to create the new and different.   He appeared to have a natural ability to find analogies, and map ideas at a level that allowed the creation of conceptual blends that were often the source of game changing ideas. Of course his music was innovative, but he was also an innovator in mixing artistic genres, and even in business. He was a pioneer of so called celebrity bonds, offering shares in his future earnings that he used to buy back publishing rights to his early catalogue. Hi pioneering use of the internet was a great example of innovating at interfaces, and was one of the first mainstream artists to offer streaming access to his concerts.

He was also not afraid to fail. He consistently prototyped and explored new approaches.  Sometimes varying degrees of success, he sometimes failed, or at least failed to always hit the heights of his masterpieces.   But ultimately, his brand remained strong, and I personally thought his final album, released a few days ago, was outstanding.

To that point, I believe he was a master brand builder. He embraced multisensory branding and communication. A Bowie concert was never just about music. It was an audio-visual experience par excellence.   I believe that taking a multisensory approach to branding is essential in most markets, and I think Bowie intuitively, and probably explicitly got that.

Perhaps most important of all, he found ways to stay current, sometimes making dramatic shifts in his superficial brand, while maintaining a core brand story that maintained a loyal fan base.   Along with Gaga, and maybe Madonna, he was the master of balancing the new and the old, and hence appealing to the human preference for the familiar, without becoming stale. That may be the hardest challenge for any brand, and it is something we can all learn from, via analogy.

For his music, David Bowie will be remembered by many for a long time. I’ll remember him for his music, and for his innovation as well.  Blending, synthesizing, operating at interfaces, and not being afraid to fail are innovation universals that the Thin White Duke used to innovate consistently with excellence.

Adapted from an article originally published in LinkedIn

image credit: davidbowie.com

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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