The medium is the message and the brand is the medium
Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase: “the medium is the message”, it is safe to say that today the medium is the brand. Therefore, existing communication should be redefined. The brand itself should generate exceptional content.
Building a community
The role of modern marketing is to tell the world about the values that brands represent. Building a community around a particular idea, theme, discipline is a strategic role of contemporary communication, or at least it should be. Formulating and shaping engagement in art projects requires specific, often diverse means of expression and a skilful choice of media. It also requires a rethink as to whether the medium is appropriate to reach the set objectives. The ancient and invariably significant principle of decorum may prove to be a valuable signpost here.
Looking at both global trends and a social and cultural landscape that has been heavily dominated first by the experience economy, then by the pandemic, it is clear that certain tried and tested patents no longer work. Complementarity and diversity give brands the expressive power they need to build a strong position. Individual initiatives become difficult to spot in the neverending competition between rival impressions – judged by an international consumer jury – in which brands participate.
Humans are creatures of habit, of association, operating with a specific range of cultural codes. Brands, in turn, are their reflection. In the chaos of excess, the abundance of sensations, stimuli, the Niagara of possibilities, it is easy for even the brands themselves to get lost. Long before the invention of marketing (although since the dawn of time a large part of our species has shown talent in this respect) mankind had a brilliant idea – they invented the map. The map comes to the rescue when the fact of the component elements being composed of multiple threads, which is undoubtedly an asset in itself, becomes a challenge to perception.
Magazines, guidebooks, maps, services or journals are evidence of a strategy or idea whose origin lies not in the juggling of communication trends, but in an awareness of the non-business functions performed by brands. Besides, a healthy self-confidence is nothing reprehensible. If you do something well, it is not only worth to brag about it, but in fact, it is mandatory. Otherwise the veil of falsehood will come down on the whole show prematurely. For there is nothing worse than pretending that business objectives don’t exist.
More than a map
Proof of the art branding commitment can be seen in the art guides. Brands are happy to publish them solo or in collaboration with institutions, galleries, other brands, and ultimately with the publishing houses. They are like maps of a brand’s intellectual potential. Brands use art branding in a variety of ways, as they see it as a source of values that can give them a timeless appeal. Wisdom, erudition are worth more today than short-lived, showy displays. Consistent communication, on the other hand, gives everything credibility.
Building an artistic or cultural brand universe is a complex, long-term process, which is often subject to polarisation. The variety of forms of engagement, the sheer number of projects and activities may give rise to a feeling of confusion, sensory overload or even cognitive dissonance in the audience. This is why summaries, yearbooks, reports, as well as portals or services that act as hubs of multi-thread and multi-dimensional activity are so popular. They resemble a business card to which one can always return.
Print, despite increasing digitalisation, has its irresistible charm and prestige. It’s form is more concrete and personal. That is why printed editions enjoy enduring success. Take, for example, the BMW brand known for its support of artistic projects. From opera to jazz, from performing arts to painting, from its own curatorial projects headed by the BMW Art Car Collection to its presence at key art fairs such as Art Basel and the Frieze Art Fair. BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors is a good example of the marriage of a brand and an independent institution. The project is aimed both at art collectors, connoisseurs and world art experts, as well as “civilians” – admirers of artistic impressions or cultural tourists. For the former, BMW appears as a brand that is aware, committed and well versed in nuances. For the latter, it is a guide to the world of art, a brand that is well connected and established and also knowledgeable in the field. The aim of the publication is to popularise private collections, previously often inaccessible to the public. So we have both an egalitarian and an expert thread in a successful tandem. Moreover, up until the time of the pandemic break-out, the aforementioned cultural tourism was experiencing a noticeable growth, and being appreciated by an informed public is better than a hidden treasure on a map. The fifth edition of the BMW Art Guide by Independent Collectors is now available, supported by a well-designed website, thanks to which we can explore the galleries and parts of their collections. BMW also has a scholarship project called Art Journey, where it takes the artists on the eponymous journey, while providing the public with a map to discover the art on their own.
The baedeker format is extremely capacious despite its pocket-sized form. This makes it very attractive for brands. There are many reasons for this popularity, although one seems to be of outstanding significance – the opportunity to be perceived as a conscious brand. Aware of world’s cultural treasures, modern forms of good living, popular places, trends and tendencies. After all, a guidebook is not just a collection of places worth visiting, it is also a list that helps to express the spirit of the times. To notice and ‘zoom-in’ on places, customs or phenomena. Brands want to send a clear message – we are part of a better world; a world that we represent and that we ourselves create. That’s why Louis Vuitton published The City Guide series (in paper and electronic form) – a collection of several dozen guidebooks showcasing artistic, cultural, hedonistic or escapist pleasures. From Istanbul, Taipei and Tokyo via Rome, Prague, New York, or Sao Paulo all the way up to Paris. It is appropriate for a brand associated with travel (it started with the production of suitcases and luggage) to offer such publications.
More than a magazine
Publishing one’s own magazine can often be a key element in building a brand’s cultural identity. A platform, where brands can articulate their philosophy. Print magazines have a slightly different form, publication cycle and design as compared to online editions. The irresistible charm of the magazine relies on its tangible, artistic, intellectual dimension. On the possibility of condensing many aspects in a closed composition, often conceived as a synthesis of the arts, where the text corresponds with the photographs, typography, illustration or other graphic elements. The most important thing, however, is that the form does not outweigh the content, and that the sales threads do not reduce everything to a mercantile catalogue. Subtlety of emphasis is essential for a periodical to be credible. Some magazines did not stand the test of time, others began to live their own lives and became autonomous, often prestigious publications. The Pirelli Calendar or the Italian magazine “Colors” became artistic success stories. The latter was founded in 1991 by Oliviero Toscani and graphic artist Tibor Kalman. “Colors” was dedicated to the problems and phenomena of contemporary reality, as expressed by its motto, today no longer in use: “A magazine about the rest of the world”.
Ninety print editions of the magazine were published, after which it moved to Instagram. Its concept was revolutionary. A bold, expressive layout and, as the title itself indicates, an exuberant colour palette. Photography was his primary medium, superior to the written word. The lens was always directed towards social phenomena, which is characteristic of Toscani’s work. The magazine represented the world in all its ethnic, cultural and social diversity. It pointed to global problems and their local solutions. It did not lecture, but talked about the world with enthusiastic engagement. It wasn’t afraid of difficult topics, but it opted for a lighter form, reaching for pop aesthetics. Kalman previously served as creative director at “Interview” magazine, founded by Andy Warhol. “Colors” is an eminently ‘signature’ concept: restless, shimmering, nomadic (its previous editorial offices were located in New York, Rome and Paris) as well as cosmopolitan. The magazine was created over the years at Fabrice – a communication research centre founded in 1994 by the company’s founder, Luciano Benetton. Fabrica is a concept which is quite complex in nature, combining the aspects of a think tank with an extensive scholarship programme. It examines, among other things, the concept of design (understood both as original design as well as graphic design, exhibitions and experience design), business strategies that utilize it, publishing activities (including writing, music, film, traditional, electronic and experimental media), narrative construction strategies and social campaigns. This latter area is one of the main elements of the brand’s identity. For nearly two decades Oliviero Toscani has been involved in creating the communication and the unique environment of the Benetton brand. The concept of art combined with a strong social accent, was also reflected in the image of Benetton created by Toscani. The “Colors” magazine and the Fabrica centre were also the space for the development of his ideas.
Recent years have seen the establishment of enough magazines, that function as mirrors for reflecting the aesthetic or intellectual ‘faces’ of brands, to consider this form of communication as significant. Acne Studios, Hermès, Christie’s, Aston Martin, Bentley, Dior, Carhartt WIP and many other brands have taken up their own magazine publishing.
Print is quality, print is time and time is luxury. Print is the tangible, the experiential. Finally, print, as already mentioned, is more personal in nature. Sometimes the magazines published by individual brands also have a collector’s value. An interesting example of such a collection are the published series produced by the Spanish fashion house Loewe, which has been headed by Jonathan Anderson for several years. Their publications include the fanzine “Eye/LOEWE/You”, an album produced in collaboration with the Paula’s Ibiza boutique or the Loewe Classics literary series. It included six titles published in the language of the original edition, each elegantly assembled by studio M/M (Paris) and illustrated with archival photographs by Steven Meisel. The series included: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Dracula by Bram Stocker and The Portrait of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.
“Le Monde d’Hermès” published twice a year, captures the essence, and its intimate title – the ‘œuvre’, of the French brand. Often the luxury brands reach for the concept of the art book. Their unique character and limited editions are perfect as attributes for the erudites. Gucci, led by Alessandro Michele, recently released Beaten & Blown by the Wind. The book is a photographic record of the introductory Autumn 2020 collection. With photographs in the distinctive ‘street’ style by Bruce Gilden. The models were the residents of the Eternal City, as well as Rome itself. Other brands, such as Louis Vuitton, which publishes the Fashion Eye series in addition to its pocket guides, conduct similar initiatives. It consists of books that are a photographic record of a journey around a chosen city, region or country. An interesting curatorial ‘trick’ is the key to selecting the authors – they are always fashion photographers. We are therefore dealing with both a reporter’s approach and looking at reality through the prism of photo shoots. Animate and inanimate nature, architecture and people, all play their part in the show: the Ukrainian Carpathians seen through the eyes of the Synchrodogs duo, the French Riviera captured by Slim Aarons or Peter Lindbergh’s Berlin or François Halard’s Greece. Another published series is the Travel Book, which uses illustration instead of photographs. It includes among others, portraits of the following: St Petersburg by Kelly Beeman, Morocco by Marcle Dzama (an outstanding edition) or Barcelona by Marc Desgrandchamps.
The cultural competence of brands and their involvement in artistic projects is one issue. Another issue is, that they themselves have acquired star-status in the skies of the modern pop culture. They themselves become the protagonists of many album publications, which are commissioned either by themselves or as independent initiatives. Readers often crave the knowledge about the history, aesthetics, products or philosophy of the particular brands. Every now and then, Rizzoli, Taschen, Phaidon, Die Gestalten Verlag publish volumes devoted to both the sporting giant Nike and the niche perfume manufacturer Frédéric Malle. Assouline has a whole series consisting of books dedicated to luxury brands, while Thames & Hudson – to the fashion shows of a selected fashion house.
Self-presentation and the Internet of Things
The internet has changed the rules of the game – it is a statement suitable for any occasion, as it is also in this case. In terms of unique and valuable content and ‘signature’ approaches, the internet has also contributed to a completely different way of brand management. Almost every established brand has a link on its website menu dedicated to non-business activities – covering a range of issues dealing with arts and culture, travel and cuisine, and even sport – aimed at building brand identity and its social and community aspect. Integrating it into the global lifestyle circuit. Sometimes it is just dry information, an extract from currently conducted activities. Sometimes, however, it is more sophisticated content, edited in an interesting manner. Sometimes it is dedicated solely to a particular brand, sometimes it takes the shape of a critical, opinion-forming, educational or advice-focussed magazine. It is common practice to collaborate with well-known printed media by publishing advertorials or features in guest columns. Depending on the strategy – the brand is featured in the magazine or the magazine appears on the brand’s website. Newsletters are also becoming a popular form of communication – provided that the cognitive content does not outweigh the sales content. The Monocle Company, whose founder also owns the creative Winkreative agency, often draws on its vast media portfolio and uses its own titles as a strategic communication element. An example of this could be the long-standing collaboration with the UBS Bank, which was a partner of the free-of-charge, daily “Monocle Minute” bulletin.
Telling stories about yourself can be really interesting. But it is not enough just to be interesting. What is required, is an idea that becomes a platform gathering all the threads into a coherent and imagination-boosting narrative. A good example of this initiative is the strategy of the cosmetics brand Aēsop, whose communication and consumer experience are founded on shop architecture. This strategy can be followed on the company’s website (taxonomyofdesign.com), which presents the interiors of its shops scattered all around the world. The Taxonomy of Design also features materials, furniture and interior design elements that create an unusual and a very diverse image of the Australian company’s boutique spaces. This peculiar catalogue presents a commitment to detail and the absence of the random factor in the design of the consumer experience. The website is also a reflection of a brand identity built on architecture and sophisticated design. This narrative is complemented by a presentation of the creative process and the inspiration, behind both the brand itself and the designers who work for it. It is worth noting here, that several great architects served the brand with their creative imaginations: Dimore Studio, Snøhetta, Architecture Outfit, Vincenzo de Cotiis, Paulo Mendes da Rocha and Ilse Crawford. The website is also a kind of map. It allows you to navigate within the brand world with ease.
Fake news and cultural narratives
Brands that have the ability to talk about themselves in an entertaining way, without pathos, and whose stories are not the work of a provincial graphomaniac, are the winners. Marketing fake news have a short life span, as do clichés. By contrast, grand narratives are the ones that endure. The key-word here is ‘feeling’. For brands, a sense of what is ‘appropriate’, what is ‘good’ and what is ‘important’, is the key to success. A sense of the spirit of the times is just as important as understanding the contexts, that make a particular strategy prove to be a solution in fostering brand-building in a natural, engaging and clever way.
While writing this article, I listened to: OPEN SPOTIFY