Harry Styles: What can brands learn from the singer-turned-influencer?
Made famous by One Direction, the singer now has an influence that extends way beyond his pop music roots
12 August 2022
It seems that everything that English popstar Harry Styles touches turns to gold. An acclaimed style icon, a brand extraordinaire and a musician in his own right, Styles has proved his chameleonic ability during his meteoric rise to fame. There's certainly somthing here that brands can learn from this entrepreneurial polymath.
There’s no denying the buzz that currently surrounds Styles, having released Harry’s House, his third solo album in May this year; launched his debut Pleasing brand (November 2021); and designed HA HA HA, a new Gucci collection with the house’s creative director Alessandro Michele. He also has an upcoming cameo in a film out later this year (Don’t Worry Darling, September 2022). And with the revival of the live events industry post pandemic, Styles is touring across Europe and South America and headlined at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2022. After years of acquiring media interest in his personal life, career and fashion, Styles is having his moment and redefining culture as he goes.
Since leaving One Direction, which formed on reality TV show X Factor in 2010, and deciding to go it alone in early 2016, he has intentionally crafted his image to elevate himself from singer to all-round influencer.
“Nothing Harry does is accidental,” says Rahul Titus, global head of influence at Ogilvy. “In the last 10 months alone, he's gone from being an incredibly popular pop icon to assuming cult status.”
We take a look at his ascendance, consider the role that social media plays in shaping his image, and look at his ability to tap into multiple trends without alienating audiences, to understand what constitutes the Harry Styles brand.
Harry Styles: An enigma or a commercial success?
Aged just 28 years old and with an estimated net worth of $90 million, Styles combines charisma with mystery, and authenticity with rebellion as part of his curated personal brand.
Charlie Kirkbride, planning director at VCCP cites four factors behind Styles’ success: “The joyfulness of all that he does, his clear enjoyment of fame, his inclusive nature, and the fact you genuinely don’t know what he’ll do next.”
She describes him as a refreshingly “soothing tonic for an anxious generation” juxtaposed against the “tortured, self-flagellating behaviour of his peers.” As for his “deliciously-fluid” approach to clothing and sexuality, it complements his inclusive, non-categorising approach to himself and his Pleasing brand. Working in a boundary-less way allows Styles to cultivate a community where people feel comfortable to be themselves.
“Harry leads by deeds; wearing the dress rather than just talking about doing it,” says Grey’s head of strategy Asad Shaykh. “It’s through action that he aligns with his beliefs – and that defiance is gospel for his fans. The cover of his previous album, A Fine Line, had the trans flag colours seamlessly integrated into it, enabling trans allyship without the virtue signalling. And his glamrock 70s persona appeals creates pan-generational appeal, attracting older audiences to his music through their kids.
"His sonic signature borrows heavily from The Beatles and Bowie, providing him with a license to make older listeners feel younger, and younger ones feel more sophisticated.”
Amanda O'Shaughnessy, associate marketing director at Mediacom agrees: “He knows who he is and what he stands for but most importantly he understands his audience and what they want.”
Applicable lessons and continuing to adapt
Part of Styles’ success lies in his ability to continuously evolve and contribute to cultural conversation. His recently-launched gender-neutral beauty brand Pleasing has released three micro collections, each partnering with a different non-profit that supports the work of underrepresented communities and activists. Combined with its psychedelic prints, playful visuals and unusual bottle shapes, the brand hints at Styles’ personal style and highlighting his priorities. In short, it’s an extension of Styles’ personality.
O'Shaughnessy says: “There are three Rs for a brand to thrive in the digital age: genuine cultural Relevance; Responsibility to fairly represent audiences and Resilience to keep pace. Representation still has a long way to go in the beauty industry and there are only a few, typically start-up/SME brands like Harry’s achieving this.”
Styles’ Pleasing very intentionally features rebellious models that break away from conforming stereotypes, seeming fun and free from restrictive ideals.
She continues: “But more needs to be done to smash stigmas and break our old habits, and the pandemic has only accelerated elements like the metaverse, gaming culture, and social media culture, which all create endless possibilities for expression of identity. Labels are becoming smashed and identities more fluid, so brands need to learn the nuances and language to connect with their audiences. Brands like Pleasing aren’t going away any time soon; they’re only going to gain traction because they truly value their audiences for who they are.”
Shaykh agrees: “Harry is living the lifestyle he’s selling. Leading by action also saves him from being performative - brands need to stop telling stories about actions, rather act so their stories can be told by the fans.”
Collaboration and inclusivity
“Harry is the channel master supreme,” says Shaykh. “Every channel he touches, be it music, film or live performance, shares a different side. This multidimensionality creates believability and buy-ability – and mixes in an element of surprise as you never know what and when is he going to say or do. Pulling up Shania Twain in his Coachella gig, the most unlikely of pairings, created a tremendous headline.”
O'Shaughnessy adds: “There is a healthy accessibility and relatability to Harry. He embraces and shows unending respect to his fans, audiences, and generations, ensuring they’re represented. He’s even on several occasions shut down the pigeon-holing of his fans by journalists – truly appreciating how his audiences continue to evolve. That takes humility which marketers can all learn from.”
This inclusive mind-set isn’t done off-the-cuff; Styles has made smart and strategic collaborations with people who have enhanced his values and grounded his vision.
Shaykh says: “Harry surrounds himself with a team that are an integral part of his androgynous appeal. The diversity of their presence also stops him from being labelled, which increases his mass appeal and relatability. Creating supportive content of self-representation is a norm for his fans.”
With a 50-million strong fanbase, Styles has true influential power to play with and takes this role seriously, highlighting stories he believes to be important and backing social causes he aligns with.
“Styles is what you might call judicious about the broader issues or causes that he gets behind,” says Nicky Vita, joint head of planning at VCCP. “He wants people to see and believe that when he does get involved he really means it.”
Titus agrees: “Harry is actually redefining what cool looks like. And that's really translating into brand value.”
Sure, Styles isn’t the first to challenge gender norms – David Bowie and Mick Jagger came long before him – but he is currently tackling the mainstream presentation of heteronormative and ultra-masculine culture.
Titus adds: “He’s teaching a lot of lessons to the next generation by advocating wearing skirts, being interested in skincare and using make-up. He's learning from the past, but redefining the future.”
By balancing high-end collaborations (Gucci) with affordable collections (Pleasing), his appeal spans multiple audiences and can democratically reach people at both ends of the spectrum.
Harry Styles – a musician or marketing man?
Mark Whelan, chairman of Havas Kings Cross, worked with Styles and One Direction on the creation of the band’s perfume in their heyday (below).
He testifies to Styles' uniqueness. "It’s a cliche, but Harry lights up a room even though he didn’t say very much. He was always smiling, always thanked every crew member - a good human.“
But this uniqueness also makes it difficult for brands to emulate, says Whelan. "What can brands learn from him? I don’t think they can, he’s one of a kind."
Whether his strategy is imitable or not, he certainly has a talent for getting people to embrace their whole selves and because he’s living that for himself, it’s a contagious attribute and one that his fans want to nurture for themselves.
“It will be interesting to watch where he ends up and how he maintains the fame he’s already accumulated,” says Titus. “It's taken a lot of strategic planning so far and you can tell he has a long-term vision for where he needs to get to. He's slowly building the Harry Styles brand and drip-feeding it to the public. Clearly whatever he's doing is actually working.”
The golden touch continues.