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On the contemporary art market – Expertise, Marketing and Money

December 18, 2012 1 comment
“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”
- Robert Hughes, 1989

Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?

The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?

Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.

Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:

Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”

The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.

artmarketgraphs

Auction turnover returns to pre-recession highs… just in time for slowing growth in BRIC regions?

Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.

So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.

Richard Prince's oft-repeated Nurse motif was used for the Spring/Summer '08 Vuitton show

Richard Prince’s famous Nurse motif was used for the Spring/Summer ’08 Vuitton show

The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.

Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.

Ai Weiwei Exhibition A

Luxury pushes beyond the store

September 2, 2012 1 comment

Luxury brands have found it hard to come to terms with the shift in consumer shopping habits from retail to online. For several years they have dipped their toes in the water of digital, but with little commitment and much hesitation (until recently). This is understandable. Often for luxury products, the justification for higher prices is only evident upon seeing the item in real life, or it can sometimes be intangible. These assets are hard to replicate when seen on a computer screen. A store’s retail environment allows the company to control every aspect of the brand experience. Someone checking out the Louis Vuitton website could be using a slow computer in an old browser; the experience will suffer, and there is nothing the brand can do about it. Much more sensible then to invest in concept stores, such as the recent one in Selfridges. But there needs to be a focus still about managing the brand and courting attention beyond the four walls of the shop.

So it should be of little surprise to see that recently luxury has been looking to broaden its horizons in the physical space, aiming to brand experiences that seamlessly fit into the lifestyle that they think is associated with their brand. This was evident in no small part when Zeitgeist took a trip recently to St. Tropez. Before even entering the town, visitors were greeted with the sight of mega-yachts and enormous Gin Palaces, and – on one of the days Zeitgeist visited – evidence of the relatively recent collaboration between Gucci and Riva (see above picture). Such a partnership probably helps the former more than the latter. It certainly helps validate the clothing company’s brand, which sometimes fails to leverage its relatively strong heritage. Walking away the port – past the recycling collections strewn with empty bottles that had once contained vintage wine and champagne – toward the famous Place des Lices brings you face-to-face with the hotel White 1921. This is one of LVMH’s newest incarnations, an eight-room hotel.

White 1921 lvmh hotel st tropez

It was a beautiful hotel to behold, and had just opened the week Zeitgeist was visiting. Though much in need of a lunchtime glass of champagne – the brand here makes the most of its ownership of several champagne labels – the dining area was sadly not open until the evening. White 1921 is not alone as a recent example of hospitality being managed by a luxury brand. LVMH’s first such hotel was back in 2010 in Courchevel, named Cheval Blanc. More recently, Bulgari have launched their own hotel in London’s Knightsbridge area, close to the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The St. Regis hotel in New York now has a small collection of fashion-related suites, including the Dior Suite. All this is about embracing a certain idea, a crystallising of what it means to be living a particular lifestyle. The question for LVMH begins to arise as to whether, strategically speaking, having one arm of your company (Dior in this case) having a room owned by St. Regis creates any significant competition between the hotels you are opening elsewhere in the world. The more they open, and the more branded suites appear under competitor’s names, the stickier this situation could get.

Releasing products that compete for the same consumer type is never a good idea, and is a mistake General Motors made. A very good essay on this is available in Richard Rumelt’s ‘Good Strategy / Bad Strategy’. The market is becoming crowded. Hermès has side-stepped this by designing luxury apartments in Singapore. Some companies have thought at a more granular, perhaps relevant, level. Trunk-maker Moynat have teamed up with the famous Le Meurice hotel in Paris by providing French chef Yannick Alléno with a roll-in trunk so he could cook breakfast for guests in the comfort of their own room. It’s an inspired idea that retains the original idea of what makes the brand special and heightens it by creating a unique experience for the consumer. The New York Times reports,

The chef’s breakfast trunk is genuinely designed to travel, its porcelain plates held upright with leather straps and its cutlery in drawers. Mr. Alléno already has plans to send it to hotels where he has connections, first in Dubai in September, then to Courchevel in the ski season and on to Marrakech. At each destination, he will make a personal appearance and demonstration.

Similarly, Prada has thought about how best to showcase its ready-to-wear line, in this case including its clothing in the sumptuous film The Great Gatsby, due out next summer. The highlight of Zeitgeist’s time in St. Tropez was in visiting one particular boutique. Christian Dior, while not be a brand one immediately associates with good food, featured an open courtyard that hosted a cafe dedicated to indulgent delights. Mr Alleno was also responsible for the food here. It was an impressive exercise in brand management… and excellent profiteroles.

2011’s Retail Trends

February 11, 2011 3 comments

Zeitgeist was asked at the end of last year to write an article on retail trends for the coming year. The following is an altered excerpt of the original article…

It’s surprising to read editorial describing us as still being in a recession. If you’re going to use economic terminology, then you have to listen to economists when they say the recession ended months ago. The trouble now is dealing with the aftermath – impending cuts and taxes. Evidently it’s not all gloom though, as new stores Dior, Mulberry and Miu Miu join the salute to capitalism that is Louis Vuitton’s Maison on London’s Bond Street.

Look for more brand collaborations. Disney’s venture with Tesco is bold and innovative… Savile Row’s Gieves and Hawkes recently installed a space for barber Gentleman’s Tonic, and vintners par excellence Berry Brothers has a concession for Lock and Co. Both instances suggest a deep insight into who their shopper is; useful for the brand, flattering for the shopper. With empty high street retail spaces, the time is right for sage collaborations, bringing brands added security.

Digital integration will become more widespread, aiding both in brand building and simplifying the customer journey. More people are expected to be surfing via phones than computers by 2015. This swing constitutes an immediate opportunity for retailers and marketers. Since helping Obama to victory, crowdsourcing has only gained in popularity. The Louvre recently fundraised through thousands of individual donations online to buy a coveted Renaissance painting. The power of many, prognosticated in “The Wisdom of Crowds”, is driving ideas like Groupon, as well as its subsequent offer for purchase by Google.

It’s going to be a make-or-break year for Foursquare et al. There have been interesting campaigns by all sorts, from Marc Jacobs to McDonald’s. What’s missing is seamless integration of these services with retail environments. ‘Checking-in’ has got to become a utility for shoppers outside London, New York and San Francisco. Currently, opportunities to create conversations are being missed.

Twitter’s retail presence will continue to grow, evinced by Best Buy’s Twelp Force and Debenham’s Twitterers flitting about stores. Multi-platform interaction can be enhanced by the physical retail environment: Diesel pulled off a fun gimmick last year with a screen outside the changing room allowing customers to upload a photo of themselves to Facebook to query friends on their clothing choice. Neiman Marcus recently merged online and in-store inventories, a great idea that others should emulate. Allowing people to browse products in-store on an LCD screen without the pressure of exasperated sighs from sales assistants can make shopping enjoyable and convenient. Chanel’s Manhattan flagship has such functionality; it could be of equal use at B&Q.

Getting someone to linger in your space and mention the experience to others is what counts. Pop-ups, if they serve a purpose rather than being a gimmick, can be a tremendously effective – not to mention fun – tool. Don’t underestimate fun. Emphasising convenience alone means most people – especially when the odd flurry of snow arrives – will shop online at home. There must be an element of excitement, innovation. This can be escapist, like Secret Cinema, or pure enjoyment like Muji’s vending machine (see top photo). Pop-ups can provide an excuse for an otherwise serious brand. They help in getting a message to new audiences (Gagosian’s pop-up), or taking the store to the customer (Natwest’s mobile truck).

So, more collaborations, more digital and more pop-ups; so what’s new? As William Gibson once said, “The future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed yet”. Embracing digital won’t stop people price-checking and tweeting negative remarks, but it would be worse to keep it – and therefore the customer – segregated. If that happens, and you promote on convenience alone, that customer never comes to your store and never sees a physical embodiment of the brand. Last November, as Zeitgeist previously reported, Ralph Lauren was one of the latest brands making use of 4D projection mapping. People cheered at animated handbags and ties. In 2011, Mintel advises, “brands may need to get more creative to lure consumers into stores, offering more than just retail and be a venue, not just a shop.” I’ll leave you with that thought while I go and cheer at a sandwich in my local “venue”.

Social Media Success & Failure

January 14, 2011 1 comment

Learning from brand victories and losses on Facebook, Twitter et al.

Last week, Zeitgeist tried to book a holiday at one of the lovely resorts looked after by the luxury group “One & Only”. This company – which advertises mainly in Vanity Fair and Harrod’s magazine – ostensibly caters to discerning travellers who expect a certain level of service from the place they go to and the people that serve them. On trying to call one of the hotels, no one would pick up the phone, and the call rang off. The same thing happened when Zeitgeist tried again. Zeitgeist fired off a tweet, “mentioning” the company’s twitter feed, alerting them to the fact that a room was in need of booking but that no one was picking up the phone. This was mid-afternoon. At 10pm the next day, Zeitgeist received a private message from the One & Only account:

The only trouble was that the “OOResorts” account was not following Zeitgeist, so he found himself unable to reply. Thus the communication from the account was useless; they either were not social media-savvy enough to know I would not be able to reply to the message without them first following me, or they did not care enough to bother. Either possibility casts the brand in a poor light. It’s far from mandatory to have a Twitter account, but if you are going to set one up, you need firstly to respond to pleas for assistance in a timely manner (within 24 hours), and secondly to know how the platform works. The more equity your brand has (in the case of One & Only, it’s a fair amount), the more it has to lose by making simple errors such as this. In the meantime, Zeitgeist ended up booking a holiday at a different destination with a different company.

Starbucks, by comparison, although seen as a pin-up boy for the creep of homogeny in a globalised world, for the most part has done an excellent job when it comes to courting fans and maintaining a good PR stance on multiple subjects. This was the case again on Monday when it offered free coffee all day to UK customers. Zeitgeist found out about the offer through Twitter, but there was also an event on Facebook. A voucher could be downloaded and easily printed out or merely shown on your phone to your local barista. Now, the key here was, unlike the unpleasant (but free) glass of wine that Zeitgeist was entitled to upon checking into a restaurant on Foursquare at the end of last year, this coffee blend was delicious, it was not the sludge one would expect from an item that is free. That is because Starbucks realise the point is to use the free coffee to encourage future use; for newbies to think “Oh, their coffee is actually pretty good” – it’s not a throwaway gimmick. (It’s also so that people, when in the store collecting said coffee, will indulge in a muffin or some other accompaniment.) Good thinking, guys.

Rewarding Advocacy and Retaining Customers

December 6, 2010 2 comments

How “24”, Louis Vuitton and a London restaurant attempt to make their brands worth engaging with.

Eye-catching advertising – like the one mentioned by Zeitgeist in the previous article posting – that succeeds in converting a person to being a new customer of a brand is one thing, but keeping them dedicated is quite another. As The New Yorker cartoon above demonstrates so humorously and effectively, engagement is what’s important. It’s about incentivising and rewarding your customer for their association (and, hopefully, evangelism) of the brand.

Zeitgeist has touched on location-based services several times in the past, and as the service continues its maturation process, we are able to judge better as to what kind of benefits it brings to marketers of brands. One is still left with the impression that network effects have yet to fully take hold for the myriad platforms – Foursquare, Gowalla, and more recently Facebook’s equivalent – that provide these services. Logically, greater and more plentiful benefits for those that sign up to these services would encourage those users to advocate others to sign up to them.

So what is the current state of affairs for rewarding users of such services? Well, first you can count out anyone who lives outside a major metropolitan city; the service has nothing to offer them other than who gets to be arbitrary mayor of which location. Sometimes, locations can be inaccurate enough that it looks like people are having a drink in a subaqua bar, as is the case above.

In the past week, living in London, Zeitgeist has experienced two offers through Foursquare that have had real-world consequences. Tuesday before last, as one of the first people to unlock the “Louis Vuitton Insider” badge, Zeitgeist’s presence was requested at the Bond Street Maison for a drinks reception, attended by several Vuitton employees from the marketing and digital disciplines, from both London and Paris. The chance to get to talk to such people, while browsing the store’s significant art book collection while munching on macaroons and sipping various beverages, leaving with a small gift, all were clearly tangible benefits for those guests who attended the evening. What of the business though? What benefits does it reap from organising such an event at reasonable expense? Ideally it gets to know its customer base better, though in this case, some of those who unlocked the badge were not habitual customers of Vuitton. Still, for those that are, the event would no doubt have encouraged a greater affinity toward the brand.

Yesterday at lunch near Covent Garden, Zeitgeist was early meeting his friend and decided to check-in on Foursquare. The reward for having done so was a free glass of wine. The benefits of free alcohol need not be extolled or delved into greatly in this article. However, the execution was sorely lacking. The waitress, when presented with the notification of this offer, was totally caught by surprise, and was not aware of any such offer. When the glass was ultimately brought – Zeitgeist was presented with a choice of “red or white?” – it was of course some substandard plonk that wouldn’t have been fit for a university ball. On the face of it, of course, this was not surprising; but it led to the question of what is the point of rewarding the consumer / shopper / person with something that is pretty poor and leads to a less enjoyable experience?

Zeitgeist can think of few experiences less enjoyable than competing against others to stay awake. Yet this is exactly the idea that 20th Century Fox have had, on the eve of the release of an enormous, diss-it-and-you’ll-be-waterboarded, boxset of the entire series of the hit show 24. Starting last night in Los Angeles, several “lucky” winners of a competition run entirely on Facebook will be subjected to every single episode of the series, while they compete with other viewers in a glass cube to stay awake. The campaign is also supported by a Twitter feed and, as Fox would have hoped, has been picked up by “24” fan blogs as well as the mainstream media, appearing in the LA Times. The campaign will have relatively little long-term impact, as the series has now come to end – though rumours persist of a film being made – but the idea for the competition, one of endurance, is very on-brand for the series, and has clearly sparked much chatter online. It should be noted that endurance contests are not always on-brand, or safe. UPDATE: The winners.

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