Back in April, leading French luxury conglomerate LVMH and American artist Jeff Koons presented to the world a multi-million dollar collaboration combining six iconic works of art with the world’s best-known leather goods label. And they held the coming out party at the world’s best-known museum: the Louvre, home to French kings from Francois I to Louis XIV.
Basically, the collaboration was an extension of Koons’ “Gazing Ball” genre taken a step further. The artist emblazoned various LVMH classic handbag models with hand-reproduced copies of some of the best-known (out-of-copyright) works of art hanging on the walls of the Louvre: DaVinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-06), Titian’s Mars, Venus & Cupid (1546), Rubens’ The Tiger Hunt (1615-16), Fragonard’s Girl with Dog (1770) and Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889). The bags bear both the famous LV logo and Koons’ initials, and a princely price tag: 2100 Euros (approx. $2500 USD), roughly three times the cost of the classic “Speedy” duffle-shaped handbag.
The reviews of the project, called simply “Masters” were mixed. Many marketers didn’t get it; fashionistas were cynically bemused, the French overall were typically dismissive (“Something an American might buy in those tourist stalls in the rue de Rivoli”).
One person who did “get it” at the time and who applauds the collaboration is Vadim Grigoryan (Instagram @vadim_de_grainville ) a marketer specializing in corporate art projects, who lectures on brands and art at his MBA alma mater, the INSEAD Business School in Fontainebleau – when he’s not helping businesses, such as spirits start-ups and perfume companies (Thierry Mugler), with cultural engagements.
“This is a massive coup d’état,” Grigoryan says of the LVMH-Koons collaboration. In an interview in Paris for this blog, he added, “It is obviously over the top and borderline obnoxious and that is actually what makes it acceptable and interesting to the savvy shopper, rather than to the uninitiated. First of all, you have to know who Jeff Koons is to appreciate the attitude behind it. And you have to appreciate the self-inflicted ironic take on LVMH – as though the brand is laughing at itself and sharing the joke with you. And you can appropriate some of the most iconic images at the same time only once in history.”
But will it sell handbags? “That’s not really the point,” says Grigoryan. “Probably the coverage it’s received has already covered the costs involved (note: Koons’ fee is said to be in excess of $1-million). And it could open the door to other possibilities, though this sort of collaboration wouldn’t work with every artist. It wouldn’t work with Damien Hurst, for example, in my opinion, as I believe he is less regarded by the intellectual core of the art community.”
But collaborations such as that between LVMH and Koons are looking more and more like the way of the future, as companies focus on their “brand,” engaging in storytelling and creating a universe for the brand. Indeed marketing and art have similar roots.
Grigoryan argues that both art and marketing exist because of he subject, the recipient or the spectator – basically both art and marketing are communication vehicles. Both have a message. “All artists care that their art is understood by the audience they aim at,” opines Grigoryan. “Both art and marketing create images.”
Marketing Copies Art
Indeed, art has influenced marketing and advertising throughout history – Mouron Cassandre’s Dubonnet posters in the art nouveau style, for example, or Theo Van Doesburg’s cheese labels in the “De Stijl” manner or Andy Warhol’s Absolut vodka posters . But while supporting the product, these kinds of renderings also deployed a subtle sense of separation and – because they are still noteworthy and recognized today – transcend time. As does art. “The effort becomes more about communicating the values of the product,” explains Grigoryan.”It’s not a literal interpretation of the brand, not hard sell. Maybe 20% of your loyal customers will get it, but they then become effective and loyal influencers for your brand.”
Another example is Grigoryan’s own art engagement project with Absolut Vodka – He oversaw Absolut’s return to the art world after an absence of more than 10 years — arranging collaborations with the prestigious “dOCUMENTA (13)” in Kassel, Germany, in 2012; the Venice Biennale, and Art Basel and creating experiential installations with acclaimed artists including Mickalene Thomas from the US and the Cuban duo Los Carpenteros. The works scored high marks with New York Times critics at the time. As part of the Paris Triennale, Vadim coordinated a 24 hour performance called Soup, No Soup by Rikriijt Tiravanja involving a record breaking 13 000 people.
“Everybody remembers the Absolut ad campaign, when artists were asked to present their unrestricted interpretation of the Absolut bottle. Even though the project gradually ended in 2003-2004, people still think Absolut uses these ads today” says Grigoryan.
The polyglot Grigoryan (he speaks 3 languages fluently) is part scholar, part autodidact, and a citizen of the world. An Armenian born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, he and his family fled to Moscow during the Armenian pogroms in 1990. He graduated from Moscow State Technical University with a degree in robotics and rocket science (yes, he is a rocket scientist!), then went to work for strategy consultancy Arthur Andersen, in 1998. He then went to INSEAD for an MBA. But art has been a lifelong passion.
Grigoryan’s students have the benefit of both his training in marketing and his personal experience running an art engagement initiative for Absolut and the things he’s learned about marketing from the art world that he claims you won’t learn at business school. Here are six highlights:
1. Creativity (and innovation) is the art of making unexpected connections and it cannot exist without an understanding of what’s going on in the world. In other words, creativity doesn’t exist in a bubble. “It cannot exist without some pain, strain and resistance,” he says. “You have to understand context and that comes from a continuous process of understanding the world around you, which can be painful.”
2. Implement the principle of citations. “Be a thief, a cocktail-maker,” he says, reminiscent of Picasso’s adage of “stealing” from other artists; use the ideas around you.
3. Creating something radically new requires destruction. ”This sounds scary,” he acknowledges, “but you have to be ready to tear up old ideas.”
4. Don’t underestimate emotional appeal. “Something truly creative cannot necessarily be explained rationally by the viewer (i.e. consumer in our case). Even more so, understanding kills the magic and aspiration. “ He claims art and marketing both appeal to peoples’ emotions. “This is far more powerful than an over-rationalized approach guided by focus groups and ceaseless management committees. You cannot measure emotions as you would survey results, but emotions can be far more important to a project.”
5. Embed a paradox into your brand. “The symbiosis of contradictions is the foundation of harmony and beauty,” Grigoryan claims. “Don’t be afraid of being controversial, polarizing or contrasting. “
6. Anything can be art, anything can become media “Jean-Michel Basquiat painted on an old refrigerator; Marcel Duchamp turned a latrine into a piece of art,” Grigoryan remembers. “By bringing the conceptual process into play with the physical object, one can dramatically increase the value of that object. Is not such a value creation the ultimate goal of any business?”
Aspirational brands, be it lifestyle or luxury brands, will have to become cultural agents, or they will be degraded to commodities and lose aspiration,” says Grigoryan. “It is not a choice…”