Brands have emerged as one of the most important and possibly wealthiest patrons of the arts, replacing royalty and rich, powerful individuals as primary supporters.
Zayn Khan, Southeast Asia chief executive at global design and innovation consultancy Dragon Rouge, says that brand-artist collaborations can be powerful if there is a natural link between the vision of the brand and the vision of the artist.
“Brands create narratives or at least they should, and great art also tells stories,” he adds. “When there is alignment between the two points of view, you can get real synergy. Or better yet, magic.”
Alex Wilson, Co-CEO at Flamingo Group, says the approaches of brands as patrons continue to evolve.
“At a basic level, sponsorship of events provides a gain in credibility, image and creative credentials,” he adds. “What Andy Warhol called ‘cultural capital’”.
Wilson notes that brands have certainly matured and evolved as patrons in the Asia-Pacific region and that many still retain an element of creative control in return for their support.
In April, Lenovo staged an art exhibition in Singapore, bringing together 10 of the country’s rising artists to create a series of artworks across 10 different locations.
Without sharing specifics, Nazia Hayat, global engagement programs manager at Lenovo, says that the campaign in Singapore managed to achieve “a lot on a number of levels.”
The brand also saw it as an opportunity to work with the creative community.
“Technology has always opened up new avenues for artists to explore and at times even push the boundaries of art itself,” Hayat says. “We felt this technology could do exactly that,” Hayat adds.
In searching out artists to work with, Lenovo was selective, with criteria based on whether the person would be a good fit for the brand and the usage of its product.
In addition, the artists signed a contract with the company’s agency, which stipulated the scope of work and commitment to the project to protect the company from any potential issues.
In November, Taiwanese PC maker Asus launched a global campaign to promote its ZenFone 2 smartphone. The photo collaboration competition was fronted by popular Instagrammer Robert Jahns and invited people to share an image of their own by reimagining an image from Jahns’ gallery.
“Asus and the ZenFone have a modern image that fits with my kind of work,” says Jahns. “I was free to create and always had a voice in terms of establishing what I was not comfortable doing.”
Khan says that in order for brand-artist collaborations to succeed, there needs to be a link between the art and the brand’s positioning, promise, values and personality.
“And if it’s part of a campaign, then the two must work hand-in-hand to achieve similar objectives,” he adds. “In this sense, art can be a medium, just like print or digital, albeit much more engaging and thought-provoking.”
When art is employed in a token way, Khan notes, and there is no real strategic link with the brand, then it’s more of a gimmick or a stunt. It might create some short-term buzz, but it does neither party any long-term good.
Jonny Stark, Asia-Pacific SVP at Razorfish, warns against throwing money at influencers or creators without thinking about whether it makes sense for the brand.
“For Asus, it was a case of us approaching Jahns and saying ‘we love what you do’ and working out how the brand could help and co-create something together,” Stark adds.
When playthings become political
However, there are also cases where artists in their work use brands or their products independently — what happens then?
Since 2013, Greek artist Nikos Papadopoulos has been using Playmobil toys to create dioramas on issues such as refugee migration in Europe and the Greek financial crisis.
Playmobil shut down his first fansite “on the grounds of trademark infringement and the ‘political’ use of their products.” After negotiations, the second site now features a disclaimer disavowing Playmobil’s involvement.
"The notion of a brand that makes and sells play characters policing how people play with them is in the realm of the absurd. I imagine they would disagree with the violence children inflict on those characters every day.”
“When artists commandeer brands, I think they are within their rights as cultural anthropologists and commentators,” says Khan. “Whether it’s Warhol using Heinz or Papadopoulos using Playmobil, these are legitimate artistic expressions.”
Khan adds that there is little that brands can do, and to shut down every artist that uses or alludes to a brand in their work would be, in his view, an attack on fundamental freedom of expression.
Wilson agrees, adding that Playmobil’s threat of legal action for copyright infringement is “misguided” and a case where the brand assumes any artwork using them is akin to advertising.
“To me, the notion of a brand that makes and sells play characters policing how people play with them is in the realm of the absurd,” he adds. “I imagine they would disagree with the violence children inflict on those characters every day.”
The case of artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a critic of Chinese authorities, who claimed Lego refused to supply a “large quantity” of bricks for an art exhibition in Australia, is more complex.
“Lego is wary of discrimination with the artist but also the activist,” adds Wilson. “Whilst from a policy perspective Lego has been clear on their objections, the choice to become embroiled on social media and to politicise the brand is their own downfall — one that is not invited by the artist nor the art itself.”
Lego eventually changed its policy after weeks of criticism. Wilson adds that brands need to accept that when artists use their brand, it takes on a meaning that is out of their control.
“Given all modern art concerns itself with a discourse on capitalism, there’s a high chance brands will be used as a critique of that system, including consumption and its excesses,” he says.
Khan says that brand owners should let the artists be and move on.
“Or if the artist has picked up on a profound hypocrisy with your brand, then do something about it,” he adds.