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Brands and the street

June 13, 2005

With a target that’s harder to reach with traditional advertising and one that’s suspicious of traditional ad messages, the industry is forced to be present in environments and areas ever closer to the consumer. Increasingly this involves some form of cultural infiltration.

This is becoming a sensitive inflection point, where brands and street culture are coming together and sometimes clashing.

Brands want to use the signs, signals and trappings of the street to add authenticity and the feeling of discovery to their brands, but street artists increasingly see it as a turf war and are prepared to stop brands from infringing in and on areas that they see as theirs. This is leading to attacks on the ads themselves and actions that are increasingly taking an anti-corporate stance.

In recent months, the focal point of this argument has been in London where Saatchi and Saatchi launched a viral campaign for Sagatiba, a new Brazillian liquor, using a stencil based on the statute of “Christ the Redeemer”, that overlooks Rio. Instead of doing the traditional/acceptable wildposting, the brand went a stage further with graffiti.

The campaign created a backlash on the streets of London, with the stencils being painted out or defaced. The root of the problem lay in advertising appropriating and stealing of an art form without investing in it. The agency were simply mimicking the tactics of street artists, who use massive repetition of single images to capture personal awareness, but artists didn’t like the invasion of their space by a corporation.

Although the objectors are only a small group, they were vocal which ensured that opinion leaders, those that the drinks company needed to reach, will also be aware of the story. It could impact on the brand significantly, as these leading edge adopters take offense to the tactics.

Here in lies a lesson for most brands trying to play in this space; it’s better to invest than to steal.

The Wooster Collective recently identified over 200 US brands playing in the street-art space.

Scion is one brand that has been trying to insert its brand into various cultures and it has been investing to do it. Unlike Sagatiba, Scion is pretty open about its intent. Its success has come from picking emerging, rather than celebrity talent and focusing on local scenes, where it believes culture emerges.

Many brands will increasingly need to play in the street, but they should think before they step out into this area. Making sure they are working with the right partners, being open about their intent, ensuring that they are investing in both the artists and the community.

Brands might be wise to consider playing a true “investor” role; giving up creative control and allowing the artists freedom of expression. This will show that are true a supporter instead of just a user.

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