How Brands and Artists Can Find the Perfect Collaborative Harmony

It's not easily done, but it shows a deep degree of originality and innovation

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Art and brands: Two worlds forever divided by different values and priorities, or natural collaborators with huge potential for mutual enrichment?

I know where Andy Warhol stood. His famous comment, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art” sums up the potential of commerce to have a positive impact on art, and vice versa.

He’s not the only one to feel that way. There’s a long history of successful collaboration that goes back to Pears soap’s use of Millais’ Bubbles painting in the 19th century, and continues today with campaigns such as Pepsi’s “LOVE IT. LIVE IT. FOOTBALL.”

Yet these collaborations are not easy. Artistic credibility is hard-won, so it’s tenaciously defended, and a mere suggestion of inauthenticity from brand or artist has the potential to cause lasting damage.

How then can brands collaborate successfully with artists?

Fundamental collaborations

In the early days, it worked for brands to simply buy or commission work, as Pears did with Millais. More recently we have seen brands adopting artists as brand ambassadors. Famously, Diageo linked Diddy with Cîroc vodka to achieve impressive commercial results.

There’s a place for these approaches, but in an age of increasing skepticism, the most successful collaborations are those involving a more meaningful partnership between artist and brand, working together from conception to execution and finding solutions that can fundamentally shape a brand.

Artistic credibility is hard-won, so it’s tenaciously defended, and a mere suggestion of inauthenticity from brand or artist has the potential to cause lasting damage.

A good example is GE’s work to improve understanding of its ground-breaking developments in neuroscience. To bring brain activity to life for non-scientific minds, the brand teamed up with artists to produce a series of six artworks. Scientists and artists collaborated to creatively express how the brain responds when it’s in love or how the neural responses of an optimist can differ to those of an introvert. Similarly, the collaboration between artists alongside the entomologists of Raid insecticide brings to life (or death, if viewed from a bug perspective) the effectiveness of the Raid product in a playful and captivating way.

Both imaginatively grabbed public attention and show what’s possible when, and rather than simply using artists as promotional tools, brands seed artists in their workflow.

Louis Vuitton goes deeper

These partnerships can help brands innovate in unforeseen ways. Look at the remarkable 2017 collaboration between Louis Vuitton and the Chapman brothers. It resulted in a men’s collection that was a brilliantly subversive take on the gentleman traveler, mixing the brand’s traditional classic luxury with the punk shock of Jake and Dinos Chapman and the wildness of Africa.

Louis Vuitton is progressive enough to thread artists directly through its innovation and discovery process, engaging them to work from its Paris headquarters on contracts where they help to innovate, stress-test concepts and inject fresh thinking into its process. 

Benefits of a creative collective

These deeper collaborations are rich in opportunity for brand and artist alike, but they’re not without risk. It can be tough for artists to know which brand is right to partner with. And it can be just as tough for brand managers to accept the uncertainty that comes with artistic collaboration. How do they find the artist that best represents their brand? And how can one brand create an environment in which art can thrive?

One answer is to tap into an established creative community, where artists from different backgrounds and disciplines are already working together—and with brands.

Andy Warhol’s Factory was a community of artists, muses and anyone Warhol found interesting, but it was also a creative network linking commerce and art. By engaging this kind of collective of artists, designers, thinkers and makers, brands can tap into a range of skills and artistic specialisms to come up with truly original ideas.

This Factory-style hub of artistic expression can take commercial collaboration to a new level, using the breadth and depth of talent in the collective to match the right artists with each creative challenge. Even with this kind of support, brand and artist partnerships are not easy, but get them right, and these deeper, more courageous integrations can result in great art and powerful commercial opportunities. Because, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, the best art is good business.