The Month in Brand Innovation: Research Special

Research Special: The Rise of the Underground

To kick off the year, a special Band Jam Lab research report into a trend making a major impact on brand innovation, product styling and communication.

Street art uses colour, juxtaposition and social commentary to transform public spaces. Tattoos are graphic expressions of the wearer’s personality and the domain of many of the world’s most talented illustrators.

While both art forms deal with time and space in vastly different ways, they find common ground in their embrace of individualism and contempt for elitism. Underground artists regard galleries and museums as anti-democratic institutions. Walls and skin provide dynamic canvases for their ideas, with social sharing helping to propel their artistic visions from garage to global recognition.

Ever since James Dean loped around in Levi’s, youthful rebellion has been a valuable pillar of brand personality. But along with their counter-cultural appeal, urban and tattoo artists bring a FOMO element to product design. For a growing number of consumers, a product created in collaboration with an artist is infinitely more compelling than a product that merely uses art – let alone a product that says nothing.

Artist persona and creative process are important storytelling references, while the skill of urban and tattoo artists to uncover beauty and cultural relevance in everyday objects resonates ever more in today’s landscape. Specialness breeds attention and authenticity inspires buy-in. Remarkable products created under artist supervision are an example of brands using cultural connectivity to rise above the market noise.

A recent deep dive into my product campaign archive showed in excess of four hundred products created in collaboration with more than a hundred urban and tattoo artists.

Alongside specialised brands like Obey Clothing (by urban artist, Shepard Fairey) and Kat von D Cosmetics (of Miami Ink fame), the overwhelming majority of brands involved are cultural tourists, dipping into underground art in search of new sources of originality and intrigue.

Strangely, products with strong subcultural affiliations like sneakers, streetwear and denim only account for around a third of all projects (urban art 29%, tattoo 34%) – even more surprising given the high rate of design innovation among brands in these categories.Further up the fashion value chain, makers of shoes, ready-to-wear and accessories have intensified their adoption of urban flavours over the last year – Gucci’s hugely successful approach to defaced luxury was just one of several examples of prestige labels colliding with street culture in 2017.

Beyond the realm of fashion, usage is significant and widespread, ranging from bold extensions into areas like wine/spirit packaging to products oriented towards core users – “urban goods” refer to community-focused categories like skateboards, art supplies and collector toys. Among the most consistent users are scene-outsiders like Kiehl’s (cosmetics), Hennessy (spirits) and Modernica (furniture). A curious point is the low rate of usage in papergoods, stationery and other categories oriented at high-school and college-age consumers.

Across most categories, tattoo art has a tendency to sit further up the price spectrum than urban art. Tattoo’s plain colour schemes and ornate patterns make it a natural point of interest for leathergoods brands as well as makers of high-value durables like cars, decor and jewellery.

Throughout 2017, street culture’s infiltration of mainstream taste was a major feature. As their awkward relationship continues to develop amidst a climate of activism and political angst, expect to see underground artists playing a more prominent role in 2018 and beyond.

About Gavin Brown

Founder of brand innovation agency, Crescendo Brands...providing research, insights, creativity and leads to brands in need of remarkable products.