Many a marketers have used iconic graffiti or street-art as dominant visuals in their campaigns in an attempt to make their brand look more “urban” or to associate their brand with an “edgy” and still quite mysterious subculture. It is still often regarded as fair game for companies to use these iconic artists’ visuals in their campaigns, without the artist’s permission, as a method of boosting their brand appeal (often to young hypebeasts*) , as they are often done illegally and in a “public domain”. However as many of these iconic artist have their own huge cult-following of their own, many see brands’ appropriation of such imagery as a way of the company saying “this artist tacitly endorses our brand” or that this brand shares a common form of expression with the this artist. When a brand purposely uses the iconic art of a known underground artist it is making a conscious effort to associate themselves with the urban, “nomadic” and often “outlaw-ish” lifestyle associated with these artists. When their target market is made up of young people who hold these artists up in high-regard, the pay-off for the brands is clear.
When using street art to promote your brand goes bad: Revok vs H&M Case Study.
In early 2016, fashion retailing giant H&M used the work of “Revok”, a world-renowned graffiti artist, as a backdrop for their “New Routine” sportswear, advertising campaign. The artist recognised his work in the advertisements and sent the company a cease and desist demanding the brand refrained from infringing his copyrighted work.
This is where H&M really screws up and decides to file a lawsuit against “Revok” claiming that illegal work could not be protected by copyright. The response of the art community was swift and overwhelming with artists of all disciplines publicly voicing their support for the artist and demanding a boycott of H&M stores. H&M was about to learn a valuable lesson in P.R and how far the influence of the arts community reaches. The immediate backlash on social media forced the retail giant to withdraw its lawsuit and issue an apology as well as removing the said artwork from all of its campaigns.
The H&M case is a clear indication of the turning tides in art appropriation by companies. The internet has made it easier for artists to call companies out for such practices and leverage their fan base to hold companies accredible for their actions.
How to successfully use street art/ graffiti as part of a marketing campaign:
For brands wanting to use street art of graffiti in their marketing communications it is important to keep in mind that having the artist on board is vital. Giving the artist the artistic freedom to promote the brand in their own style and visual language will usually yield better results. Collaborating with artists that are part of the community ensures that the message resonates with the target audience and also helps the brands avoid making mistakes such as painting over existing/ iconic murals and risking aggravating the community. This ensures that the collaboration feels genuine and shows that true appreciation for the art and the community exists. Establishing long-lasting relationships with the art community ensures that the message comes off as genuine as the company associates itself as a supporter of the arts.
Companies that got it right:
Nike has a long history of commissioning graffiti writers and street-artists to develop various murals as part of their global, branding initiative. By collaborating with renowned artists from various different street art disciplines and engaging in projects in local communities Nike manages to brand itself as a company that supports urban arts and culture.
“Art is often a great way to bring soul into a building,” explains Todd Van Horne, VP and Creative Director, Nike Special Projects. “With these murals, we want to celebrate New York City’s sport culture —with street basketball and hip-hop culture as inspiration.”
In November 2017 Reebok released a collaborative shoe designed with graffiti-supply powerhouse “Montana Cans”. Working directly with a company heavily involved in the graffiti scene allowed Reebok to promote its brand in an almost submersive campaign tacitly endorsed by some of the scene’s most respected graffiti writers. Reebok’s campaign allowed the brand to get behind the scenes of one of the hardest to reach but highly influential art movements.
*A hypebeast or hype beast may be defined as follows: “A person who follows a trend to be cool or in style. A person who wears what is hyped up.”
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