ART & DESIGN MONTH: What makes a great brand?

With shaky economic conditions and changing consumer tastes, this is probably a good time to ask 'what makes a great licensed brand?'
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We know that the market share for entertainment brands has been shrinking for over a decade, and that licensees and retailers are increasingly looking towards non-traditional brands to deliver growth.

Newer licensing sectors such corporate brands and celebrities are enjoying enormous success, but let’s look specifically at the art and design sector and reflect on what makes a lucrative, enduring art programme.

There are many qualities inherent in the great art brands but I believe that five essential factors distinguish the stars from rest, namely; quality, simplicity, universality, application and anarchy.

Let’s accept the quality of the design as a given; the designs have been conceived and executed to an exceptional standard and are consistent in every iteration. Crucially, the art programme is also subject to regular investment from its brand owners with assets updated and kept relevant to the core consumer.

After quality, simplicity of design is probably the biggest guarantee of longevity. This works on two levels. First of all, simplicity means that the brand is more likely to cross linguistic and cultural barriers with ease and speak to consumers of all ages and backgrounds. The less translation required the better. Secondly, simplicity of design infers iconic status on the brand. Thus, a brand that presents a blank canvas allows its audience to fill in the gaps and identify with it more completely.

Hello Kitty is the supreme example of this phenomenon; with her incredibly simple line art and almost empty facial expression, she can be either cute or camp or fashionable, etc, depending on who is looking at her.

Enduring art programmes (and great character brands) appear to reveal and confirm universal human truths. We identify with the familiarity of situations and emotions. One example is the Love Is… brand, which achieved global popularity in the 70’s and is still much loved today. Its phenomenal success surely resulted from its ability to define human interaction in the most charming way possible.

Application of the art programme is critical to the way it is perceived and disseminated. A brand usually needs to be built around a core of familiar products such as greetings cards or home textiles. In order to achieve high visibility and strong awareness, the brand must translate across multiple product categories.

In the UK, Orla Kiely has very successfully crossed over from fashion and textiles into many and diverse product areas from ceramics to camping equipment. How has this been possible? One reason is that the designs employ careful repetition; constantly re-working familiar design motifs, key colour palettes and textures for multiple products.

Finally, the best brands are a gutsy stew of irreverence, rebellion and humour. For instance, the artist Giles Andreae created both Purple Ronnie and Edward Monkton. Through their characters, these brands say what they think and therefore give us (vicarious) permission to do likewise. Yes, you say, but surely anarchy is in conflict with the concept of universality? Can a brand be both iconic and iconoclastic? I think it can, if the anarchy is combined with some or all of the qualities above. The result should be a long-lasting brand that speaks to large numbers of people with warmth and humanity.

So, if you’re thinking about creating a character or art programme for brand licensing, it’s probably worth keeping these five factors in mind, but don’t be afraid to make up your own rules. Originality is the most appealing quality of all.

Further reading: Rob Walker, I’m With The Brand.

You can contact Siobhan on 07736 181012, email and visit the website


Art Impressions

Art Impressions was set up as a subsidiary of fine art publisher Collectors Editions, to handle licensing projects for its artists and develop and sell merchandise collections. The firm has since separated and is a stand alone company.

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