Warhol – At the Edge Between Mass and Class

The most frequent or observant of our readers might have noticed our pop art theme and Andy Warhol himself popping in and out of our header art.  “What has that got to do with ‘moving brands from mass to class?’, you might ask.  Actually, we think that Andy is a great case study in transforming the mundane (like a can of Campbell’s soup) to highly desired pieces of art.  After all, Warhol’s have sold for up to $100 million and his work is considered one of the most collectable and valuable in the art world, according to The Economist.  Not only was Mr Warhol a famous mover from mass to class, he also practiced the principles we talk about in this blog of nurturing class brands with such mastery that his has outlived the “15 minutes of fame” by far to become a timeless classic.

Lets take a look some of these principles and how they relate to Warhol.  I am not an art critic, please excuse the lack of profoundness.  I shall limit myself to drawing parallels between Warhol’s behaviors and business and our brand building model.

Mission Incomparable” – is all about making your brand break conventions and expectations to establish your own, unique purpose, standards and style.  Warhol already stood out as a commercial illustrator where his style was appreciated as ‘whimsical’ or criticized as ‘sloppy’.  Later experimenting with commercial printing techniques and their ‘accidental’ imperfections became his trademark (read: incomparable style).  But this style was just the unique language of a provocateur who enjoyed confronting the public with  profound questions. ‘Does consuming Coke, Campbell’s and Co make us all equals.’ ‘Is stardom arbitrary? Can everybody be made a celebrity?’ or ‘What is artistic and what is commercial?’  One has to recognize the foresight considering this happened some 20-40 years before Youtube or the Damien Hearst ‘art’.

Longing versus Belonging.” – The challenge here is to attract key influencers (critics, celebrities, etc.) who in turn attract followers which in turn can give the brand a desirable

Warhol painting the BMW Art Car IV, 1977 — Unlike his artist predecessors, he painted directly onto the car, had not produced a small scale model first and was done in a mere 23 minutes – The stuff legends are made of.

‘cult status’, if enough people claim it’s purpose for themselves, adopt it’s style and expand on it.  Douglas Holt talks about this in his book “How Brands Become Icons.”  One important difference for class versus mass brands is that while the brand benefits from broad awareness and desire, it also needs to make sure that not everyone can or wants own a piece.  That is because price only remains an after-thought as long as satisfaction of being one of the select to own (bling appeal) or ‘understand’ (snob appeal) exists.  The tension between mass and class surrounds Warhol’s work.  On the one hand he stirred controversy by using mass-making techniques in his art – he provocatively called his studio ‘The Factory’- and producing large and diverse outputs compared to ‘the classic artist’.  On the other hand, he managed to keep demand ahead of supply.  He not only leveraged celebrities as subjects (not endorsers!) like prestige brands.  He made himself the prototype artist-celebrity.  He tiered the outflow like a Giorgio Armani does in fashion, from the ‘haute couture’ originals and special collaborations (including with prestige brands like BMW and Mercedes) to limited editions, signed prints, etc. to mass copies (the A/X equivalent).

From Myth to Meaning” – Feeling rather than rational thought is why we want to experience or own art (one reason why prestige brands associate themselves with art). Even many of those so-called art investors probably do it for the thrill of speculating or of owning the most precious or most talked-about piece.  Andy Warhol made sure his art was imbued with stories.  From the choice of subject (like ‘Car Crash’ in the “Death and Disaster” series) to the making (the Oxidation Paintings produced by male guests peeing on canvasses) to the controversy Warhol created around his own life (he was one of the first openly gay artists) which was a masterful but authentic ‘mise en scène‘ up to the last moment.  The funeral service featured an open bronze and gold coffin with Warhol in a  cashmere suit, sunglasses and platinum wig…  and a bottle of Estee Lauder “Beautiful” dropped into the grave at the last minute.   Which brings us to …

Behold!” – The manifestations of class brands are iconic and inspirational.  You recognize the the iconic, bespectacled, ruffled white hair looks of Warhol.  They are artfully curated and put on a pedestal to be admired and to halo.  They are not sold hard.  But a small piece of their glory might be available, for example in the form of a signed print.  Class brands live on foresight versus insight.  Meaning, rather than wondering what people need and how to please them, they create what people don’t know yet they will want.  Steve Job’s gets famously quoted as having said that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them“.  Warhol refused to ‘explain’ his work.  He said that you could see all they mean and that there was nothing behind them, being “deliberately enigmatic with regard to the depth of his talent” (Getty Museum).

Living The Dream” – Warhol was, but so was his community of friends, protegees and artists in and around ‘The Factory’.  Creative people of extremely different backgrounds collaborating to create art was a shared “Mission Incomparable.” It was a revolutionary, lived vision of Warhol which contrasted the classic idea of the lonely artist in her studio.  It lives on through the continued work of his collaborators, their storytelling, the continued interest in his work and his life and other artist communities that have been inspired by the pioneer work of ‘The Factory’  as Alex Needham at The Guardian illustrates.

Let’s leave it at these first five principles and hope they came to life for you in this case study at the interesting edge between art and branding.

Of course, we could have simply told you that making our permanent illustrations pop art was an efficient way to stay out of trouble with possible owners of original photography, while creating a unified design theme. – It’s true.

Or we could have talked about Mick Jagger (yes, that is the gentlemen to the right in the header) and the Rolling Stone brand, which just as class and enduring – “Move from mass to class like Jagger”?

Finally, we could discuss how the iconic manifestation Warhol created was used 50 years later by the mass brand Campbell Soup to lift their brand up, create buzz, goodwill and a bump in sales – without promoting good favor or a lower price.  That happens when mass brands adopt elements of class.

Which aspect of mass to class branding fascinates you?

About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here: https://bit.ly/UeberBooks
This entry was posted in 1 - Mission Incomparable - The first rule is to make your own, 2 - Longing vs Belonging - The challenge is both, 3 - From Myth to Meaning - The best way up is to go deep, 4 - Behold! - The product as manifestation, 5 - Living the Dream - The bubble shall never burst, D - 'Masstige' Moves. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Warhol – At the Edge Between Mass and Class

  1. Wonderful article, thanks a lot !!


  2. Pingback: Art without Tears | classified

  3. JP Kuehlwein says:

    I was hit by a the very recognizable, colorful 1967 self-portrait of Andy Warhol covering the entire front page of The Standard newspaper in Hong Kong this morning. It announces a collaboration between Andy Warhol and NARS, the cosmetic brand. Given the legendary brand Warhol and its iconic manifestations we talk about above and a prestige brands’ aspirations to achieve just that, it only makes sense for a marketer like Estee Lauder (owner of NARS) to callobarate with the Andy Warhol estate. The brand mangers exchange artistic halo for NARS with keeping Andy Warhol’s top of mind. Funnily NARS launched this limited edition just a few weeks after I wrote the above blog. I didn’t know ‘Classified’ was that influential, already ;-)


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