Branded Deluxe: The art of collaboration

February 06, 2014  |  Mark Tungate  |  Comments

Partnering with well-known artists can give brands a lift

Mark Tungate is based in Paris. His column from the capital of fashion and luxury appears regularly.

When the brand communications agency Exposure (offices in London, New York and Tokyo) was working on the 150th anniversary of Martini recently, the team gained access to the classic Italian vermouth brand’s advertising archive. “It was full of work by well-known artists,” says agency CEO and co-founder Raoul Shah. “Even Andy Warhol designed one of the posters.”

ArtPop, Lady Gaga's album cover collaboration with artist Jeff Koons

As Shah observes, Martini has never made collaborations with artists a central pillar of its marketing strategy. But several other brands have. Absolut, for example, has been enlisting artists to help create its ads since the 1980s—including Keith Haring and, once again, Warhol.

“That’s clearly why Warhol called his atelier The Factory,” says Shah. “He was the first artist to embrace commercial creativity, to break down the barriers between art and mass communications.”
Back then, of course, Warhol was being provocative. These days the art world has a much cozier relationship with brands. Nicolas Ghesquière, the new women’s wear designer at Louis Vuitton, recently praised outgoing designer Marc Jacobs for his innovative collaborations with artists, including Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami. Toting a bag with a Murakami print on it added a dash of cultural awareness to your status symbolism.

Meanwhile, Lady Gaga has named her latest album ArtPop and teamed up with Jeff Koons, featuring one of his sculptures on the cover and celebrating his work at an “art rave” in Brooklyn. Art and pop are natural bedfellows—and so are art and luxury. Listed among the “partners” of the annual contemporary art orgy that is Art Basel Miami Beach are Davidoff cigars, Ruinart champagne, Audemars Piguet watches and private plane provider Netjets.

This makes perfect sense, as the luxury industry often tries to equate its products with culture and creativity. But sponsoring an art sale is rather less risky than collaborating with an artist, in the manner of Vuitton or its fellow French baggage brand Longchamp, which asked British artist Tracey Emin to design a range of limited edition bags.

Shah notes that partnering with artists is fraught with potential problems. “First you have to make absolutely sure that the chemistry is right between the chosen artist and the brand. They both need to be happy with what the deal says about their image. Now that Warhol is no longer with us, it’s hard to think of a more suitable art partner for Lady Gaga than Jeff Koons, for instance.”

He also warns against engaging an artist if you’re on a tight deadline. “Art needs time. When we talk to artists, they can cite a timeframe of 18 months to two years. They don’t just churn stuff out.”
Then there’s the issue of creative freedom. “Be clear about the brand guidelines up front and make sure the parameters are firmly established. Don’t tie them down—but protect yourself.”

Brands can take the fairly safe route of simply licensing a pattern or a design created by a well-known artist. But that’s far less effective as an image-enhancing device than commissioning exclusive pieces—like the sculptures by Matt Keegan and Aaron Curry that Dior Homme designer Kris Van Assche commissioned last year for the brand’s stores in, respectively, New York and Los Angeles.

“You need to be mindful of the environment in which art works,” says Shah. “A contemporary art piece can fade into the background in a store. But it works extremely well in a hotel lobby.”

Even just talking to artists can be frustrating, he adds. “Brands and artists rarely speak the same language. To an extent the gallerists are agents, but that’s another world, too. As an agency we often broker these deals because we find it easier to move between the two worlds.”

The youngest generation of artists realizes that brands can provide an important communications vector—a way of getting their work in front of the public. It’s also worth pointing out that three of the world’s most influential art collectors are also well aware of the power of branding: François Pinault, founder of luxury conglomerate Kering (which owns Gucci and Saint Laurent Paris, among others); Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Givenchy, etc.) and, of course, British ad industry legend Charles Saatchi.

It’s questionable that advertising can be considered an art form — and even more doubtful that a handbag can successfully masquerade as a sculpture. But there’s no question that when brands yearn for a bit of highbrow cachet, they’ll continue to reach out to the art world.

Mark Tungate’s “Branded Deluxe” column appears regularly in Marketing. This story originally appeared in the January/February issue. To get your hands on his insights into luxury marketing right away, subscribe today.

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