Harry Styles: The New Bowie or a Marketing Dream?

Harry Styles: The New Bowie or a Marketing Dream?

There’s been a lot of comparisons made in recent months about the former One Direction heart throb being right up there with the legendary Thin White Duke.

In musical terms, Styles clearly has some way to go if he wishes to sit on the same podium as Bowie when it comes to legendary status (although he’s made a decent start in terms of record sales – having the record for the most streamed track in 24 hours).

So, one can only presume writers are drawing comparisons to style, flamboyance and the ability to get a wide range of audiences a little hot under the collar.

But is this really history in the making; the dawn of a new musical icon that will be remembered long after death for way much more important things than just music? Or is this just a classic example of a full-service marketing team working wonders behind the scenes to develop the perfect brand?

Costume, make-up, feather boas…

Individualism is what made Bowie stand out from the chasing pack. Devising different on-stage personas time and time again to leave his audience guessing, and shocking parents watching him perform on Top of the Pops.

“Is he a man? Is he a woman? Is he an alien?” gasped a tutting older generation who were more accustomed to four white guys dressed slickly as if going to a job interview on a Monday morning.

Harry Styles in various outfits

Styles is credited for a similar approach to androgyny. A strong sense of fashion, wearing a dress on the front page of Vogue, painting nails. This is for sure breaking down barriers and rightly so, but is it just the former One Directioner working alone, or does he have a team providing the tools?

And who are we to suggest that this is all a very cynical marketing ploy to generate extra sales and increase the media headlines… But we will do just that anyway! Because we’re a cynical bunch here at CWA…

Because, as a marketing agency, we can understand such an approach – it’s one we take all the time. For Harry, it could be argued, he was just simply trying to find his own voice, his own aesthetic and his own personality or forever be judged as ‘that lad who said those words, yes you know the ones, to Matt Cardle when he won X-Factor.’

Is it all for the brand?

The branding of musical artists is not too dissimilar to that of branding a business or service. It encompasses so much more than simply the music a star is performing. Like a company’s brand is much more than the service it offers, or product it sells.

When branding, you need to consider a company’s beliefs, values and, importantly, their vision – where do they want to go, and what do they need to do to get there?

Harry Styles has a very diverse following. He has moved away from the teenage, screaming girl brigade synonymous with his One Direction days with a vision to establish himself as a ‘serious’ artist. His PR team are possibly high-fiving one another every time a blog like this appears debating his Bowie credentials. Just to have the conversation out there is a big PR win in his quest for respectability among musos.

And it takes more than a few memorable pop ditties to keep that conversation going. We want our pop stars to be way more interesting. Perhaps if you throw a little sexual ambiguity into the mix (something Bowie would approve), then we can really reach out to an even wider audience...

For those unaware, Harry is yet to define his sexuality. So what? Well, some argue that he has every right to a private life and doesn’t have to share this with the public. Which seems a fair point. Some theorists, on the other hand, suggest that his use of the colours pink, purple and blue on his Fine Line album is a deliberate way of appealing to the LGBTQ+ community. Whatever the truth, it gets the Twitter brigade talking and does wonders for his social media following. Deliberate or not, it all helps in developing the brand of Harry as an artist who is worth debating.

Interestingly, none of this really has anything to do with his actual musical output. But why let that get in the way of some great PR?

It certainly hasn’t done other global brands any harm using this tactic. Think of all the big tech players or sports brands. None of them have to post images of their actual products all over social media, all of the time. Just add the right colours, a soundtrack to define their audience and a knowing message that shows they are a company who knows precisely their place in the world. Get all the right followers on board with some precision targeting and – hey presto – you have just defined your online presence (obvs linking though to an equally fetching website where you can actually purchase the product advertised – or in this case download Harry’s songs).

And while we’re making comparisons with Harry and the behind-the-scenes work of an agency, we may as well throw it out there that CWA does massive, global events.

Erm, and Harry Styles likes to go on World Tours (you get the picture!).

So, what's our conclusion?

Back to the Harry versus Bowie debate. All of this makes the presumption that David Robert Jones was a true one-off. An individual who did all of what Harry is doing without a crack team of marketing geniuses following his each and every move.

And, for us at CWA, that is the real discussion. Did Bowie become the icon he remains today by his own accord, or was it aided by a team of PR, design and marketing professionals, all working together collaboratively?

Are we being harsh on old Harry? Perhaps he is the real deal and a true genre-defining, zeitgeist hopper of his own making.

Maybe it’s down to the fact that nowadays, us marketing lot are wiser to the tricks of the trade.

Or as Harry would say, it’s a ‘Sign of the Times.’