Many professionals (including the marketing and design sort) look at Graffiti Art as vandalism plain and simple. That said, for those trying to build a winning brand, the graffiti world is worth a closer look. The raw, exciting and complex quest for graffiti fame of artists around the globe might posses the passion and intensity your marketing strategy needs in today’s noisy environment.
When aspiring graffiti artists or “writers” decides to chase the fame, they instinctively use marketing fundamentals to do it. They plan their strategy and literally become their brand.
Lesson one: Name for Fame
Before a writer even starts working out her brand in a sketchbook, she must first decide who she will be. This is more challenging than what we deal with in business marketing. You can choose a name and then have a brochure, website, billboard, blog, etc. to support it. For a graffiti artist or “writer”, the name has to perfectly capture and convey their brand from the first time they put it out into the world.
It better be great and it better be completely original. If it isn’t you will be ridiculed into obscurity. You want the kind of name that other writers wish they had thought of, something that stands out, and something that really makes people take notice.
Are you planning a start-up? Does your name represent your business well? Is it inspiring? Original? Or are you just going to take the initials of your name and add “inc.” to it? How can your name become the center of your brand and not something you slap on as an afterthought?
Lesson Two: You Better be Tight!
When an aspiring writer develops their “tag” and/or “throw-up”, they know that tag will be the thing communicating their brand all over the city. They work out a look that represents their name. They know they have seconds (if not milliseconds) to capture their viewer’s attention and convey their brand. In the 90’s, there was an artist in San Francisco named “Twist”; his tag was Twist or Twister and he would use throw-ups that were illustrations of a wood screw. They were simple, elegant, everywhere and instantly recognizable. At the time he was the most famous street artist in the city and one of the most famous worldwide (despite very few people knowing who he actually was).
What does your company logo convey? Do you have one? Is it distinct? Is it iconic? Here is my litmus test for a truly great and iconic logo: remove all the words (or better yet don’t add any in the first place). Is there a mark left that is unique and recognizable? Can you put it on the web, in print? Can you print it on a t-shirt, cut it out of steel or stencil it on a wall? Does that mark convey your brand when there is nothing else around to support it?
Lesson Three: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Consistency is everything – and graffiti writers get that more than anyone. There are stories from the 80’s in New York City that graffiti “crews” would make young writers practice relentlessly on old newspapers to get their mark down perfectly and consistently before they were allowed to go out with the crew. If he went out half-cocked, his personal brand would fail. They knew it would not only make their crew look bad as a whole, but it did nothing to serve that young writer.
They understood that the key to fame is getting your mark out there consistently and often. The writer puts his mark up hundreds if not thousands of times. The people following the writer know it instantly (including fans, rivals and police). If the writer changes his name it is back into obscurity; even a drastic change in look too soon could set him back to square one.
How consistent is your brand? Is your logo on you business cards, letterhead, website, email signature? Does it always look the same? Do you have set Pantone colors? Are the colors consistent or do they vary from asset to asset? Do your core messages and values permeate every part of your business from the marketing materials to how you answer your phone or post on your blog?
Lesson Four: Risk Equals Reward
Any graffiti writer worth her weight in metal knows the quickest path to fame is audacity. You can have the great name, perfect tag and be the most talented out there, but if you aren’t audacious you will be lost in the crowd.
The riskier the place you choose to paint, the bigger and quicker your fame will grow. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the writers painting subway cars were getting all the fame. Why? One reason is that the trains were moving billboards that would carry your work to all five boroughs. The other was the risk factor. Getting up on a train meant sneaking into increasingly inaccessible train yards or trudging through rat-infested tunnels while avoiding the infamous, high voltage 3rd rail. The art had to be good, but the riskiness is what put them over the top and made them stand out.
Are you good at what you do? How do you stand out? What makes you extraordinary? Are you taking some risks or just playing it safe? Stand up, be bold and people will notice.
Lesson Five: Don’t Bite
The biggest offense in the world of Hip-Hop and especially in the graffiti part of that world is “biting” (copying or stealing another artists works or ideas). Originality is valued above all. If you just do a similar style to another established writer, you will get laughed out of town. This creates an environment where the artists are obsessed with originality and wouldn’t dare consciously copy another artist’s style. Many artists will put the word “one” or “oner” after their names to let everyone know they are the first and only person using their name and that they are a one of a kind.
What a difference from the business world, where if a company does something innovative, their competitors quickly rush to release their regurgitated rendition of the same product or service without batting an eye. Yet, some companies (Apple, Starbucks and HBO to name a few) consistently seem to come up with the next thing rather than copying someone else.
How can you bring an original take on your business? How can you differentiate yourself from your competitors by doing something completely unexpected? How can you start leading and stop biting?
Don’t Believe me? Ask Banksy and Marc Ecko…
Say what you will about graffiti, but there are examples of people who took the rules above and leveraged them into business empires. Following the fundamentals of attaining graffiti fame they built brands that crossed into the mainstream.
Ecko Unlimited: Now you can buy Ecko Unlimited clothing in Macy’s and Nordstrom, but at one time Marc Ecko was just an artist/designer that (though not a street graffiti artist) immersed himself in the world of graffiti and hip-hop. He patterned his look and brand around that world and its rules. His early lines were on the shelf next to brands put out by graffiti writers and other urban artists and to this day he uses graffiti-styled art in his designs. He not only borrowed the look of the graffiti world, but played by its rules to build his brand into the $1.5 billion behemoth it is today.
Bansky: Though he got his start as a freehand graffiti artist, Banksy moved to the stencil style he is known for today in the mid nineties (a real taboo amongst traditional graffiti artists). As a street artist, his clever, humorous and politically subversive art took the world by storm. In 2010, his film Exit Through the Gift Shop premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is reported that the artist known as Banksy has a net worth of more than $20 million.
These are just a couple of examples of extraordinary marketers that used the simple rules of graffiti art to build massive, word renowned brands. They looked at how everyone else was doing it, went a completely different direction and won.
Now, how are you going make your mark?