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How brand collaborations with artists can add or diminish value

The perfect marriage is one where core values align and the essence of the brand is injected with a burst of new meaning.

Tiffany & Co.’s recent collaboration saw New York-based contemporary artist Daniel Arsham apply his signature style to the maison’s iconic blue box, which has embodied its identity since 1845, making headlines around the world.

No stranger to brand collaborations, the artist’s impressive and diverse portfolio from Heinz and Disney to Porsche, Pokémon and Dior is a testimony to his broad commercial appeal and popularity among celebrities and musicians alike, including Pharrell Williams, James Franco, Jay-Z and Usher.

As Arsham makes his mark across industries, one could question what it is about him that benefits the brands and, at the other end of the spectrum, why some companies fail miserably in their endeavours to differentiate themselves through creative partnerships.

One explanation that works in the artist’s favour is his ability to add value to brands in a way that offers the right amount of incongruity to be accepted by consumers and be a suitable fit for the companies with which he works.

“If the audience doesn’t believe in the collaboration as an authentic effort to ‘create’, then it is likely to fail.” – Toni Eagar

“When things fit too closely, the audience fails to see the difference and there is no added value through the collaboration. If things are too incongruous then the audience doesn’t understand why they are together and they ignore it,” explains Toni Eagar, lecturer at the Australian National University and marketing academic.

In the instance of the Tiffany & Co. partnership, both Arsham and the luxury jeweller share a passion to innovate, push the boundaries of creativity and have a respect for skilled craftsmanship. However, by giving the blue box an aged appearance, the artist alludes to the history of the brand, achieved with a custom hand-finished patina as well as through distortion.

“A lot of my work is really about taking things that people already know and have an expectation about and transforming that,” Arsham shares. “Subtlety combined with this very jarring aesthetic can be very impactful for people.”

Arguably the most powerful impact an artist can have on a brand is to give it new meaning that distinguishes it in a busy marketplace, as well as strengthening the company’s image by association with the artist.

“In a cluttered mediascape, having an artist or piece of art that people like attached to your own communication efforts can help get people’s attention, which is the first step in getting them to buy something,” Eagar says. “It can lift a company from the economic drudgery of everyday operations into consideration of the aesthetic experience and creative expression that can provide true differentiation in a crowded marketplace full of jaded consumers.”

brand collaborations
The power of illustration to communicate the essence of a brand. Image: Minor Figures

A longstanding partnership that springs to mind, and also a well-documented favourite among US celebrities – Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Naomi Campbell among them – was the 13-year partnership between French luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, from 2002–2015. It has been referred to as the brand’s most successful marriage between art and business, while appealing to a greater demographic and bringing existing customers on board with the more vivid statement.

Raising both the profiles of the brand and the artist, Murakami’s Monogram Multicolore designs are best remembered for their “refreshing pop of colour,” adding a playful quality to the handbags that was met with enthusiasm by consumers, as it grew to become an extremely popular accessory prior to the rise of minimalism.

In the artist’s words, “I offer the middle ground, something that is just the right temperature for Western audiences.”

A more recent collaboration, where illustration served to communicate a company’s values in a relatable and memorable fashion, is London-based coffee brand Minor Figures joining forces with illustrator and graphic novelist Andrew Rae.

An everyday necessity like oat milk was brought to life with a series of quirky characters that celebrate the simple aspects of life while capturing the spirit of the brand and demanding attention as an ordinary beverage is made to seem extraordinary. As a brand that goes against societal norms, the packaging highlights this point of difference perfectly across its ready-to-drink products, communicating to consumers that the brand is all about having fun.

There really is no simple answer for why some brands fail with their creative collaborations where others succeed.

“If the company is trying to add meaning, then it’s a complicated dance of looking at the plethora of meanings that an artist may possess and trying to connect with the desired elements,” Eagar affirms.

“If the audience doesn’t believe in the collaboration as an authentic effort to ‘create’, then it is likely to fail.”

When Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons revealed the launch of Masters in 2017, there was confusion about the intention of the collaboration and its aesthetic move to having famous masterpieces by artists such as Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Rubens printed onto its bags. Was the artist attempting to appeal to a wide audience familiar with these works and, if so, would this not be better suited to a tourist gift store? This lack of clarity suggests the importance for brands to have an understanding of their audience and where they sit within both their industry and the art world.

Creative collaboration considerations

  • As Eagar explains, companies with a history of creativity are likely to find it easier to be understood by their audience when using art to engage them authentically with their product offering. Brands without this creative stamp need to be aware that their efforts could be perceived by consumers as a form of “art washing”, which can be avoided if they appear genuine and authentic.
  • The right partnership provides companies with the opportunity to access untapped audiences, differentiate themselves and gain new meaning via association with the artist, provided the brand does its homework.
  • As brands increasingly use their voice to make social statements, a collaboration can serve to strengthen a company’s commitment to sustainability, for instance, so long as the partnership of aligned values is received as genuine.
  • A certain amount of incongruity is necessary for audiences to recognise a change and not dismiss it, either by being too similar or different.

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