Brands can play a vital role in rebuilding culture, spreading great ideas and creating a legacy that goes beyond revenues and profits, argues Jed Hallam, Chief Strategy Officer at Initiative.

Over the past decade, I’ve been obsessed with trying to create stronger, more genuine connections between brands and culture. Over that time, there have been a few moments where that feeling has grown stronger, and I’ve had new ideas on how to bring the two closer. COVID-19 is one of those moments, except this time there’s more urgency. I believe that over the next few years, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to help rebuild culture, and in the process fix the asymmetry between art, culture, and commerce.

It’s been well documented that COVID-19 is likely to have a catastrophic effect on culture and artists around the globe. While I believe that often the best art comes from some of the most challenging circumstances, the very means by-which artists make a living – and therefore their ability to continue to create – are under serious threat. If not directly (venues closing etc), then indirectly (the economy slipping into depression).

Culture and art are fundamental to society and civilisation. Johann Gottfried Herder went as far as to say that “culture is the life-blood of a people, and the moral energy that holds society intact”. The stories we tell in art help us understand the world. Art and culture aren’t window dressing to how we live, they are why we live. They create belonging and connection, and give us purpose beyond our primitive needs and desires. 

COVID-19 is not the root cause of this crisis, though, it’s merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. Artists and culture have been under threat and pressure for decades, existing in a precarious and asymmetrical relationship. I’ve spent my adult life obsessed with understanding how ideas and art move from person to person (and group to group) through culture – which is how I ended up doing what I do for a living.

Tracking the diffusion (spread) of each idea through a network (culture) might sound pretty boring, but understanding how ideas move is fundamental to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different ideas and cultures. If we can build on the strengths and resolve some of the weaknesses, we can reduce inequality and asymmetry in culture(s).  

As it stands, there are two types of filters on how ideas spread through culture:

  1. There are gatekeepers (i.e. editors, curator/buyers, or record label execs).
  2. And there are distribution platforms (i.e. the radio, streaming platforms, magazines, physical galleries).

Sometimes these two are tied together, sometimes they act independently, but most of the time they don’t act in the best interest of the artist or the art, and this is where the asymmetry exists. Most artists aren’t driven by commercial desires, but by cultural ones, which enables gatekeepers and distribution platforms that are driven by commercial desires to take advantage. This classic Steve Albini essay from 1993 is a great demonstration of the asymmetry that exists in music – and while the essay focuses on music, the issues stretch across most of arts and culture.

Despite the promise of the internet to democratise arts and culture, it has only created new problems for artists. The value and funding of their work, and their ability to reach an audience, have both taken a battering. The asymmetry between culture and commerce wasn’t resolved, the gatekeepers and distribution platforms just changed. In fact, if it was possible, the asymmetry between commerce and culture has skewed even further over the last decade. 

With artists and creators making even less money than before, and being largely dis-intermediated from their audience by platforms that make passive consumption more convenient, the only way they can generate real income has been through donations, live performances, and touring. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the entire ecosystem came crashing down. Many people will point to governments and say they are responsible for funding arts – but over the years many of those programmes have exacerbated the underlying issues and inadvertently reduced diversity in arts and culture.

So what now?

Right now, emerging and smaller established artists rely on gatekeepers and distribution platforms for two things: initial financial support and guidance, and access to a bigger audience. I know that many gatekeepers and platforms provide much more than that, but at a lowest common denominator level, artists are supported in those two ways.

As we move out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s going to be an opportunity to rebuild infrastructure that supports art and ideas in a different way. At the moment the asymmetry of finding investment and reaching an audience that exists means that pool of opportunity stays small - but I think there’s another way, that gives me power to artists, and can reduce inequality and asymmetry in culture(s).

Brands as patrons of the arts and culture

For centuries the rich and wealthy invested in the arts and culture, by becoming patrons to artists. They provided investment, materials, and a platform for artists to create and share their work. For the majority of patrons, it was seen as a way of reinvesting their wealth in society and culture. A way of giving back.

As we emerge from COVID-19, I think attitudes towards unadulterated capitalism are going to change (and frankly, have to change). Businesses that have made enormous amounts of money are going to be judged much more harshly on their behaviours and attitudes towards supporting society and civilisation.

Brands as patrons already exists, to an extent, in sports. Businesses like Nike invest huge amounts of money into training facilities, equipment, stadiums, and individual sports stars at a grass roots level. What I’m suggesting isn’t the same, but it’s similar. Businesses investing in grassroots culture, sacrificing their own short-term gain, in order to build a sustainable culture for the future. Doing good. 

Some of you may be reading this and thinking that that introduces another potentially exploitative stakeholder into an already asymmetrical relationship held by artists. In fact, this tweet by Josey Rebelle explains the challenge perfectly. Now, I really look up to Josey Rebelle, and this isn’t a criticism of her at all, but instead an insight into the perceptions that exist about the connection between commerce and culture. It’s a very binary view that creates an adversarial relationship between artists and business.

The inconvenient truth is that art, culture, and commerce have always been intimately connected. Setting aside the 'selling' of art (which is maybe the most obvious connection), businesses and brands have always played a pivotal role in culture. It’s virtually impossible to think of a modern culture that doesn’t have a strong tie to at least one brand. Brands and products – along with art and ideas – help us to create our self-identity, and act as symbols of the cultures that we belong too. 

I think that what many people resent is brands that behave badly and steal or misappropriate culture and art, but this is where the binary approach isn’t helpful. There are, of course, lots of examples of brands behaving badly, but there are also countless examples of brands doing something culturally valuable. WeTransfer funding, LVMH building Nowness, Red Bull, Converse, LEGO.

Many of the best agencies and marketers have made their name by understanding how commerce and culture work together – best put in this quote from Dylan Williams, one of the best marketers of our generation: “We [brands] used to start with commerce and work out to the culture, and now we need to start with culture and work back to commerce.” The very best brands in the world understand this already – that’s why they’re the best.

Over the years, I’ve worked from a really simple framework to think about how brands and culture work together:

  • Bad brands misappropriate culture
  • Good brands platform culture
  • Great brands invest in culture

It’s overly simplistic, and it’s only a few steps up from the original binary argument – but hopefully it shows that there is good that can come from artists and culture being more closely connected with commerce and business. It puts the artist back in charge. They have choice over who they work with, and they can ensure that their values align. It gives the artist investment, support, and access to an audience. And because they’re in control of the relationship, the brand can then become an ally – reducing the asymmetry with the gatekeepers and the distribution platforms.

For the brand, it demonstrates a long-term commitment to doing something important and good, as well as providing them with a greater insight into how culture works. Most importantly, for culture more broadly, the artist can work with that brand to make sure they are investing in culture, rather than investing in messaging. 

This isn’t about having a massive brand partnering with Taylor Swift on a new skincare range. It is about investing time and money in the edges of culture – giving artists financial help and guidance, and providing them with a platform to help spread their ideas. This isn’t about repurposing symbols from culture in advertising to show understanding. It is about helping the voices that created and developed those symbols to continue to develop them. This isn’t about virtue signalling or ‘corporate social responsibility’. It is about doing actual good, and investing in the future of culture, not because it’s ‘cool’, but because it’s fundamental to society. 

This can only work if we begin to dismantle the adversarial view of business – and that means businesses have to do a better job at appreciating and investing in culture, and artists have to widen their views when it comes to working with businesses. Commerce and culture working more closely together will help address that imbalance. Ultimately, that’s how we rebuild culture, spread great ideas further, and create a legacy that goes beyond revenues and profits. It’s how we rebuild culture, and society.❤️