Branding or Art?

Branding is a practice, which is both strategic and aesthetic – the same can be said about art. And often it is not possible to see what is what!

In line with the fact that consumers are becoming more self-confident, more marketing-tired and cleverer on seeing through the advertising techniques, the know-all, educational tone, that characterized old-fashioned advertising has become more rare. Instead the brand is staged with disarming self-irony or the attempt to be embedded in a authentic cultural context, which is not infected by marketing.

The way branding most evidently draws on the culture, is through a so-called appropriation. It is among other things what happens when brand-strategists hire cool hunters and trendspotters to watch out if something new is happening in the culture’s periphery and underground, which the brand can use to position it self.

The concept of Nike Jordan, which was embedded in the black American ghetto culture, is an example of the fact that the brand appropriates a subcultural phenomenon and tries to appear as an authentic part of its environment. This “Stealth Branding” strategy – where the advertisement tries to sneak its way under the radar of the brand-critical consumer by appearing as a real (anti) culture – has released an army of anthropological consultant-types, which is send out in the field to discover still unexploited marketing-free zones in sub-cultures, art-environments, and ghettos.


While the content in branding has become more symbolic, the advertising’s approach form has also become less controlled and more open to the receivers own individual interpretations. Thus, the genre no longer has the political propaganda as its rhetorical ideal – but has become more aesthetic. What is characterizing art as communication is exactly the fact that it leaves “empty places” where the receiver, him or herself, can get involved and create meaning. Therefore, the recipient of a work of art typically also has a (usually very satisfactory) experience of working out the meaning of the work him- or herself.This is one of the reasons why there can be many different interpretations of what a painting, a novel, a poem or a movie mean – and the more “aesthetic” the shaping is, the more there will be. Addressing self-confident consumers, who will not be attributed nothing whatsoever (and definitely not by a commercial) such aesthetic techniques can be very keen.


Art in branding

Already the shaping of the signs that were used to brand cattle and whiskey boxes in the early days, was a sort of aesthetic practice – just like the design of logos, identity programs, packaging etc. are it today. In this way, branding is born with a close connection to style-expressions and aesthetic practices. However, the kinship with aesthetic has – together with more and more explicit references to art – become more evident in line with the consumption increasingly having to redeem immaterial and symbolic needs.


The Danish bookcase factory Montana is an example of a company, which uses art very actively and in many different ways in its branding. The company sponsors art and art institutions, is utilizing artistic inspired universes in its marketing and often refers explicitly to the artistic creating-process as an ideal. For example in the following quote where Montana’s owner and founder, Peter Lassen, describes the art and his own business as they are of a piece: “Art is inspiring, gives energy, and sets free. Therefore, I am indebted to it, since it is helping me to see and to understand. It exhibits, debates, rejects, outrages, and charms. Montana is supporting and sponsoring art because it leads to a new acknowledgement. The avant-garde is already there – and the society is lagging behind. Montana is closely connected to the art because it shows the way forward.”



Certainly, some will think that such a direct parallel between art and a company or product can become a shade too strained – and perhaps high-flown – and many critical, marketing-conscious consumers will probably, for that reason, not “buy” it. However, the brand can also be combined with the aesthetic universe in more subtle and indirect ways. Instead of representing an artistic symbol-universe itself, it can for example make itself available for others’ (real artists) artistic development, as VW did in connection to the launching of FOX in 2005 where one of the more spectacular campaign-features was establishing a Hotel FOX in the old, worn-down Park Hotel in Copenhagen. ( HYPERLINK "" )


Here, the artists and designers from 13 different countries had totally free hands to decorate the walls, floors, ceilings, counterpanes, curtains etc. Danish Design Center was exceedingly enthusiastic and believed that the project sets totally new standards for co-operations between art and the business community because here, the brand was not just out to sponge on the artists: “Project FOX is something else and more than a big media-stunt. It is an exemplary example of a co-operation between business- and cultural life, which all sides make a good thing out of.” ( HYPERLINK ""


Diesel’s Wall campaign, which was running a year ago, is a project in the same ball game: Diesel bought a line of end walls in New York, Barcelona, Manchester and Zurich and put them at disposal for artistic decoration. As headline for the project Diesel has expressed the following statement: Diesel Wall was born out of a need to salvage what precious public space is left. We will take your art, your powers of dissuasion; your ability to disrupt; incite; excite; inspire and intrigue; to make comment; to make beautiful; to make real; to make people think again.” ( HYPERLINK ""

With this Diesel seemingly affiliates with Naomi Klein’s – author to No Logo and the anti-branding guru over them all – yearlong critique of brands expropriating the public domain by pasting it with commercials. Thus, branding goes hand in hand with anti-branding beautifully.

The strategies, as VW and Diesel employ, can be seen as an expression of what the American branding researcher Douglas Holt has called ”the brand as citizen-artist”, where the brand join forces with the artists and subcultural agents in the preparation of creating expressions and statements in order to gain a hearing in the metropolis’ counterculture.


Branding in the art

Just like branding draws on art, the art also draws on branding. Brands have become cultural “artifacts” long ago, that is they are at once things and symbols, which form parts of natural elements in our daily life. Thereby, they are also signs or references, which can be used by the artists to say something about the people, culture and society.

One of the early examples is the 60’s pop art, which used thorough reproductions of the consumer society’s mass-produced brands as motives in their works of art. Some of the best known are probably Warhol’s interminable lines of Campbell Soup cans or Persil washing powder. Another distinct example of the art using brands very intentionally is the novel and later movie American Psycho from 1991 where explicit cross references to luxury brands serves to characterize a sick man and a sick culture. Ellis’ novel teems with brands but we are poles apart from the James Bond movies’ naive product placement where the only thing you need is an attractive figure to endorse a watch, a car, or a champagne. Brands are no longer attached to a few objectives, which everybody dreams of owning. We are living in a culture where brands are everywhere – and furthermore they are much debated because they mean something different for different groups in the society. Therefore, brands can also be used critically to describe negative sides of a culture, that some believe to be too branded and consumption hypnotized. And this happens, paradoxical enough, even in the most commercial part of the culture industry, which for example Aqua’s Barbiegirl is a great example of.


Art and branding are, in other words, deeply intertwined. Therefore, it is very natural that the markets and the artists form an alliance and grapple with each other in different ways. Fay Weldon’s novel, The Bulgari Connection (2001), is one way in doing this. Bulgari jewelries play an extraordinary central role in the narrative, just like the name Bulgari is mentioned pretty often. The novel is commissioned by the company – which per se is not a new phenomenon, earlier it was just persons and not brands, which the art had to glorify – and thus literary product placement. “I would like to write a novel where rich men and women sit on small golden chairs and exploit the artists – and here, there were some who would pay for it,” says Fay Weldon and adds that the Bulgari-project is not that special, since there always is a more or less distinct pressure on the authors from the publishers’ marketing department about writing a “front-page news.” After all, art is also a product, which has to be sold – and the authors are also producers, which have to be branded. And with The Bulgari Connection Fay Weldon is not just branding Bulgari but also herself as a bold author who dares to play ironically with the marketing-mill. ( HYPERLINK ""


Painter, fair/unfair trade concept-artists and “enfant terrible” in general, Danish Kristian (von) Hornsleth is one of the artists in this country who most explicitly has thematized art as a product and the artist as a brand. For instance, he has made his signature to a brand name among other brand names by designing it as a logo ( HYPERLINK "" And his latest provocative act, paintings of stocks, which – in addition to being paintings – actually also ARE stocks in Hornsleth Arms Investment Corporation, is a pretty high-flown reminder of the art neither being free nor clean but part of the whole commercial network.


A more subtle example of branding becoming a part of the artistic practice and the artistic practice a part of the business world is the Free Beer concept ( HYPERLINK "", where the work of art it self – as a critical commentary to the society and the culture – is a brand. The concept, which has been developed by the activist Danish art-group Superflex ( HYPERLINK "", consists of a beer recipe with a matching label design, which anybody is welcome to make use of and put into production – and perhaps make a profit of. The idea is to utilize the open source methods, which we mostly know from the IT world on a branded physical product. The recipe and the branding – and design elements are made available free of charge – so exactly what, in the commercial world, is respected as being worth a lot of money and an important source to surplus value, is given away. In return, the changes, which you are making, are to be published under the same Creative Commons license as Free Beer version 1.0. In this way, disguised as a branding concept, the work of art, Free Beer, actualizes a range of critical questions towards the branded consumer culture in a way, which involves and presupposes the consumers’ creative imagination. Free Beer is a rather sophisticated staging of how branding and art enter into a complex, dynamic interplay where they draw on each others’ universes and borrow each others’ practices to a point where branding almost becomes art and art almost becomes branding.



DOUGLAS B. HOLT: Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding, JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Vol. 29, June 2002

Lars Thøger Christensen og Lars Pynt Andersen: Being Montana – et signalement af vor tids virksomhedskommunikation. Mediekultur, september 2005