Arts patronage 2.0

Brands and the arts: making creative partnerships work – trends, best practices and insights into successful collaborations.

Several high-profile examples of relationships between companies and the arts show the media appeal of cultural collaborations. But how can truly creative communications emerge from these unlikely partnerships?

Image: Swatch Art Peace Hotel / Photo: Swatch Ltd.

5 rules of successful brands and arts collaborations

  1. Assess whether the collaboration makes sense: Companies should get involved only if they are ready to commit a significant amount of time and resources. It is also important to assess potential risks as sponsorships by companies from certain sectors might face scrutiny from consumers and activist groups. Effective partnership is a matter of having a strategy and gradually expanding the company’s relationships with the art community, so it becomes part of the brand’s value system.
  2. Go beyond logo sponsorships and look for meaningful and systematic ways of engagement and creating memorable experiences: Mere “logo” sponsorships have become a thing of the past. Successful creative partnerships need effort to make it a mutually beneficial engagement.. The brand’s contribution should go beyond just giving a financial grant. Companies have connections, knowledge, and expertise that can assist artists in their work or help art institutions to become more sustainable.
  3. Initiate and co-create, but give artists creative freedom: In art collaborations, loosening control and giving artists creative freedom to do their work is key. It might seem too risky, but only then will the partnership result in a real artwork.
  4. Make your employees the ambassadors of your programme and get senior management on board: Effective art collaborations start by building the understanding of the creative partnership and its goals within the company. It is important to engage employees, so they can transmit their excitement externally and become brand champions and ambassadors. The success of brands and arts collaborations also relies on the management, who should be aware of partnerships goals, progress and business impact.
  5. Storytelling and engagement matter: As much as a brand or a company invests in establishing a true creative partnership, they should also put sufficient effort into telling its story. Digital media provides many opportunities to engage the public in a conversation about art and culture and gives them a deeper experience of creative collaborations.

Consumers are becoming more demanding, and, as many recent surveys show, brands need to go beyond merely providing a quality product or service to win customers# hearts and minds. They need to create memorable experiences and engage target audiences around their points of passion and interests, with art being a key way to do that.

At the same time, with public funding of museums and other cultural institutions facing constant cuts, they start to look into establishing corporate partnerships with the goal of making their operations more sustainable. When implemented in a smart way, collaborations between companies and cultural organisations have the potential to invigorate the brand’s communications while filling a widening gap in the art world.

However, to be successful, such initiatives should be based on a clear long-term strategy, take into account each side’s sensibilities and goals as well as engage a variety of internal and external stakeholders.

With the goal of determining what makes creative partnerships work and what trends are driving their future, we conducted an international study - Brands and the arts: Making creative partnerships work. Trends, best practices, and insights into successful collaborations - which included the analysis of more than 40 corporate art programmes and interviews with consultants and managers responsible for engagements at major global brands such as Absolut, BMW, Cadillac, Davidoff, Dior, Hennessy, Swatch, to name a few.

Beyond logo sponsorship

Our research shows that successful art collaborations require significant commitment in terms of time, effort and investment. One-off projects based on stamping an artistic image on a product, or a brand’s logo on a press wall at a sponsored cultural event, could potentially do more damage than bring benefits.

Such superficial involvement could demonstrate that the brand lacked the effort needed to properly understand the arts community and communicate with it in a meaningful way. To be effective, brand engagement with the arts should go further, and many long-time corporate art supporters are constantly reviewing their programmes to try out new approaches and to make existing initiatives more strategic, systematic and sustainable.

For years, BMW has been involved in a variety of art initiatives ranging from BMW Art Cars, created in collaboration with acclaimed artists, to sponsorships of world-renowned cultural institutions, festivals and events. In 2015 the company launched an extension to its long-term partnership with the Art Basel contemporary art fair – the BMW Art Journey.

Built around the brand’s idea of mobility, the award goes beyond just financial support and offers artists from the fair’s emerging art section an opportunity to undertake a journey of creative discovery. Winners can go almost anywhere in the world by any means of transportation — to conduct research, make contacts and create new artworks.

The Swedish alcohol brand Absolut has been collaborating with artists for over 30 years. Its arts strategy also includes the Absolut Art Award for artists and cultural writers as well as special art bars at major cultural events around the world. In 2015, Absolut went even further, creating a separate entity, Absolut Art, a venture that strives to bring more art to people’s homes and presents an online portal where the works of emerging artists can be discovered and bought at affordable prices.

Swatch has been partnering with creatives around its art watch editions since the foundation of the Swiss brand in 1980s. Today, it also serves as the main partner of the Venice Biennale where it presents installations by contemporary artists and works created by the participants of the Swatch artist residency in Shanghai.

New brand roles: art experience creator, content creator and educator

As part of the study, we have identified five different types of platforms used by brands to engage with the art world, such as brand- collaborator, brand-mentor, brand-art experience creator, brand-art content creator and brand-educator. One brand can play all these roles at the same time, and this typology aims to help companies think strategically and best conceptualise their art programmes to fruition.

An analysis of current art programmes shows that increasingly, brands not only collaborate with artists on product design or advertising, or provide financial support to young talent, but are also starting to create their own cultural spaces, to develop art-themed content and to launch programmes aimed at educating the public about the value of the arts and making culture more accessible.

In 2015, Cadillac opened a cultural space on the first floor of its headquarters in New York City. It serves as home to several partnerships, including exhibitions curated by the luxury art and fashion magazine Visionaire, a mentoring programme for designers in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and a local specialty coffeehouse.

To showcase its commitment to creativity, the American sports apparel and footwear brand Vans runs permanent and pop-up Houses of Vans in several cities around the world inviting fans to enjoy art exhibitions, workshops and concerts.

In partnership with the non-profit Americans for the Arts, Vans also organises the annual Custom Culture competition, which aims to bring attention to diminishing arts education and to empower high school students in the US to express themselves creatively.

There are also a number of examples of brands creating content on the topics of arts and culture. BMW partners with the contemporary art platform Independent Collectors to publish an art guide to publically accessible private collections around the world, UBS presents the Planet Art application, which brings together major art news, and Tiffany worked with The New York Times to create a series of short films offering a fresh perspective on the art world.

New players: mass-market and technology brands

Beyond the usual suspects in the luxury segment, an increasing range of companies including mass market and technology brands are starting to explore creative partnerships.

The Japanese clothing retailer UNIQLO supports free admission programmes at some of the world’s major museums: Friday nights at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, UNIQLO Tate Late in London, UNIQLO MoMu Sundays in Antwerp, and Friday Nights at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow.

Google created the impressive Google Arts and Culture Project platform, which allows users to see artworks from around the world in high definition, to read articles about artists and movements and to follow other special themes. In addition, the Google Cultural Institute organises art residencies for artists to test its digital tools and applications.

Adobe runs the Adobe Creative Residency Programme, which empowers talented individuals to spend a year focusing on a personal creative project while blogging about their experiences and speaking at conferences.

New types of collaborations: unexpected, edgy, and based on brand expertise

We are also witnessing more unexpected partnerships. For example, to reach younger audiences and to add an edgy flair to their products, some high-end heritage brands, especially in the watch industry (i.e. Richard Mille, Hublot, and Romain Jerome), are starting to collaborate with trendy street, graffiti and tattoo artists.

Studies have confirmed the value of the so-called “art fusion” phenomenon, which suggests that the art has the power to bring creative energy to a brand and to influence its positioning. So, if partnerships around classic culture deliver connotations of heritage, luxury and prestige, collaborations with contemporary artists can highlight a brand’s connection with the present.

To showcase their openness and respect for creative freedom, some brands are partnering with artists who have criticised them specifically or the consumer culture in general. For example, for its spring 2017 collection, US apparel retailer J.Crew collaborated with the street artist Michael De Feo, who had previously challenged the brand and its corporate messaging by painting on top of its ads.

As contemporary art often requires sophisticated technology and materials, this represents another opportunity to cooperate and to make artistic dreams a reality. The chemical corporation BASF recently collaborated with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the American artist Doug Wheeler around his PSAD Synthetic Desert III installation.

For almost 50 years, Wheeler thought about creating a serene and silent escape, and this was eventually realised with the help of BASF’s sound-absorbing material Basotect. The company became so involved into installation development, it eventually took on sponsorship of the exhibition. 

More focus on expert counsel, artist education and storytelling

As creative partnerships become more complex, they also require more sophisticated artistic counsel, and many brands are bringing in art consultants who can advise on art world specifics, its needs and sensibilities.

Another trend is artists’ deeper engagement with brands. Good collaborations involve a lengthy process of education, so the artist is fully immersed and has a good understanding of the brand, its values, and history. For example, artists involved in the Hennessy 250 tour project spent almost a year learning about the cognac production process and the history of the legendary brand.

Storytelling is becoming even more crucial to communicate creative partnerships to their target audiences, and some brands like BMW and Swatch are setting up separate social media accounts dedicated to their cultural initiatives.

Brands need to find their unique voice and to consider what kind of content will resonate best with their stakeholders. Besides being interesting and relevant, it should also be fair and respectful to the art world.

"Brands need to find their unique voice and to consider what kind of content will resonate best with their stakeholders."

More companies are striving to engage their stakeholders via art and to create so-called ‘cultural brands’ that have the arts and culture at their core. However, their ability to make these values part of their DNA depends on whether they can turn collaborations into truly sustainable and crisis-proof partnerships that make sense from the business perspective while contributing to the art world development.

Anastasia Elaeva

Anastasia Elaeva is the head of corporate communications at the Moscow office of global public relations agency Grayling. In this role, she is responsible for communications strategy development and implementation for international corporations and foreign Embassies in Russia. She also advises her clients on creative partnerships with arts and cultural institutions