Alicia Chen
Nov 2, 2022

Art galleries and museums: the final frontier of brand licensing

The global art and cultural sector has woken up to the lucrative opportunities of brand licensing, matched by growing consumer demand for culturally-inspired products.

Perfect Diary cosmetics & Met Museum collaboration
Perfect Diary cosmetics & Met Museum collaboration

One surprising opportunity for brands the pandemic has triggered is the rapid growth of a whole new category of brand licensing: art and cultural IP. An increasing number of deals are being made between brands and museums to license their cultural IP - the artworks and artefacts of their collections - for use on physical and digital products across multiple sectors.  

Asia is proving to be a pioneering market in this area, both in terms of consumer demand for products featuring art and cultural imagery, as well as the innovation that brands and museums in the region are bringing to these partnerships, including NFTs, digital collectibles and video gaming partnerships that see cultural artefacts take on new life, and engage new audiences, in the digital realm.  

While the sports and entertainment categories have been dominating brand licensing for decades, it’s only since the start of the pandemic that the global art and cultural sector has woken up to the lucrative opportunities it offers. In 2020, visitor figures for the world’s top 100 art museums dropped by 77% as global lockdowns hit the cultural sector. This made it urgent for museums to find new revenue streams and provided a catalyst for this new brand licensing market. The emergence of the trend, however, had already been brewing.

In 2019, total global sales of licensed goods was $292.8 billion, following a sixth consecutive year of growth. Historically, art and museums have represented only 1.5%, but these sectors have consistently been showing the most growth.  China is a leading market. In 2020, art and cultural IP became the country’s second most important type of IP, jumping from less than 2% to over 18% in terms of retail sales of licensed merchandise. Beijing’s Palace Museum reportedly made $222 million through branded product sales in 2018 alone, the last time statistics were available, indicating the huge potential of this market. 

The opening up of this opportunity has been matched by significant consumer demand for culturally-inspired products, often driven by museums themselves. The Centre Pompidou has been growing its following in China during a 5-year partnership with West Bund Museum Project Shanghai  and recently partnered with Swatch to release a special range of watches, which are available in China.


Swatch - Centre Pompidou collaboration

The partnership saw the museum license famous works from their collection by Delaunay, Kandinsky, and Frida Kahlo. Meanwhile, following a range of marketing activities in China over the last view years, the British Museum’s TMall store receives on average 20 million visitors per year, 4 times more than visitors to the museum itself.  

The trend is showing up  across the wider region too. In Japan, we have seen a significant increase in enquiries from fashion and lifestyle brands about licensing opportunities relating to museum IP. Furthermore, while Japan used to be very popular with ‘character IP’ from the likes of Sanrio, famous for Hello Kitty, we have recently been seeing a shift from character IP to cultural IP within the market, which is set to continue.  

As the market continues to grow, here are some of the trends we are seeing shape it: 

1) Increasing sophistication

The products from brand and museum partnerships are becoming increasingly sophisticated as consumers continue to demand considered, aspirational products. The way that  Chinese beauty brand, Perfect Diary, has seamlessly integrated licensed artwork into an exclusive  product for Singles Day, as well as a limited-edition lipstick range in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are great examples of this. The latter resulted in 110 million reactions on Weibo and sales of 800,000 units. At ArtiStory, we even have a creative team whose remit is to create seasonal designs and themes inspired by our museum partners’ cultural IP, and informed by trend forecasts, in order to give brands a choice of contemporary designs to license. 

2) Transcending souvenirs 

While gifting is a predictably popular product category within art and cultural IP licensing, there is also a huge market for cosmetics, fashion, homeware, and even tech, accessories, food and beverage products. Oreo have famously collaborated with The Forbidden City on a range of new flavours that integrated art from the attraction into the design of the packaging, selling more than 760,000 boxes on its first day of sales.


Within tech, we recently worked with  smartphone brand TECNO to launch a special edition smartphone inspired by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, licensed by the Museum of Fine Art, Boston. These examples point to the diversity of opportunities within the market. 

Tecno - Mondrian collaboration

3) Gaming, NFTs and digital collectibles 

Earlier this year, the Belvedere museum in Vienna released 10,000 NFTs of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” on Valentine’s Day,generating sales of around €4.3 million ($4.17 million). Asia has proven to be a buoyant frontrunner in the NFT art craze with Central and Southeast Asia accounting for 35% of the $22 billion in global trade last year. Furthermore, last month’s TOKEN2049 event, Asia’s premier crypto conference, included an exhibition of NFT art worth over $100m while Crypto Art Week Asia, also held last month, showcased the huge diversity of artists working in digital formats across the region. Brands are yet to cash-in on this market and - despite a recent decline in the global NFT art market - examples like this show the huge opportunities and consumer demand for digital formats of art, which bodes well for brand partnerships if the NFT market recovers or as it evolves. It will be an interesting space to watch. 

Meanwhile, we have recently created a number of digital activations for theCity of Dunhuang, a UNESCO world heritage site on the Silk Road in China famous for its ancient art. These includea range ofdigital collectibles (the Chinese equivalent of NFTs which are independent of cryptocurrency and therefore less volatile), which sold out immediately after launch, and the licensing ofancient legaciesfor use in a new episode of the influential Chinese mobile game, Clash of Kings, bringing this ancient site to a whole new generation of gamers.  

4) Experiential is inescapable 

Combining AR and VR technology with cultural IP licensing is inevitable, especially considering the huge demand for experiential content we are seeing post-pandemic. The entertainment sector is leading the trend. Primark launched an 11-piece “Stranger Things” collection combined with in-store experiences at some locations while Hasbro have launched "Transformers VR: Battle Arena,” at The Zone in Dubai and Sala City Entertainment Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Within art and cultural IP, this month marks the launch of an immersive Monet-themed art experience at Terminal 2 Changi Airport “Monet: A Journey through seasons in Changi”  in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

5) Aesthetics vs. cultural sensitivity

While the beauty and aesthetic quality of art and cultural IP will always be a key driver behind a brand’s decision to license it, as the category continues to mature we are also likely to see a maturing in how brands choose to engage with art and cultural IP.  At a time when campaigns like the Unfiltered History Tour  from Vice World News and India’s Dentsu Webchutney is shining a light on the issue of cultural colonialism within some museum collections, brands have an opportunity to engage with art and cultural IP as a force for good, not only for its beauty. We are likely to see brands increasingly license artworks that reinforce their values and communicates about their stance on broader societal issues we know consumers care about, such as sustainability, diversity, inclusion, identity, authenticity and transparency.  

Alicia Chen is based in Singapore as the country manager and APAC business development director for ArtiStory, an IP licensing firm working with museums, galleries, science centres and libraries worldwide.  


Campaign Asia

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