Brand Strategy Blog

Dylan and the Art of Branding Digital Platforms

By Amrita Chowdhury
October 26, 2016
Comments Off on Dylan and the Art of Branding Digital Platforms

You have probably had an overdose of reading paeans and laments about the decision of the Nobel committee on this year’s Literature prize. Let’s bypass that debate altogether, and instead look at Dylan not as a “creator of new poetic expressions”, rather as a brand icon. There is much to be learned from his positioning within the world of music – not just for brands and businesses, but also for the specific favorite enterprise of the moment: digital platforms.

Notion of tipping point aside, which clearly Dylan has achieved and sustained in a world where many other musicians have flashed brilliantly for a while – only to disappear, whether by death, drugs or decline – there is much to decode. Especially for digital ecommerce platforms, who reportedly spent US $14 Billion in India last year alone on advertising. Let’s remember, this was investor money spent on commercials and discount, for the sake of clocking GMVs. This year, supposedly investors have tightened the belt. Funding taps are drier – fiscal prudence and focus on bottom lines is the order of the day.

Yet, it is hard to escape ecommerce platforms at the moment, just a few days away from Diwali. Print media is splattered with full and double spreads, while television is cluttered with self-similar ads. Every ecommerce platform this year has layered its usual messaging of deals and discounts with a larger thought – of purchases and gifts that transform lives or enable deep forgotten desires of loved ones. Who stands out as different?

Let’s turn to what Dylan can teach us about branding.

Be Distinctive, then Reinvent:

The pantheon of flower-power musicians in the middle of the last century was crowded with rock and rollers and beatniks. They were rule breakers and rioters. They were opinionated and self-centered. But in a generation of music demi-Gods, who focused on lyrics of love, despair, non-commitment or money, Dylan was one of the early ones to take stances on political issues. He wrote of war, peace, racism, dreams, and more. Though several other musicians were part of this era of politically inspired music, such as Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, and in turn inspired subsequent generations, Dylan stands out just a little distinctive. Perhaps it was luck that his words became the anthem of the free speech, Vietnam and post war generation. But he crafted his stance – and, just when musicians and artists co-opted the political platform, he switched – reflecting on fractured inner spaces. Many musicians have declined as the ideas and issues they sang about gave way to newer causes and concerns. But like Picasso and his art phases, or Joyce and his literary shifts, Dylan continued to reinvent and revisit.

Who amid the digital platform players of today will be courageous enough to step away to be different? If each one is positioning itself as a “deals and emotions” brand, who will reinvent faster?

Gather the pulse:

Much of Dylan’s early euphoric rise rested on how he intuitively understood the deepest fears and discontentment of an entire generation and gave them expression. Astutely he tapped into the micro-pockets of concerns – free speech, war, racial equality, police brutality, and later aging. As societies evolved and concerns shifted, his songwriting morphed as well, many times even ahead of the curve.

Much trend spotting happens today. Rather than megatrends, we see micro trends or pockets of trends supported by small cohorts. What is available today is already outmoded tomorrow. So where do clues of tomorrow’s trends reside? Perhaps in social chat rooms and images, perhaps in the conversations within digital content or college cafeterias. This means continuous investment in the science of predictive analytics, slicing and dicing consumer browsing and buying behaviors, layering it with related and lateral factors. This also means a strong insight based research that layers data driven and psychology driven approaches. Some digital platforms pioneered these efforts – but are they keeping pace with the continuously shifting preference landscape, and what about the rest?

Curate and Cultivate:

Much before the consumption generation and its selfie contests to drive engagement, or the highly networked venture funders who bring together ideas and individuals, Dylan was the original collector of people. Not just “any” people. He was the only non-Beatles musician to be on their cover – the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band album. He interacted with Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Rimbaud. He sang with Joan Baez at Newport Folk Music Festival and before Martin Luther King Junior gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.

Platforms, as aggregate sellers of products across categories, automatically curate products by types and buyers by communities. But which categories and quality, which exact products, whether exclusive or not, what UIUX design and degrees of interactivity, the shades of service – all determine the edge of a platform in curating the right products and the right experience.

Craft your Story:

The reams of secondary literature on Dylan mention his latter phases but continue to dwell on his early expressions and attitudes. Clearly, his brand persona was established early on – of rebelling against established ideologies, of thoughtful words that sharply evoked uncomfortable truths, of refusing to be stereotyped. This persona transcended all future work, inspiring listeners to delve deeper into every phrase to understand the new truths being laid bare.

Brands aim to create such unique voices that stand through the clutter of competition and stand the test of time. But can digital platforms as natural aggregators of products ever have such a strong identity? But the question is – how can they not? Of course, scale matters and new entrants take lot longer to reach consumers. Yet new entrants, especially if they reach out to strong cohorts such as buyers looking at baby products, women’s upscale ethnic luxury wear, or for that matter cosmetics, will wrestle share of wallet away from larger umbrella aggregators. In this glut, why would a consumer keep returning to one platform? Certainly deals offer immediate incentives. But if that isn’t the strategy that can sustain, what then? If a platform cultivates real unique strengths through quality or product mix or consumer delight or giving back, repeatedly, for every purchase big or small, could that form the basis of its persona?

So, even as we continue to read more articles on Dylan in the lead up to the ceremony in Stockholm in early December, let’s analyze how as marketers and brand managers we can learn some new truths– or perhaps just pause to reconsider and reflect upon known but overlooked truths.

The article is written by Amrita Chowdhury, President, DY Works


Amrita Chowdhury