Brands draw on art in lifestyle campaigns

I walk into a groovy little warehouse space in Kensington Market called Presto. It looks like any Toronto hotspot: a devil-may-care mix of collage art, mismatched vintage furniture and turntables. But as I glance over at the athletic gear lining the walls beneath the graffiti and the huge document which proclaims: 'This venue is supported by Nike, to support the launch of our Presto brand,' I realize this is no ordinary hipster hang-out. Welcome to the new age of experiential marketing.

I walk into a groovy little warehouse space in Kensington Market called Presto. It looks like any Toronto hotspot: a devil-may-care mix of collage art, mismatched vintage furniture and turntables. But as I glance over at the athletic gear lining the walls beneath the graffiti and the huge document which proclaims: ‘This venue is supported by Nike, to support the launch of our Presto brand,’ I realize this is no ordinary hipster hang-out. Welcome to the new age of experiential marketing.

Nike isn’t the first brand to use art as a marketing tool. Absolut Vodka has been doing it for close to 20 years. But even Absolut is changing the way it approaches this tactic within its overall strategy by pursuing digital art. Meanwhile, BMW’s Mission Mini initiative reintroduces the retro car to Canadians by orchestrating a stolen art mystery cyber adventure.

Jeff Spriet, brand strategist and president of Toronto’s Chokolat (formerly youth consultancy Wiretap), says it used to be that art and commerce didn’t mix. Now, most people understand and accept that marketing will creep into previously untouched areas of culture; it’s sort of like ‘the devil you know,’ he says. The attraction to pursuing the art world, says Spriet, and the reason why we’re likely to see more of it, is that cool people tend to like art, and why not associate your brand with the cool people?

Secondly, according to Spriet, the arts are untapped territory with regard to marketing brands. ‘A lot of cool marketers are looking for new frontiers to get their message out,’ he says.

You have to take risks

Nike, BMW and Absolut, among others, are resorting to new ways to reach their coveted demographics, without seeming like they’re spoon-feeding a sales pitch to their potential customers. To innovate in advertising as in art, you have to take risks. In the art world, though, it takes time to establish credibility, says Spriet, who was once advertising manager at Nike. Above all, you have to be true to the spirit of expression – which means not compromising the artists’ integrity.

Some might say Nike was taking a risk when it set up an art gallery showroom in Toronto’s trendy, bohemian Kensington Market. The Presto showroom, which opened June 15 and closed Aug. 17, displayed art by 20 local artists and featured 200 musicians alongside its Presto line of sneakers and chill-out wear. Randy Weyersberg, director of marketing for Nike Canada, says ‘[Presto is] a lifestyle that is shared by young consumers, and teens in particular, who are really moved by the idea of expressing themselves. It’s really a way of life.’

Nike enlisted Toronto’s Youthography to conduct research in order to connect to their target group of 18- to 24-year-olds. Mike Farrell, a partner at Youthography, says they found that to relaunch Presto effectively, they had to dimensionalize the brand and market it in a resonant way, and what had resonance for the target group was art, music and performance. Thus, the Presto gallery/performance space was born out of this idea.

The space is complemented by street teams – comprised of breakdancers, graffiti artists and turntablists – which travel around Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. ‘For us, it’s about coming face to face with the consumer. For the independent artists, it’s about getting visibility for their performances,’ says Weyersberg.

Youthography researched Kensington’s community to see whether Presto would be welcome in the area. The answer was a resounding yes. However, shortly after Presto opened, and it was revealed that Nike was behind the initiative, there was a backlash. There were a few incidents of vandalism, including thrown tomatoes, and some anti-Nike graffiti.

‘Some took it upon themselves to see it as a company infiltrating a scene,’ says Farrell, who adds that in order to reach those who would participate in the Presto experience, you have to risk possibly offending those who wouldn’t. Farrell says using provocative marketing initiatives and ultimately gaining press coverage, ‘ends up actually positioning the brand ahead of the curve,’ because they’re seen as unique.

Presto success-o

Though there are no sales figures yet available, Michelle Noble, manager of public affairs for Nike Canada, says Presto was a success overall. About 7,000 people attended Presto’s live events, and about 35,000 went through the showroom space.

Chris Campbell, creative director of corporate branding with brand consultancy firm Interbrand Tudhope, says: ‘I don’t think they’re trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. They’re quite upfront about it, saying it’s a marketing initiative. The naysayers were saying they were co-opting youth culture and selling it back to them, which is absolutely true, but that’s happened forever, so it’s nothing new.’

Spriet says that some of the negative P.R. Nike experienced may have been due to the fact that they were portrayed as going into a community and trying to set rules – some media outlets reported that bands could not wear competing brands such as Adidas. ‘This flies in the face of expression,’ he says. But an F.A.Q. document available at the Presto showroom said, ‘everyone [wears] whatever they want.’

Spriet also says the arts community is underfunded, so companies can do a lot of good by supporting struggling artists. Giving back to the community was part of the strategy for Presto. Weyersberg says the money raised from live music shows was donated to the St. Stephens Youth Centre.

BMW’s mission

BMW has taken a different approach to art-related marketing. Last year, it created the seminal ‘The Hire,’ an innovative series of slick online films at by directors such as Ang Lee – to promote its vehicles. BMW continues the series this October with directors John Woo, Tony Scott and Joe Carnahan. The company is also using the Web to promote its Mini brand, recently reintroduced after nearly 20 years in obscurity.

The Mission: Mini campaign, created by BMW’s head office in Munich, Germany, in conjunction with its global offices, launched in Canada Aug. 15 on The initiative will bring together 80 ‘amateur investigators’ from 17 countries worldwide to participate in a stolen art adventure contest in Barcelona, Spain this November.

The participants will take up where fictional investigator Sam Cooper leaves off. Where Cooper’s story – as written by mystery writer Val McDermid in the novelette Mission Mini – ends, theirs begins. The so-called investigators will drive around Barcelona in the Mini Cooper S over four days to locate the stolen art.

New York artist Peter Halley, whose art is involved in the ‘mysterious art robbery’ from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, created six collages, which incorporate visuals of the Mini car within them.

The use of the art theme fits well with the Mini brand, says Kevin Marcotte, corporate communications manager for BMW Group Canada: ‘The Mini is a design icon throughout the ages.’ Halley was chosen because the use of colour and geometry in his art reflects the unique style of the Mini design, says Marcotte, while the Mini’s sense of adventure and open-mindedness inspired the crime adventure theme. ‘The Mini hasn’t been in Canada for 20 years,’ says Marcotte. ‘We really needed to reintroduce the brand. This takes things to a whole new level: to live the Mini brand for four days.’

Interbrand’s Campbell says the Mini initiative seems to make perfect sense because it’s a city car. ‘There’s a sense of discovery with it. Even this non-traditional approach to marketing seems on-brand with their brand.’

An Absolut tradition

However, Campbell says Absolut Vodka is one of the best brands to utilize art in marketing itself. Absolut first used Andy Warhol’s art in an ad for its vodka in 1985 and since then has cultivated a history of aligning itself with art and artists. Holly Wyatt, national marketing manager of Toronto-based Maxxium, which markets Absolut vodka, says Absolut never set out to make its brand synonymous with art, but she says it is now part of Absolut’s long-term global strategy.

‘The art realm seemed to work well with the brand,’ says Wyatt. ‘It pushed both art and the brand together and forward, in the consumer’s eyes, in a positive way.’

Absolut has an art collection, termed ‘Absolut Art,’ which includes 400 works by photographers, painters and fashion designers. The art is shown in museum exhibitions as well as used internationally in Absolut’s campaigns.

Absolut ads often appear in high-end American glossy magazines. But Wyatt says that in Canada, there is a lack of high-quality, young adult-targeted magazines that would fit Absolut’s image, so the brand has had to find new ways to market itself.

Absolut enlisted Toronto agency TBWAChiatDay to come up with the Web site, an ongoing Canadian online art gallery where people can submit their art. The only caveat? It has to be digital art. Submissions will be accepted to the site until Aug. 30, and standout artists will have their art emblazoned on Absolut bottles this fall.

To get the word out about the site, the company has been working with art teachers in the Toronto area and held a digital contest last November with students from local colleges. Since last April, hits to the Web site have averaged about 5,000 per month. Wyatt says the site will be up indefinitely and will constantly evolve. New submissions to the site will again be accepted some time after Aug. 30. ‘It’s the next evolution,’ says Wyatt. ‘We always like to think Absolut is a couple of steps ahead.’

Campbell notes that by aligning themselves with art and lifestyle, brands can gain awareness and potentially image enhancement. ‘Everyone knows that traditional marketing campaigns are not as effective as they used to be and everyone has to do new things,’ says Campbell. ‘I applaud these kinds of efforts.’