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  • Writer's picturerahul sriskanthan

Branding in Art : Learning from Steve Jobs, Damien Hirst and Scarlet Johansson

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

What is branding?

Ask yourself. Why did you choose…… The clothes that you are wearing now? The neighborhood you live in? The friends/partner that you have? The subjects you studied at school/college/university? Your profession? The car you drive? Your favorite music, film, books and food? What you do for fun? Your last holiday? Why do you make the decisions you make?

I worked in a marketing consultancy decades ago, which helped multinational corporations brand to grow their sales. One night we were up late, wrestling with market research and I was getting lost in a mountain of statistics. A senior partner at my firm, trying to help me out, said two things to me that I will never forget, that helped me really understand branding! I wanted to share the first thing with you now.

“Most of the decisions we make in life, we make for emotional reasons!”

You might, disagree! You might say you are rational. You chose your profession for the income, your car because it performed well in a crash tests, your food because it is animal friendly, your washing machine because it performed well in consumer tests. BUT, what you are really saying is you VALUE, security, safety, compassion and reliability.

Understanding that we are all emotional creatures, defined by what we value, is key to understanding branding and marketing.

Branding is about helping followers understand your values. It's not about being fake, it is about being deliberate.

Or as Steve Jobs put it "Marketing is about values."

Branding in art different?

Oscar Wilde said “All art is quite useless!”

What he meant is, unlike Apple, Nike, Ferrari or Coke, your ‘products’ (paintings/sculptures/ photographs) don't solve functional problems, your art changes how people feel. This means that traditional functional product branding doesn't work.

Instead of branding the product you need to brand two different things.

1. Brand Yourself

Be deliberate and specific about your motivations.

It is your values that people will connect with and that will form the foundation of why people follow you and find ways to support you.

This isn’t about being fake, you can be as controversial, opinionated, bold, introverted, eloquent, unfiltered, compassionate, hard-nosed, leftwing or rightwing as you want. There is only one thing you need to focus on.

Find new, creative and specific ways to explain and communicate what motivates you!

Most great artists, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst, Banksy, find so many ways to weave their motivations into their story. Their secret is to be pretty specific in a way that is effortless and authentic!

Hollywood is an even better place to look for inspiration and find examples of artists being specific about what drives them, because actors are often in the same genre, but, have very distinct motivations they bring to their roles.

For example, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson and Arnold Schwarzenegger all play action heroes, but in their most iconic action roles, their motivations are incredibly distinct.

Bruce Willis comes from a military family, and in his most iconic action roles he plays patriots saving the day, police officers and soldiers fighting off terrorists, gangsters and criminals.

Denzel Washington has, perhaps, a more critical view of the American experience, and this comes through when he plays renegades and vigilantes defending the innocent.

Scarlett Johansson is active in supporting progressive causes, including women’s groups, and her action heroes are often strong, assertive, and partly fighting for their own independence.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is proud, self-made immigrant, with a fresh perspective on America. This optimistic outsider perspective is central to many of his roles, including the Terminator.

2. Organize & Brand Your Portfolio

Be deliberate and specific about what you do!

Ask yourself, what are the most important things you want people to really remember about your body of work. Then group your work into selections that reflect that.

These could be driven by slightly different motivations, different elements of your personality, perhaps, different periods in your life, different techniques, different subjects or something else.

If you organize your portfolios into selections that tell your story, that makes it easier for people to understand you, follow you.

What’s really interesting and powerful is that this also provides a way to grow your following because different parts of your work will attract different followers, and you may be able to reach these followers on different platforms and in different spaces, giving you a chance to expand your messaging.

For example, people who love Damien Hirst, but aren't into his provocative taxidermy, might prefer his spot paintings and spin art, which are much more accessible.

People who admire Picasso’s red and blue period, might not really appreciate his cubist work, and fans of Dalis paintings might not really enjoy his sculptures.

Using Collectives to Broaden Your Following

In addition to portfolios of artistic work, f you look carefully in the arts, you will find portfolios of people and characters everywhere.

In music people often follow bands, which have a portfolio of performers (there is a reason every Beatles album has one song that even Ringo could sing!), or portfolios of characters in film, literature and on TV. In call cases, while everyone on the group is on the same journey, each person provides a slightly different perspective and motivation on that journey, giving followers a different reason

In art, this is the power of collectives, so if you can band together with other artists to work on larger projects that are aligned with all your values, you and your friends can collectively strengthen your brand and following.

Stay Authentic

The important thing is, whatever you do, it’s the authentic you that turns up. It is your personal brand that provides consistency to your portfolio of work. Actors are usually famous for more than one genre, but whichever genre they appear in they turn up with consistent values and motivation towards their art.

When Scarlet Johansson is in an art-house film, she plays strong, independent, assertive characters; and when Arnold Schwarzenegger is in a comedy he is still an optimistic outsider; when Bruce Willis is in Sci Fi/Fantasy he is still fighting to protect society and if Denzel Washington is in a dramatic role, he is usually fighting a corrupt system in need of reform.

3. Serve Your Community

This finally bring us to the second thing that this Senior Marketing executive said to me, which makes more sense today than it did at the time.

"People buy a product because they believe people like them are also buying it"

Everyone instinctively want to be part of something bigger, to be part of a community. Whether they are watching a film, listening to music, buying shoes, going on their next holiday or choosing a car, they want to be part of something bigger. This doesn't have to be tribal or divisive, (people who like enjoy classical music and those that enjoy Jazz aren't mortal enemies).

In art you can see this happening all the time as artists and galleries organize themselves into movements.

Your followers will look to you for leadership. Finding ways to be of service to your community can you grow and strengthen your following, which in turn will help you with your career.

Get a sense of where your followers gather online and offline, which hashtags they follow, which forums they are involved in, which facebook groups they follow. Then there are some simple things you can do to understand them and stay connected to them.

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