Good collaborations are art, great ones are kitsch
For a brand, having aspirational power is everything
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Dunkin’ Donuts collaboration with DTC wall paint brand Backdrop sounds like something out of MSCHF factory. Known for its purposefully absurd and random viral stunts, MSCHF is the creator of Nike sneakers filled with Holy Water, toaster-shaped bath bombs, and an app making stock investments based on astrological signs.
While it certainly wouldn’t look out of place next to the squeaky chicken bong popularized by the "factory", the limited edition stain removal whitening toothpaste in fact dropped on StockX on October 27th. Asking price climbed from $15 to $27 via DropX and the toothpaste came in a limited batch of 350 items.
Collaborations like Dunkin x Backdop, MOON x Heron Preston, Aimé Leon Dore x Porsche 964, McDonalds x Travis Scott or White Castle x Telfar are often dismissed as stunt-y, tongue-in-cheek, garish and lowbrow. Be that as it may, most of them aim to be appreciated in an ironic and knowing way.
Good collaborations are art, great collaborations are kitsch. They fit into the definition of kitsch perfectly: a replica that’s purposefully fake, and that’s where the joke is. Take it seriously, and you are a goon.
There are already obvious parallels between collaborations and the world of art (and kitsch): there are auctions, collectors, dealers, critics, resale marketplaces, monographs. Just like art, collaborations aim to shock and surprise. They can’t be criticized, and they strive to reach high prices and cultural immortality.
Power to the Mundane
“You know it’s art when the check clears,” said Andy Warhol. With Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana, Warhol made his way into museums by turning the mundane world into works of art by enriching it with pop references, connotations and associations. Warhol’s art is commercial and his commercials are art (a Warhol ad launched Absolut vodka in 1986).
At the same time, fine art went from museums into fashion, design and pop culture. Elsa Schiaparelli — the original creator of the newspaper print dress — was probably the proto fashion collaborator who featured her Surrealist friends like Salvador Dali on her designs. In the ’80s, New York designer Willi Smith invited artists, performers and graphic designers to join his project of making art part of daily life. In the early 00s, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami and Stephen Spouse joined forces with Louis Vuitton where then creative director Marc Jacobs turned the fashion-art collaboration into global cash cows. Recently, Cindy Sherman collaborated with Undercover and Yoyoi Kusama has just released her new Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame limited-edition bottle and gift box. It retails for $30,000 and comes with a poem.
When someone buys a Cindy Sherman x Undercover, they aren’t actually buying a bag or a t-shirt; they’re buying a legit work of art. When they wear it, a person shows off their knowledge and cultural awareness. They also see themselves through a new lens: not as mere consumers, but as collectors. Done right, collaborations generate collectibles, justify high prices, create cult objects, and initiate brands in the domain of intangibles. Thanks to this newly-acquired timelessness, symbolic authority and post-materialistic form, Undercover isn’t a mere commercial entity, but a shrine of culture and human creativity. Through collaborations, brands ingrain themselves in culture, not in a market segment.
Culture x Commerce
Collaborations transform non-culture into culture. It’s a great business model: collaborations don’t need financial capital, only a strong brand capital. Supreme can put its logo on a brick and collaborate with Colgate as long as its brand equity is attractive.
Moncler, Mini and Aimé Leon Dore made collaborations integral parts of their DNA. With good reason: compressed trend cycles force brands to constantly come up with the new stuff. Consumers today expect physical products at the unattainable speed of Instagram. A quick solve is to riff off already popular and familiar stuff. Cue in the endless Air Jordan and Supreme collaborations. A brand uses Air Jordan or Supreme’s aesthetic just enough to become kitsch, which gives it a new context and an ironic read and turns it into an insider joke.
Collaborations work well in mature markets, where consumers are bored and products are commodified. There are only so many Uniqlo items that a person can own, but not if those items were made by Jun Takashi, Jil Sander or Pharrell. Having the fashion link allows Uniqlo to cultivate “elitism to all:” it can sell a lot of Pharrell t-shirts to a lot of people without diluting its symbolic value. This symbolic value makes a commodity incomparable: a very few people will pick MOON over Crest or Colgate in a pharmacy. But many will select it to add some flex to their bathrooms. Limited editions keep the cultural pioneers interested in the brand, and MOON can enjoy a temporary monopoly by rendering its competition irrelevant: collaborations are hard to replicate.
Hardest to replicate are inconsistent and random collaborations, like Heron Preston x MOON or Steven Alan x Mucinex. Their genius is in that they shun any coherence. Coherence is for suckers, because collaborations aren’t brand extensions. They’re a creative expression of a brand that let it flex its zeitgeist muscles, promote it as a trendsetter and turn its products into brand communication. A Chanel snowboard or IKEA x Craig Green make Chanel and IKEA modern and culturally present and curious. An unexpected collaboration attracts collectors, cultural pioneers and hypebeasts. It becomes the source of a brand’s aspirational power.
Collaborations trade in aspiration
For a brand, having aspirational power is everything. In the modern economy, the growth motor isn't a price. It’s taste, aesthetics, identity and thrill. Economic growth doesn’t come from products, but from the intangible social and cultural capital that a brand creates. Products are just a vehicle for beauty, thrill, identity, transformational experiences and a life aesthetically worth living. Moon toothpaste, in its own words, “is destined to elevate your everyday, oral care routine into a true oral beauty experience.” By collaborating with Heron Preston, MOON puts this mission on steroids. It makes brushing teeth more culturally and socially relevant. Having an orange toothpaste turns everyday hygiene into a creative and inspiring ritual. Every time we brush our teeth with Heron Preston x Moon, we create a social distance between ourselves as those unenlightened enough to use Crest. We also create a link between us and all other cultural pioneers of oral care.
Collaborations aren’t a brand gloss. They’re a strategic transformation of a brand’s operating system. In the aspirational economy, this transformation is a matter of a brand’s long-term renewal and cultural relevance. Strategic collaborations across a brand’s entire value chain are akin to making a safe bet on a brand’s cultural and business future.
At the level of marketing and sales, collaborations protect pricing power, ensure high margins and reframe consumers’ perception of the brand. At the level of a product concept and production, collaborators provide value innovation. At the level of distribution, collaborations expand a brand’s market and renew its customer base. A collaboration between luxury brands and Chinese KOLs give these brands an in with the Chinese customer. A collaboration between Rimowa and streetwear pioneers like Supreme, Bape and Anti Anti Social Club renews brand associations. At the level of merchandising, collaborations give halo to the core collection, re-evaluate brand perception and increase brand consideration. Before Nike launches a new model, it seeds it on runways of its fashion collaborators like Undercover or Sacai. The collaborators add their imprint, making it culturally noteworthy and spurring interest in the model’s later commercial release by Nike.
Collaborations are basically a constant brand re-contextualization: they take it from one context and put it into another one. In that sense, there isn’t a “bad” collaboration: collaborations are calculated cultural and business tests. Some contexts are more fertile than others, but just as evolution constantly mixes stuff up to see what sticks (theropods didn’t), a brand stays alive through remixes. Collaborations are the strategy of brand awareness, market expansion and its fountain of youth.
Through re-contextualization, collaborations:
Allow brands to start trading in exchange value, not in use value. Use value is defined by a product’s functionality. Exchange value is defined by a product’s social appeal. A social hit becomes a market hit. Brands that insert their products in the cultural exchange system and not in a market segment, win.
Give everyday products identity. In a crowded competitive landscape, a brand is the key product differentiator. A brand makes products stand for something more than their function and separates them from commodities. A collaboration enforces brand identity, ensures its continuity, and connects products into a narrative.
Infuse taste and meaning into ordinary consumption. Today, a brand’s products and services do not only fulfill their basic functions. Their job is to aesthetically enrich their buyers’ lives and become social links that signal status, social distinction and belonging.
Collaborations are easier to understand once they’re taken out the domain of brand stunts and into the domain of art. Art is a big business. Art is also a big social and cultural commentator, critic and cynic. It tells us what we need to know about the world we live in and about where the future is going. Collaborations do the same.
This article was originally published on Highsnobiety and edited by Christopher Morency.