art basel brand

Art Basel: Brand-Business Building Is Not Just For Packaged Goods

Branding is not just about advertising, although many marketers view branding as such. Branding is not just about message management or device management or digital management. Branding is about promising to profitably deliver an expected relevant, differentiated, trustworthy experience to a specific audience. 

Many pundits argue that brand management is best operationalized in the realm of packaged goods, such as the stuff that P&G sells. But, as the worlds of automotive, appliances, computers and farm equipment show, branding is vitally important in durable goods. Brand is also critical to the success of luxury goods. Some of the world’s best known and best-marketed brands are luxury goods. So, it is not surprising that brand is now front and center in the world of art. As one gallerist stated, we sell luxury items at luxury prices.

Recently, the future of Art Basel, the international art fair, has been linked with being a successful global brand-business. Mr. Noah Horowitz, Art Basel’s new CEO, and James Murdoch (Mr. Murdoch’s private investment firm, Lupa Systems, now holds 49% of MCH Group, the Swiss parent of Art Basel) have been quite vocal on the potential of Art Basel to become a major global, cultural brand, similar to Formula One.

Both leaders spoke out on the subject. The vision for Art Basel is to be a cultural experience that draws on and “engages” other cultural forces such as fashion, film, music, design, cuisine and connections, with a mingling of social classes. Of course, at Art Basel, there is the job of delivering high-end art pieces from galleries to clients. But, surrounding this upscale mercantile necessity is a vibrant sociocultural gathering and economic marketplace. Mr. Murdoch has cited Formula 1 as an example of such a happening. For example, when Formula 1 comes to Miami, the experience goes well beyond the actual race. Think reserved best-of-Miami-restaurant tables on Miami Beach, for example.

According to Mr. Murdoch, the vision for Art Basel is similar to a ‘traveling circus” that appears in a city with various contiguous events – not just buying and selling art but entertainment and dining, attended by people of various social classes. The traveling circus becomes a “a gathering, a center of gravity” for a significant cultural co-mingling and creation.

In the mind of Mr. Murdoch, there are few “brands” that can pull off such a feat. Formula 1 can. And, so can Art Basel. TED had this for a while. Its concept of Ideas Worth Spreading was, at one time, the de rigeur place to bring your vision. But, TED has not generated the ancillary “marketplace” for and engagement with the cultural community about which Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Horowitz speak. And, its audience for its two main conferences was not socially flat.

This type of movable, cultural festivity is not a new idea. The vision for Art Basel is similar to Medieval fairs. Medieval fairs were significant economic events in Medieval towns. Merchants across various European towns would come together to buy and sell goods. Vendors would sell items like rugs, textiles and spices. Medieval fairs were the main way merchants could sell and trade goods, locally and internationally. But, around the merchants’ stalls, contiguous to the fairs, were social happenings. There was entertainment provided by jesters, jugglers, magicians, poets, musicians, strolling players, dancing bears and plays. People danced, played games, ate and drank. Part of the cultural co-mingling was the fact that people from different backgrounds came together. Aside from merchants, there were locals, itinerants and the international sellers; there were peasants and nobles. The fairs were a source of amusement, enjoyment and allowed people to step away from their daily, possibly, mundane lives.

Building a brand-business, however, is not just having the vision. Building an Art Basel brand-business is a strategic, ongoing plan. What is the Art Basel Brand-Business Promise? What is it that Art Basel will deliver, to each participant, time and again, that is relevant, differentiated and trustworthy? What are Art Basel’s functional benefits, emotional and social rewards, values of the participants, personality of the brand and features that support these criteria? 

Before Art Basel can become a powerful brand with its powerful purpose, the Brand Promise must be clearly defined. 

Although not yet fully formed in statements to the press, Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Horowitz have, in some ways, articulated the purpose of Art Basel: to be a powerful, cultural gathering of community and connectivity – a center of gravity in the cultural space – with a focus on the artistic and cultural life of the area.

(In many ways, this purpose reflects the tug-of-war in the luxury arena between being the purveyor of very expensive luxury goods (i.e., art) and the all-encompassing socioeconomic theater of cultural expression. Many luxury brands struggle with being available everywhere and being rare. There is no question that the selling and buying of high-end art is a luxury enterprise.)

Think about how one creates a Brand Promise. First, one must define who the brand will be for: who are the people for whom this brand will appeal? Interviewed, Mr. Murdoch suggested the potential audience, outside of the buyers of luxury art, are those who have an appetite for culture; who are truly excited by the changing and challenging world of fine art, film, music, food, beverage and fashion. These are individuals who want to be connected “to the creators who are developing new ideas,” many of whom are community-based.

Second, what are the emotional and social rewards these people who are not potential buyers of luxury art want from their Art Basel experience? What are the emotional and social rewards of Art Basel for this identified audience? Mr. Murdoch hints at the benefits for participants in his recent interview. For some, Art Basel will help people realize what is going on culturally and artistically. As a service to the community (city), Art Basel allows people to engage developing a broader creative perspective. For local creators, Art Basel is a cultural platform for intriguing participants with their creations.

Third, what possibly is the brand personality of this future-forward Art Basel brand-business? Again, both Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Horowitz suggest that Art Basel will be innovative, creative, bold, exciting, engaging, in touch with a changing world.

Fourth, what are the functional benefits of this future Art Basel? The fair-like, community atmosphere offers individuals a chance to engage with local creators; learn what is happening culturally; be a part of a larger artistic cosmos; participate in cultural events; and purchase art.

And, fifth, what are the supporting attributes of Art Basel: what characteristics would this Art Basel brand-business have that would bring Art Basel to life and provide its credibility? Extrapolating from the press reports and statements, the features of this future Art Basel brand would be galleries selling their artworks some of which are ‘trophy-level”, an immersive experience of varied cultural and artistic events, community involvement and engagement, showcases of local creativity, dining experiences.

In very broad strokes, using this five-bucket format, this future Art Basel will be: For people who desire community engagement and are excited by our changing cultural world; Who seek a broader cultural perspective or who want to share their art to intrigue others; Creative, festive, innovative Art Basel offers people an opportunity to engage with local creators, learn what is happening culturally, participate in events, and purchase art. Art Basel will do this because it offers trophy-level art, varied cultural experiences and community level engagement.

Regardless of the industry or category of a business, brand-business building is applicable and extremely beneficial – and necessary – for enduring profitable growth. But, brand-business building takes discipline. It is not enough to say that you are going to create a brand-business. It is not enough to state a vision. The enterprise must commit to the basic, evergreen principles of brand-business building. Do not pass go until the purpose and promise are clearly articulated. A brand-business must know where it wants to be and what it wants to be in the future world in which it will win.