Brand Becomes Culture. Culture Becomes Brand.

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Keith Neltner
Keith Neltner



brand-cultureOne of my biggest childhood fascinations was studying the everyday brand labels around the house and on the farm. I pored over Bull’s-Eye BBQ, Red Man tobacco pouches, even feed sacks — trying to figure out how the letters and images were illustrated. Little did I know that early intrigue would turn into my livelihood.

Then around age 10 I got into music. That attention to consumer brands morphed into a fascination with concert shirts and album artwork. A simple eagle or logotype became much more than a sketch to peddle a product. They were expressions of cultural experiences.

Fast forward to the year 2000. My career in advertising was a few years in when I started listening to one of my hero's grandsons, Hank Williams III. A chance meeting and a concert poster later, and I was in the thick of the Americana underbelly. Where cowboy hats, tattoos and piercings emblazoned fans from the age of 15 to 80. They all waited for their chance to hear the grandson of a legend belt out lonesome hillbilly music — and then transform into an agitated, aggressive punk set. I stood in those crowds for nearly a decade, watching, learning and soaking it in. These influences — the music, the audience, the attitude, the electricity of a show — defined that brand. Not in the traditional, strategically orchestrated sense, but in a very visceral, gritty and authentic way. It was a totally new fusion of country music royalty and hardcore street art that could not be repressed and would not be ignored.

Hank's biggest influences were The Misfits, Black Flag, Johnny Cash, Wayne Hancock and his grandfather. My goal was to absorb those sensibilities and create the essential icon that represented the music. The Misfits had the crimson ghost; The Rolling Stones had the tongue. And so the work began. My "devil picker," which featured Satan sitting on a stool picking on a guitar, became that crimson ghost. It became an icon for those whose identities were wrapped up in that hellbilly counterculture — ultimately getting inked into the very skin of Hank’s fans and fanatics.

A prime example of this permeable membrane between culture and brand lies in the Shepard Fairey phenomenon. His success in the street art scene quickly evolved into sought after museum exhibits across the globe. It started in 1989, when Shepard repurposed an image of Andre the Giant and rolled it into a sticker campaign that started showing up in hip spots around the world. But the tipping point came later, in the 2008 presidential campaign when his “Hope” image of Barack Obama elevated him to a household name. His distillation of imagery, mixed media of paint and stencils and simple phrasing have become his signature brand. He’s gone on to be commissioned by Levi's, Saks and numerous bands and causes. The raw immediacy of his work in a digitized world has become appealing to some of the largest brands that are desperate to be cultural relevant with their target audiences.

The line between culture and brand blurs as well with campaigns like the Absolut Blank artist series, when Absolut Vodka invited contemporary artists from Dave Kinsey to Adhemas Batista to create their own artistic expression within their iconic bottle. Or graffiti artist David Cho catapulting from homeless to millionaire by brandishing his work on the walls of Facebook’s flagship office. The smarter brands are getting it. To stay relevant, their character needs to come from an authentic place. Because, as they say, you can’t fake the funk. Can’t manufacture cool. So let’s see who else gets on board and integrates cultural cues into the fabric of their brands.

Image: (L) Sheperd Fairey's Obey Mark, (M) Neltner's Devil Picker, (R) Kinsey Absolute Art

Topics: Branding

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