The Muse is the Message: Art, Luxury and Digital Strategy No-Gos
Posted November 11, 2017 Rachel Huber admin

As far as flights of fashion fancy go, one of my favorite recent fashion moments has to be Dior’s sparkling Spring/Summer 2018 homage to Niki de Saint Phalle. Yet, however stunning designer Maria Grazia Chiuri’s trip down contemporary art memory lane proved to be, her nod to the sculptor, painter and filmmaker hardly comes as a surprise. After all, fifteen years after her death, Saint Phalle is enjoying quite the luxury fashion moment. First came bright and bold references to her from Peter Dundas for Pucci in 2015, then at Anna Sui for Fall 2016 and finally at Sonia Rykiel for Fall/Winter 2017.

Models on the Dior runway

But what sets Dior’s celebration apart from other recent references to her work and politics has to be its runway backdrop, a sparkling cavern that could be a Saint Phalle museum installation in of itself. Look back in fashion history and yes, Schiaparelli borrowed from Dali, Yves Saint Laurent from Warhol and Mondrian and Louis Vuitton has traded off collaborations with contemporary artists including Stephen Sprouse and Murakami. But, today artist installation and inspiration appear to be blurring within the fashion space, further muddying the already stylishly nebulous line between high fashion and art. And, whereas art once served as creative color and inspiration, a new kind of intermingling between art and commerce has taken hold, whereby items are positioned and displayed as pieces of art in themselves and an entire new luxury rationale has been established.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Grotto in Hannover, Germany

Just as luxury items are being broadly accepted as pieces of art (and perhaps why not? Just look at Iris Van Herpen’s work), museums are being refashioned as brand spaces. From sell-out fashion exhibitions such as the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty retrospective, to the new The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de La Renta exhibit, which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston this week, designer showcases have become lucrative blockbuster tickets for galleries. Just this summer it was not unusual for visitors to set aside several hours wait time to see the Dior exhibition, Dior Couturier du Rêve (Designer of Dreams) at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Running through January 2018, the historical exhibition rounds out with a look at an in-exhibition workshop where visitors can watch and learn about Dior’s current couture, accessory and handbag-making techniques. All neatly showcasing Dior’s bankable leather goods business, the atelier insures that visitors who usually wouldn’t be able to stretch to the dream of buying a Dior gown would certainly leave aspiring to owning a Lady Dior purse.

During the 1960s Warhol’s mass-culture-meets-art pop art navigated the very same tensions between business and creativity. With a knowing wink, he held a mirror up to society’s obsession with fame and consumerism, suggested department stores had become museums and criticizing the elitist nature of fine art. At the time, Warhol was of course referring to the department store in its traditional guise, the cathedral of commerce that had appeared on the urban landscape in the 1850s, a place where objects were displayed and marveled at and where for the first time women could very acceptably socialize outside the home. Yet, think of the recent evolution of the department store and the emergence of the museum as a brand space and Warhol’s comparison also holds true when flipped on its head. In the digital age, where e-commerce and social media rule and where luxury has become democratized, museums have become the new department stores, and, most importantly the locus for change in the luxury industry.

Much of this change begins with the evolution of the department store itself. Whereas the department store in its early emporium-like incarnation which Émile Zola so perfectly described in the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) created spectacle, inspired the imagination and fed aspiration, today the department store has become synonymous with shifting stock and offering deep discounts. There are of course flagship stores on 5th Avenue, Boulevard Haussmann and in London’s Knightsbridge that solicit excitement. But, it could be argued that these have become rare retail relics, figures of a commercial past to be visited and admired. Just watch the 2013 movie Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s for proof. Few other department stores complete with their outlet offshoots offer the same aspirational opportunities for disconnection and escape as their predecessors. Their data-collecting customer points schemes, loyalty programs, after-purchase phone calls and texts from sales associates, while useful in providing some tangible consumer benefits, can create the image of the department store as a supermarket. And while luxury brands have always maintained a tight grip on their in-store footprint and many take great pains to make sure they are not associated with department stores’ major discounts or sales, balancing exposure, ‘masstige’ and oversaturation is challenging.

Paris’ Galeries Lafayette Department Store

Enter the modern art museum as a new type of escapist luxury branded space, one that is able to mimic the public sphere while also communicating lofty brand values. On one side of the spectrum this space exists as a completely private, tightly conceived purpose-built or renovated place, as is the case with Paris’ Gehry-designed LVMH Foundation, Milan’s Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada Foundation, Florence’s Gucci Museo, Paris’ Cartier Foundation or even the Pinault museum that will soon take over Paris’ Bourse de Commerce. On the other, as previously discussed with exhibitions, come brand partnerships with already long-established cultural institutions. According to both scenarios, love it or hate it, luxury place-making has taken a distinctly artistic turn and museums, arguably one of the last urban bastions for disconnection and dreaming, have been mobilized to sell a brand viewpoint. By making museums showcases for brand stories, art no longer simply communicates bohemian visions of utopianism, but now also aspiration. Sound familiar?

Paris’ Fondation Louis Vuitton

Storytelling opportunities and prestige through association currently form the main basis of what currently benefits brands with museums ties. For a company, the act of aligning a luxury conglomerate’s name to contemporary art curation alone can obviously cast a favorable aura. And when museums such as the just-opened Yves Saint Laurent museum in Paris focus an entire institution to the work and legacy of one designer, the brand can elevate its position as cultural icon and influencer. Add to that hashtag-powered social media campaigns and merchandise opportunities and museums serve as an important way for brands to build and maintain social and cultural relevance while building bridges to products and services.

However, beyond sign value and association, when surveillance and digital strategy meet in a branded art space, art can also, not so figuratively, provide a blank canvas for brand goals and can even create a new frame within which to consider the brand. Take Ebay’s current “The Art of Shopping” pop-up in London which has been created to promote its soon-to-be launched AI-powered personalized rolling homepages. Designed to mimic a mini gallery space, the pop-up features an exhibition of ten Saatchi-curated pieces which visitors view while wearing a special brain monitoring EEG headband. When the visit concludes, participants are then able to see which pieces of modern art they most responded to and which made them the happiest. Ebay then handily suggests a range of associated products (from juicers to bikes) that match. As such, by dipping into neuroscience to monitor consumer behavior, Ebay is able to frame itself as a champion of (increasingly popular) mindful, conscious consumerism, all while normalizing AI and basking in the luxurious glow Saatchi provides.

Ebay’s The Art of Shopping Pop-Up Gallery

Yet, no matter how fun Ebay’s example, it also displays the tightrope the luxury industry must walk when aligning digital strategy with art, innovation and engagement. Because if facial recognition, neuroscience and AI is already developed enough to be able to be used in branded art spaces, the new dare-to-dream aspirational department stores of the luxury industry, they should be used with caution. To make sure the museum as brand space doesn’t go the way of the department store to become nothing more than a rationalized sales point where visitors are pitched luxury items in relation to the works of art they viewed, the luxury conglomerates behind these art spaces need to protect the museum’s role as a place of contemplation that is disconnected from the distractions of modern life.

If anything, digital should be used to connect visitors to the aesthetic experiences and the ideas luxury goods telegraph and not simply product picks. In short, when co-mingling and co-opting art, brands should keep a twist on McLuhan’s famous assertion “the medium is the message” in mind. Because, when it comes to art, brand space and luxury, the muse is the message. After all, if art serves as a muse for luxury and luxury goods, by extension, brands and brand ideals can serve as a muse for individuals in the curation of their lifestyles. Think more connection with ideas and aesthetic experiences, deeper disconnection from the everyday life and more inspiration.

What do you think? Should Pinault be donating his art collection to the city of Paris rather than creating his own private museum? Should museums be partnering so heavily with brands? Have your opinions on a brand been changed by a museum exhibit?



Brands, Bubbles and Style Tribes
Posted July 11, 2017 Rachel Huber admin

Once upon a time style and style tribes ruled much of how we perceive modern consumer society. Take social theorist Pierre Bourdieu for whom notions surrounding style and taste influenced certain socio-economic classes to purchase or aspire to purchase certain products because of the cultural currency they provided. Or, consider British sociologist Dick Hebdige, who explored how Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers and Punks turned to fashion, style and makeup as a means of resistance and self-expression. From Foucault to Baudrillard, style has often been used as a lens with which to observe the role of consumer products in creating communities, social affiliations and power structures. The result? It has also become accepted that post-modern consumers don’t simply lean on style as a stamp of conspicuous consumption, they use it as a way to distinguish themselves.

No wonder then that style became a way for marketers to legitimize products and services. By appealing to style tribes and imagined communities of consumers, brands have habitually applied an array of visual and narrative techniques to create brand myths, or what can also be described as physical or mental places for style tribes to feel part of a community. Writer Naomi Klein has recently described this brand-created sense of community as a circle of belonging. You could also think of it as a type of style bubble that existed long before we started thinking about social media bubbles and their implications.

All that being said however, generation-led habits are beginning to drastically reformulate the longstanding style-tribe-meets-brand-community equation. Because, while other generations of consumers easily ascribed to style tribes, today’s millennial and gen Z consumers are proving much more fluid in their allegiances. Consider it consumer codeswitching. Just like we all change the way we communicate depending on who we are talking to or where we are, consumers today are showing themselves to be much more spontaneous in their buying choices.

Forget set-in-stone style allegiance, today the desire to pick and choose from an array of fully curated styles has gained a lot of traction. It’s perhaps one of the reasons why brands see success in offering immersive event- and theme-focused pop-up shops. Think: fashion brands like Topshop offering festival fashion pop-ups. Pick and mix lifestyle experiences have become the order of the day. And, instead of distinct communities of consumers seeking out the products that fit with their lifestyle, it has become imperative for brands to demonstrate that they can offer consumers fully curated, semi-escapist style experiences. Put it down to our social media-connected, information-saturated lives whereby we are constantly bombarded with news stories, brand narratives and advertising messages. Consumers now want to trust several specific sources in pre-sorting what they read and what they consume so they can simply get on with enjoying life.

So how has all this impacted brand communication and what lessons can be learned? For one thing, our modern hunger for curation has revived the fortune of the humble newsletter. Mainstay of the early noughties marketing campaign, pronounced dead after the advent of social media advertising and now hailed as the great consumer communications comeback kid, the newsletter offers consumers with what is seen as a trustworthy filter for information, news stories or product picks – all sent direct to an email inbox. And herein lies the lesson and the useful paradigm shift. Whereas the brands once bestowed consumers with a sense of community via style tribes and belonging, in today’s social network-saturated world, community is less about invoking top-down brand power and more about creating collaboration and making consumers feel heard. Yes, consumers treat style as an experience that can be adopted, dropped and readopted, but that actually doesn’t make them entirely fickle.

Today’s consumers want real interaction with brands and others in the brand community. Moreover, they want content with real meaning. Airbnb has put this attitude to use well by leaning on user-created content. Elsewhere, newsletter providers of all stripes (especially lifestyle brands and bloggers) are staging in-person events for their subscribers so that they can galvanize a sense of community and put a face to the brand and its followers. And given that according to San Francisco’s Sustainable Brands, 76% of US consumers believe that living the good life involves having meaningful engagement with their families and communities, in the future it will be brands that enable consumers in this quest who will find success. So, while it is important for today’s branded content to feature concise, filtered and neatly curated messaging, it is also very important for consumers to feel a sense of community and have the opportunity to experience events that bring value to all those regular email missives.

Which leads me back to the idea of bubbles, because what this entire swing towards brand engagement via community interaction really suggests is a greater blurring between IRL physical and digital spaces. Just as we have seen Amazon reach out into bricks and mortar stores (and now purchase Whole Foods), brands need to look at how they can seamlessly occupy and unite both digital and physical spheres rather than simply displaying that they own or operate in one walled-off space or the other. Just as we as consumers live simultaneously online and off posting our movements, tracking our sleep or activity on our devices, we now expect products and services to be integrated in the same way, offering a very human touch alongside a digital experience. It is only then that consumers will really stick around instead of dipping in and out of several different communities depending on their mood or interest.



Insider Expertise and the New Content Rules
Posted June 11, 2017 Rachel Huber admin

Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t read or hear something about the necessity of authenticity in brand storytelling. Before the words pot and kettle come to mind, I most certainly have written, typed and thought about authenticity a lot too. So much so that I can’t help but think that this buzz word is losing its buzz.

Think about it: We’ve seriously tired of that “authentic” aesthetic that oversaturated our bars, restaurants, boutiques and Instagram feeds with reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs. Well, 2017 is well and truly in full flight, and while that crafty vibe I’m describing that was so keenly coopted by brands between 2010 and 2015 has been on the slow ebb for a couple of years, a fresh tide of Pepto Bismol pastels, Millennial Pink, sunny yellows, lush greenery, clean lines, white backdrops and of touches of metallics are forging a new and more playful approach to authenticity.

Within today’s very image-driven content culture, considering the shifting meaning of authenticity in content and storytelling in these very visual terms can be very helpful as a way to think of the bigger storytelling picture. Because while that stereotypical hipster aesthetic played off notions of craft and artisanship to display authenticity, what has come in its wake uses an aesthetic of healthful, colorful freshness and playfulness to telegraph transparency and unpretentiousness in a much softer and organic way. And if Paris trend agency Peclers is to be believed, it’s a visual outlook that is set to stick around, as their Spring/Summer 2019 color story Gracieuse showcases a slew of soft pinks, yellows, blues and greens.

Behind this aesthetics shift? The rise of Generation Z. Whereas Millennials spearheaded the artisan economy and “authentic” products, Generation Z consumers who are now coming into their early 20s are more interested in a different type of authenticity, one that comes from nature but also from transparency in technology. While Millennials revived interest in the product as a meaningful purchase with a provenance and interesting backstory, Gen Z consumers are far more concerned with efficiency, functionality and whether a product is worth the spend. For Generation Z, trust therefore doesn’t come from buying into an intricately woven story, but from peer opinion, and, more specifically influencers who have already used the product and offer a “transparent” opinion on a product.

Content producers, hold on to your hats, because ultimately what that signals is a shift in power from strictly brand-led narratives to the influencer-shared narratives. Simply put, it’s a stock in influence that sees its echoes in the current surge of cross hybridization between online media properties and e-commerce sites. As everybody from the New York Times to Refinery 29 and the Man Repeller have taken to selling products, and retail sites such as Net-a-Porter have jumped into editorial, expertise has taken on greater importance. What allows content producers to transfer their skillset into e-commerce and vice versa? Their high level of industry expertise and knowledge. We’re not talking what the French so neatly dub savoir-faire or know-how with regards to craftsmanship, but more of a curatorial knowledge, an insider’s expertise (whether from writing about products or buying and selling products) as to what makes a product story-worthy or purchase-worthy. So, for example the product sold via a media property gains value from the fact a trusted, knowledgeable source has curated it for sale, while the retailer showcases knowledge by showing a curatorial and editorial eye. Call it a side-effect of our content-swamped world, where we want others to help us filter what is worth our time.

What does this all mean for the storyteller? Yes, authenticity as the Millennials have shaped it is certainly losing its power, but it will always have its place. After all, it will always be important for luxury and heritage brands to tout their craft to some extent. However, for most others, attention needs to swing towards knowledge as capital and brand stories to stem from knowledgeable experts, insiders and sources. That also means less surface-level, sweepingly romantic brand narratives and more in-depth, features-driven content.

Yes, consumers have always been attracted by an invitation into a brand’s belief system, but now that belief system needs to stem from a genuine foundation of credibility. My theory? Those who will win the expertise-led trend in storytelling will be those who turn to influencers known less for their willingness to shill any product and more for showcasing their competency and insider status across a full range of mediums, from social media channels to online publications and podcasts. However, the question remains, will we continue to see a massive increase in influencers? Or, does this all herald a new chance for true holders of knowledge to come to the fore while those simply exploiting advertising dollars will fade into the background? Time to say sayonara Kim Kardashian? 


Creating Captivating Content for the ‘BrandLash’ Era
Posted April 11, 2017 Rachel Huber admin

Next to the definition of the word ‘brandlash’ in your 2017 content buzzword dictionary? A screenshot of the Pepsi commercial that fell spectacularly flat when it was released and subsequently withdrawn last week. Cringeworthy in how massively it misinterpreted popular appetite for socially aware messaging, Pepsi’s commercial did however succeed in two things: Firstly, in illustrating how today’s consumers are not shy when it comes to speaking up and holding brands accountable for the messages they put out. And, secondly how eager brands are to capture the current appetite for activism in order to stay relevant. Where Pepsi went wrong? Simply put, by co-opting protest in an insensitive, one-dimensional way, depicting it in such a way as to trivialize Black Lives Matter and a host of other social justice causes.

Accountability and Activism

Yes, Pepsi’s tone-deaf commercial was nothing if not a massive fail, but it neatly illustrates two key issues in advertising that have been affecting digital content since the start of 2017. Accountability and activism. From platforms such as Facebook and Google being held accountable by advertisers for their roles in disseminating fake news stories and placing ads alongside extremist websites, to several prominent social media-led corporate boycotts, the start of 2017 has been marked by disruption and backlash. Just as 2017 ushered in a new era in US politics, consumers began flexing their financial muscles to prove that when it comes to spending power, they’ll only support brands they can trust. Look no further than the #deleteuber and #grabyourwallet hashtags for proof, as Uber was held accountable for appearing to undermine and benefit from an anti travel ban taxi strike in New York and Nordstrom stepped away from the Ivanka Trump apparel and accessories line. 

Meanwhile, as iconic British retailer Marks & Spencer and the Guardian newspaper opted to back away from advertising with Google, Facebook has announced the creation of a $14 million News Integrity Initiative, a collaboration with Craigslist’s Craig Newmark, to attempt to rebuild trust with its users. Elsewhere, as debate raged around a raft of Presidential Executive orders, a number of companies proactively seized the opportunity to make a positive statement about their corporate values. Starbucks hit the headlines for its pledge to hire 10,000 refugees, ride sharing company Lyft announced a donation of $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous Super Bowl Sunday advertisers took the high ground with inclusive social messaging. In short, as fake news and corporate integrity became hot topics of conversation, corporate social responsibility aligned itself with activism. 

So how can brands create captivating, relevant digital content within this new era of activism and accountability without falling into Pepsi’s trap? And what types of messages can maintain and restore consumers’ faith in brands as they closely and carefully monitor corporate reaction to social and political goings on? The answer lies with evoking a relatable community experience. And, by making a product or brand the totem of that experience. Of course, we’re not talking in-your-face and tone-deaf as seen with Pepsi, but softer and more authentic. Take Chanel’s recent ‘Rebel at Heart’ campaign for example. Here, instead of riffing off socially conscious messaging in the direct way many mainstream brands did with Super Bowl advertising, Chanel has lifted the visual codes of protest to tell a fresh story about the brand. Through a visually captivating, shareable short online film, Gabrielle Chanel emerges as much less of a frosty fashion diva as she is typically envisioned and more of a strong-willed fashion rebel, a woman who was ahead of her time and as someone who “transformed her rebellion into an art.” The result positions Chanel as strong, relatable and inspiring – all within the tropes of protest. Here, activism rhymes with approachability to form a campaign filled with images like those seen across social media after the January 2017 women’s marches. 

The Chanel “Rebel at Heart” campaign.

Elsewhere, for the release of its new Le Marché des Merveilles watch, Gucci has been treading a similar approachable path by using memes to make itself relatable. Using the #TFWGucci and #ThatFeelingWhenGucci hashtags, the brand reached out to a host of well-known meme creators to create a meme-based campaign. Here a little soft irreverence makes for a fun, experiential campaign. And, by suggesting it knows its place, Gucci not only paints itself as self-effacing and by extension trustworthy, it also anchors itself in the global culture of the Internet. 

Gucci’s meme campaign

So what’s ultimately at stake for brands operating within today’s fake news-riddled digital sphere? Given that 76%* of online adults state that they engage with brands directly via social media (*according to a Luxury Society study), brands have the opportunity to fashion themselves as preferred and trusted destinations for information on trends, lifestyle and products. For evidence of how impactful this can be, just look back to the mainstream sector and Starbucks, who since September 2016 have been brewing its own content with 1912 Pike, a web publication offering up approachable stories, friendly faces and an extra shot of messaging that supports the brand’s purpose and integrity. 



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