PR Lessons from Madonna

My introduction to marketing and branding came at an age when I didn’t even know what that meant. It all started with Madonna and her 1984 hit “Like a Virgin” that propelled her to global recognition after topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six consecutive weeks. The song created a huge controversy with complains that it promoted premarital sex and undermined family values; and Madonna’s attitudes and opinions on sex, nudity, style and sexuality forced the public to sit up and take notice. I did; and became an immediate fan. I sang her songs into my ‘microphone’ hairbrush, dressed like her and even dressed the family dog like her.

Madonna’s rise to fame came at a pivotal time in the music industry. MTV had just been launched and as a result artists with strong ‘visual appeal’ (read: good looking) were pushed into the spotlight. Early on Madonna recognized that she could use music videos and MTV to establish her popularity.

Lesson #1: Utilize communications tools faster and better than anyone else.

Madonna’s use of shocking sexual imagery kept her in the media forefront, from risque music videos to her elaborate performances on stage. At the first MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), she stunned audiences by performing ‘Like a Virgin’ on top of a giant wedding cake while wearing a wedding dress and white gloves, which MTV rated as one of the most iconic performances in VMA history.

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to break the rules when needed. What have you done lately to stand out?

Madonna consistently uses her music and image to influence the masses into believing that she is the authoritative knowledge on trends. Right from the beginning of her career, she expertly combined her fashion style, performances and videos to influence audiences. Her style became one of the top female fashion trends of the 1980s with lace tops, skirts over Capri pants, fishnet stockings, crucifixes, arm loads of bracelets and bleached hair.

Lesson #3: Know your brand. Work your brand.

Known for continuously reinventing both her music and image to remain relevant, Madonna is not ‘just another pop star’. Her continual reinvention is one of her key cultural achievements. By working with upcoming talented producers and new artists, she successfully remains at the center of media attention. Her’s approach to music was far from the “find a winning formula and stick to it” approach. Her musical career has been a continuous experimentation. Madonna has never rested on her laurels. And neither should you.

Lesson #4: Evolution is necessary for survival. Don’t do what you’ve always done, just because it’s what you’ve always done. What works today, might not work tomorrow… And we’re back to the Will Rogers quote: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

Madonna is iconic. She is attributed to providing the creative freedom that today’s female pop stars enjoy thanks to the trail she blazed in the early 80s. It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when Madonna was seen as an inauthentic product of pop culture and an artistic lightweight. If you were to believe all the talk in the mid-‘80s, Madonna would not have lasted beyond her “Like A Virgin” era. However, the career she carved out for herself made it possible for virtually every other female pop singer to follow and in doing so, she redefined the parameters of pop music.

Lesson #5: Know what you stand for.  Be original. Carve out your own path.

You may argue that Madonna is not the greatest performer/singer/dancer in the world. But her staying power, appeal and influence can’t be denied. She is a successful musician and a businesswoman. Her creative approach to marketing has always been bold leaps rather than baby steps.

As Madonna once said, “[It’s] better to live one year as a tiger, than a hundred as a sheep…”

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