At the Cologne furniture fair last month, rather than put up an aluminium frame and fill it with product and suits, the German bathroom and kitchen manufacturer Dornbracht put on an installation by designer Mike Meire called The Farm Project. Visitors walked through a space inhabited by pigs, ducks and fish, through strewn hay and past a lit stove – the reason being, as Meire puts it, that a show kitchen should aspire to be a real place that ‘reflects life and animates the senses’.
Dornbracht is, of course, one of many companies using concept-type stands, and this is the latest in Dornbracht’s programme of ‘culture projects’ dating back to about 1997, including performance art and dance events, a series of exhibitions, and a series of books called Statements on the theme of water, featuring work from a stellar range of artists, including Nick Knight and Marc Quinn.
Good stuff: we all like a patron. But what has it got to do with selling bathroom fittings? ‘I’m always being asked whether it’s just a marketing tool to enhance the company image,’ says Holger Struck, Dornbracht’s corporate communications manager. ‘But it’s not. Nor is it just altruistic patronage. It’s a necessity.’ Such a necessity, it seems, that Dornbracht has a document entitled ‘Cultural Commitment as a Corporate Goal’, outlining its purpose, which is to develop the company’s ‘cultural identity and relevance’.
The real point of the company’s culture projects, says Struck, is to create a ‘laboratory’ by which to examine the aesthetics and purpose of the bathroom and kitchen. Wouldn’t it be easier to fund research and development? ‘Maybe, but this gives us a different perspective,’ he says. ‘The inspiration from the artists is vital. They are not as economically driven as designers and are open-minded. They listen to their inner voice.’ He even says that their work can filter back to the product range. For instance, Dornbracht’s RainSky shower – wherein water falls come from a perforated plate in the ceiling – was inspired by one of the company’s art initiatives based around the concept of ‘domesticated rain’.
The story of companies making strategic links with the arts for marketing purposes is not a new one. This more integrated brand approach, in which the product is enmeshed with art and design, is a more recent phenomenon, however. It was spearheaded in the 1990s by Beck’s Beer and Absolut Vodka, which, back in 1985, commissioned a painting from Andy Warhol of an Absolut Vodka bottle. When that appeared as an ad, it received media attention worldwide. There was also the example of Benetton, which set up its foundation in 1987, further pulling together art, photography, design and social concern with corporate values and branding. This has led to a situation where branded ‘foundations’ appear to be blooming, and each one offers a subtle, but powerful, corporate force. The Prada Foundation in Milan began in 1993 with an exhibition space, and has been hosting art events since then, each one of which underscores the fashion company’s patronage: at the Milan Furniture Fair in April this spring, the foundation is to be showing the work of Tobias Rehberger. But, as with the others, the claim is that it’s not specifically about shifting product. ‘It is not led by the need for marketing, although the same people lead the company as well as the foundation,’ says Stefania Arcari, editorial co-ordinator of the Prada Foundation.
The Audi Design Foundation is another such institution, like a cross between a think-tank and a trust, to enable and inspire young designers. ‘From the marketing point of view, the association is inseparable, and Audi can make use of that relationship,’ says Mike Dennis of the foundation. ‘However, we’re not a marketing tool for Audi. Nor are we, as many people think, a school of automotive design.’
In the UK, the Bombay Sapphire Foundation is notable for its glass award, the Bombay Sapphire Prize. ‘We’ve built it up over the past five years,’ says Angela Oakes of the foundation, which has, as its trustees, luminaries such as Tom Dixon, Thomas Heatherwick and Ron Arad. One of its collaborations was the UK’s longest bench, the Bombay Sapphire Stretch, seen at the London Design Festival 2005. Oakes says that it is inextricably linked with the marketing effort, but in a way that is intangible. ‘The arts branding strategy works best with premium brands and AB consumers,’ she says. ‘Bombay Sapphire is a gin in a bottle, and so with the prize we make the conceptual link between the drink, the glass and design. It is a kind of branding, but it takes the idea to another level.
The probability is that these brand associations will become ever more ambitious. Last October, Heineken sponsored an urban regeneration project led by Rem Koolhaas in Valencia, turning a run-down part of town into a ‘creative hub’ called Heineken Greenspace. The Dutch company now hopes to roll this notion of ‘regeneration marketing’ (as it has been called) across other European cities.
‘It is an investment in urban culture in order to leave something behind and to give something back to society,’ claims Walter Drenth, global marketing communication manager for Heineken. Some will be uncomfortable with the encroachment of the brand name into civic life. But as with the other foundations and culture projects, it has certainly left the old ‘logo on the programme’ school of arts sponsorship far behind.