CULTURE FEATURE: Brands show off cultural streak

There is a new PR catchphrase on the street: ‘cultural collusion'. Suzy Bashford looks at how savvy brands are gaining cut-through by collaborating with the arts.

Have you heard the expression ‘cultural collusion’? It seems to have been coined by a handful of PR agencies and pioneering household brands that are forging tie-ins with some of the UK’s best-loved cultural venues.

Shine Communications’ creative ­director Rana Reeves describes this new PR tactic as ‘a collaborative relationship between a brand and a publicly-funded arts organisation, built around common and mutually beneficial themes’.

The PlayStation Season (see The Playstation Season, below), a Shine project led by Reeves, is a ‘prime example of cultural collusion,’ he explains.

This type of partnership is not to be confused with ‘badging’, an old staple in the arts world, where big brands (often in the financial sector) get to slap their logo on an exhibition in return for handing over a lump sum. Experts agree that the value in this type of ­arrangement is on the wane.

Reeves is also quick to make a distinction between cultural collusion and ‘cultural PR’. He uses another Shine project to demonstrate the latter: ‘This is when content can stand alone, such as when we evolved the stories in The Sims Life Stories [an Electronic Arts computer game] into an ­exhibition looking at the process by which teenagers are given advice from the 1950s to the modern day. No arts institution was involved, but the project was a piece of cultural PR because it moved the brand out of where it was usually covered into the arts or lifestyle pages.’

Cultural collusion, however, purports to offer a longer-term opportunity, deeper consumer engagement and more in-depth editorial coverage.

While some journalists have questioned whether corporate tie-ups threaten an institution’s cultural integrity, the institutions themselves argue that brand involvement actually gives them more freedom for creative expression. Sadler’s Wells director of marketing and communication Kingsley Jayasekera says the PlayStation Season allowed the organisation to host an event they would never have otherwise been able to do.

But cultural collusion is also about a direct conversation with the consumer. Nicole Newman, head of corporate partnerships at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum, knows cultural partnerships spark both media and public interest. On the last Friday of every month, the V&A hosts an event called ‘The Late Series’.

‘These are fun, hip events when the museum is open late. Brands such as Apple, Estée Lauder and Topshop have created activities around the museum using their products,’ says Newman.

Topshop piggybacked on the mus­eum’s exhibition of work by Italian ­designer Anna Piaggi by dressing up mannequins in Piaggi-inspired pieces from their own high street range. Apple held a photography evening around the V&A’s Twilight Exhibition and Estée Lauder sponsored a beauty exhibition by running a series of makeovers.

‘All these events got good press­ ­coverage and all the brand names were mentioned in editorial because they were part of the content,’ says ­Newman.

By aligning themselves with institutions such as the V&A, brands can heighten their association with quality design, prestige and glamour. They can also reach audiences that are increasingly hard to reach via traditional media.

Iris PR’s director Bill McIntyre – who has worked on cultural collusions between Sony Ericsson and the trendy Proud Galleries in London’s Camden while at Band & Brown Communications – cites his girlfriend, ‘a thirtysomething, left wing, arty, creative type who doesn’t watch TV or listen to the radio but will read Review section in The Guardian on a Saturday,’ as an example of this hard-to-reach category.

But, as McIntyre takes pains to point out, the audience must be able to clearly see why a brand is colluding with the arts. Making sure the campaign’s main idea runs across different platforms, thereby creating different layers of consumer experience, is crucial to success. This is when good collaboration between the brand, the institution and the brand’s different marketing agencies is fundamental. This, McIntyre believes, is often PR agencies’ downfall.

‘There’s a danger with agencies working in a silo mentality,’ he argues. ‘The PR agency might have arranged a tie-in as part of a sponsorship account, but the worse thing for it to do then would be to keep the idea to itself. To maximise it, you need the institution’s in-house PR team working on it, as well as your brand’s marketing department and other agencies below and above the line. We, as an industry, have for far too long sat outside, instead of pulling together to come up with something brilliant that works cross-platform.’

The Institute of Contemporary Art’s artistic director Ekow Eshun (pictured, right) agrees that effective collaboration is a pre-requisite for success in this new way of working with the arts, as are transparency and shared values.

‘We prefer to work from the ground up on a brief alongside the brand. We don’t just want to put its name on an event. Working collaboratively means working from a sympathetic basis, with trust and mutual respect. This can be difficult, because sometimes everyone has a different agenda,’ he admits.

‘It can be particularly difficult for a cultural institution if a brand is only interested in sales, as sales is not our main focus. Our job is to open the public up to new ideas.’

The V&A’s Newman adds that the arts sector’s capacity for creativity is being under-exploited and brands could push partnerships with cultural institutions much further.

Apple is particularly keen on aligning itself with key cultural institutions, and has been developing a partnership between its iTunes music service and venerable London venue the Royal ­Albert Hall (RAH). Activity for later in the year is in the planning stages and an announcement on what form this will take is expected by September.

‘The iTunes brand is pretty new and the Royal Albert Hall brand has been in existence since 1871, but we’re both in the entertainment industry,’ says RAH’s head of marketing and corporate development Michelle Aland. ‘Partnerships like this mean we both get editorial exposure to audiences neither of us would traditionally reach.’

However, where brands like Apple and PlayStation go, other brands follow, and there seems little doubt that ‘cultural collusion’ will catch on in PR. In fact, some PR commentators, such as Momentum media director Gary Berman, believe that it could actually provide an antidote to the cult of ­celebrity.

‘This decade has been full of floods, tsunamis and hurricanes, so the human grip on what is important has ­really changed. There’s a definite shift away from self-obsessed, celebrity culture,’ he says. ‘I think there’s a buzz around culture because consumers are more conscientious. They don’t just want quick, materialistic, shallow engagement. As we move to 2010 and a new decade, I see there being a craving for cultural enrichment.’

Similarly Arts & Business (A&B), an organisation that encourages interaction between the sectors, believes that cultural PR partnership strategies will grow. With over 30 years experience, it is behind tie-ups such as Nike and Laban, and Habitat and the V&A. It has noticed that a greater proportion of proposals it receives list ‘profile raising’ and ‘media coverage’ as key objectives.

Sebastian Paul (pictured, top), marketing and communications director at A&B, believes that this is because ‘culture itself is becoming more pervasive’ so reaches a wider audience. ‘Even TV programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing bring culture to the masses. Shop displays are increasingly influenced by artists. And street art is rife.’

But Paul argues that the biggest sign that consumers are responding more to arts and culture is the public furore over the London 2012 Olympics logo. ‘That was about a graphic identity,’ he says. ‘It’s about how things should look and feel. People are much more in touch with this because they are becoming more used to creating content themselves. In the future, we will see more use of artists to make our spaces more exciting. There’s a movement to think about different ways of bringing culture to the fore in aesthetically pleasing ways.’

All Tomorrow’s Pictures

To celebrate its 60th birthday, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) teamed up with Sony Ericsson to host an exhibition called ‘All Tomorrow’s Pictures’. The ICA asked 59 leading artists, musicians and photographers to take a photograph that ‘represented the future’ using a Sony Ericsson K800i camera phone. Sony Ericsson wanted to spread the message that camera phones now deliver high quality photos. The 60th photograph was chosen from submissions from the general public.

‘No one wanted an empty brand-badging exercise. It was about exploring the creative potential of the ICA and of Sony Ericsson’s new phone,’ says ICA artistic director Ekow Eshun.

The exhibition launched in May and ran for two weeks. Afterwards the photos were compiled in a coffee table book. PR agency Brando promoted the project, striking a deal with The Independent, giving the newspaper exclusive images to run in a DPS. The agency sold in the celeb-heavy launch party to other magazines and newspapers afterwards.

The PlayStation Season

PlayStation claims it brought gaming out of the geek ghetto to the mainstream, creating a hip, youth brand aligned to edgy leisure pursuits such as break-dancing and skateboarding.

‘Now the PlayStation generation is in the 30s age bracket,and the brand has to be more sophisticated,’ says Shine Communications’ creative director Rana Reeves.

Another factor driving PlayStation’s move into arts was the congestion of youth brands in areas such as extreme sports and music. With so many brands copying, it was time to do something different.

PlayStation viewed the arts as an untapped sector, so targeted liter­ature, design and arts prop­erties, culminating in the Play­Station Season last November. As PlayStation UK head of PR David Wilson says: ‘We’d been working with the arts for several years doing niche activities on a more ‘under­ground’ level. We looked at how we could engage more thoroughly with the public and that’s where the big arts institutions came in.’

‘Volume’:  the V&A produced an interactive sculpture of light and sound as part of PlayStation SeasonWilson and Shine wanted to inspire spectators to become players, with a secondary objective of changing percep­tions of PlayStation and gaming in general among people who might not think of the brand as artistic or cultured. To get the necessary gravitas, the creative team approached cultural institutions with a long-established, respected heritage such as Sadler’s Wells (dance), the Baltic (art), V&A (design, pictured left), English National Opera (performance) and British Film Institute (audiovisual). Each institution responded to the brief with a proposal for an original piece of work. Play­Station is adamant it was very honest about its intentions and set clear aims and objectives.

Carl Christopher, PlayStation UK sponsorship manager, says it wanted to distance itself from ‘brands which just handed institutions a cheque in return for a hospitality but no involvement with the creative process or shaping the outcome’.

Wilson adds: ‘We were trusting them with our brand, so we wanted to be intrinsically relevant to the project.’

The work went public from November 2006 until March 2007 and included:

• The Baltic created its first animated artwork called ‘A Matter of Pride: The Ballet on
the River Tyne’.

• The V&A produced an interactive sculpture of light and sound in its John Madejski garden named ‘Volume’.

• ENO came up with an interactive website called ‘Inside Out’ where people could see behind the scenes at the London Coli­seum.

• Sadler’s Wells put on a weekend called ‘Sampled’ where people could experience different types of dance.

• The BFI hosted the ‘Optronica’ festival to celebrate the changing face of cinema. The Season in general proved good fodder for the media, with 53 pieces of coverage.

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