Branding insight: Cultural collaborations, the dos and don’ts


Yinka Shonibare 'Rendering of Material (SG) IV', 2023, Stephen Friedman Gallery

Spring signifies the start of culture season kicking off later this month with Frieze LA, then Salone del Mobile, Milan’s unmissable design fair, the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, Rencontres d’Arles… The reality is such cultural events wouldn’t happen if not for corporate sponsorship. Partners for Frieze London, for instance, include Deutsche Bank, BMW, Ruinart and La Prairie.

Art and money have long shared a mutually seductive rapport. And the transaction may seem similar, but modern creative support comes in multiple forms and with some strict guidelines. Performed right and the benefits are clear. By associating with culture, businesses will come across as progressive, and the connection may even inspire internal teams to think and act differently.

Meanwhile, artists and designers benefit financially from the backing. Whatever the motive, contemporary arts patronage needs to be viewed as a long-term partnership rather than an instant instagram snapshot. And there has to be a degree of transparency with the transaction.

With that in mind, we have drafted our top five rules of art engagement in the modern branding world:

1. Choose your partner wisely

When selecting an artist or a designer, make sure the relationship is based on shared values. Do your own research. Don’t rely solely on an outside agency to make a decision for you. It sounds logical, but often businesses will team up with a popular artist selected by an agency to get media attention. In the long-term random art collaborations will appear opportunistic and leave a negative impact on your brand.

We recently worked with Barking Riverside London to commission a local artist, Emmanuel Oreyeni, to create original artwork for The Wilds, the development’s ecological centre and community space. The artwork responds beautifully to this location on the banks of the river Thames in East London. It is a direct discourse on our human relationship with nature, and it worked well to illustrate Barking Riverside’s brand values.

2. Commission relevant work

Collaborations need to have historical, cultural and brand relevance, without which they will be perceived as vanity projects. A great example of a successful creative scheme is MINI’s recent work with the fashion designer Paul Smith. The maker of the quintessential urban run-around represents a certain British sensibility, as does Paul Smith. The result, Strip, is a concept design that taps into the carmaker’s ambitions to appear progressive.

MINI Living was arguably an even more interesting initiative that saw the car brand conceive sustainable habitat solutions for young urbanites. Over several years MINI worked with visionary architects, staying clear of big names, for some exciting alternative living concepts. In the process, MINI examined its role in the future urban landscape.

3. Be brave, get involved

The project will feel genuine when the company and artist work alongside one another. Rolls-Royce, a beacon of grand luxury, has worked hard in the last decade to reinvent itself for the modern world, partnering with creatives who will endorse this goal. The Phantom Gallery, for instance, is one the most original bespoke propositions offered by any contemporary car company. It is also the most technically-complex construction which only a brand with a history of intricate craftsmanship can pull off. Rolls works directly with the artists in creating these tailored galleries. In return, the artists help promote the brand’s mission to be relevant to a younger, more progressive audience. It is a win-win situation.

4. Be selfless

Occasionally it pays to just let the artwork speak for itself; it can show a great deal of brand confidence. The BMW Art Journey with Art Basel, the marque’s sponsorship of Paris Photo, Rolls-Royce’s Muse moving art project, or the Goldman Sachs support for the annual Serpentine Pavilion are all living proof that you can support artists without much creative involvement other than financial support. If chosen wisely – and this is really the key – this seemingly selfless act will do wonders for promoting your brand.

5. There is a fine balance

More and more companies are taking this philanthropic path, thinking and hoping the association with the arts alone will elevate their brand to new culturally-enlightened levels. The modern consumer is wise though, and brands need to be aware of the complexities of partnerships. It is a little like a good recipe: all the ingredients must work in harmony for the final dish to be delicious. And it cannot be stressed enough: make sure the end project meets your highest standard, as there is nothing more damaging than a half-baked creative project.

Images, Frieze London 2023 ©Spinach

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

CAS Collections Fund acquisition Pamela Phatismo Sunstrum (Goodman Gallery)
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