China's sizzling art scene is attracting new admirers

Advertisers like VW are partnering with artists and designers

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BEIJING--The record-breaking bids for Chinese works last month in London at the art auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's confirms that wealthy foreign collectors are impressed by China’s burgeoning art scene--and they aren’t alone.

The success of super-hot artists like Chinese painters Liu Ye and Yue Minjun is getting noticed at home, too. Locals craving self-expression and sophistication are also dabbling with music and fashion design, inspiring a handful of marketers like Volkswagen and local sportswear marketer Li Ning to bond with consumers on a more expressive and personal level.

"There is a lot of individualism coming out in China. We are at a point where young artists and musicians are breaking loose with pop culture, a trend that will peak soon," said Dirk Eschenbacher, regional exec creative director, Asia/Pacific at Omnicom Group's Tribal DDB in Beijing. "There are thousands of rock and punk bands in Beijing, for example, and a lot of homegrown designers in southern China. These people are letting their emotions come through for the first time."

Working with artists, either professionals or consumers eager to pick up a brush for the first time, “romanticizes individualism in a country where individualism in the past was like Eve’s apple. It’s succulent and juicy, but if you bite into it you get banished and outcast,” said Tom Doctoroff, JWT’s Shanghai-based CEO, China and area director, North Asia.

To help promote its status as the automobile partner of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, for example, the German car company backed the Art Beijing 2007 Contemporary Art Expo in September 2007, including an exhibit of works in which the VW Beetle was the canvas. Volkswagen displayed twelve New Beetle models created by participants of Vmagination, its online Olympic art car design contest.

"We need to find creative ways to leverage our sponsorship, like this exhibit and our sponsorship of the Bird's Nest," said Pan Qing, director of Olympic marketing for Volkswagen Group in Beijing, using the nickname for the Beijing National Stadium that will host the main track-and-field events for the 2008 Summer Olympics as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. "If you just put the five rings [of the Olympic logo] on packaging, you end up with nothing."

During a two-month web campaign that brought over 350,000 unique visitors to Volkwagen's Chinese site, over 3,200 Chinese submitted designs created with a sophisticated online painting tool. Entries were judged on creativity, their Olympic message, and how well the designs fit the car's shape and character. VW commissioned a toy factory in Guangdong province in southern China to build scale models of its New Beetle, which were then painted according to the winning designs. Last month, VW began touring the 12 winners through its dealerships across China.

Another Olympic sponsor, Visa International, teamed up with film director Jia Zhangke, a group of young Chinese filmmakers sponsored by the Discovery Channel, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty to create a series of short films about previous host cities like Tokyo and Rome. (See also “Six flicks with Olympic impact,” AdAgeChina, Nov. 7, 2007)

Li Ning lost its Olympic sponsorship bid to Adidas, but the Chinese sportswear marketer has found other angles for aligning its brand with the games. Li Ning sponsors four Chinese Olympic teams--table tennis, diving, gymnastics, and shooting--and is the official sportswear provider for the Spanish and Swedish Olympic delegations. It also has an agreement with China Central Television (CCTV) to outfit every presenter on CCTV-5, the broadcaster's sports channel, during the games.

To celebrate the Olympics, Li Ning invited seven pop artists and street artists to Beijing Oct. 26-28 to create works expressing the brand's theme, "Say no to limits." The artists are James Jarvis (U.K.), Hidekichi Shigemoto (Japan), Kaws (U.S.), Colette (France), Mr. A (France), Delta (Netherlands) and :Phunk Studio, a group of four Singaporeans of Chinese descent.

"It's the first time we invited top artists to help us create graphics to put on Li Ning products," said Xu Weijun, the company's chief marketing officer in Beijing. "In the past, local consumers would not think we are so creative.We're trying to leverage those professional artists to reposition Li Ning as a creative brand."

The Hermès Group recently hosted a Hermès silk scarf exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum to help educate China’s noveau riche about its heritage. The show marked the 70th anniversary of the first Hermès scarf as well as the 10th anniversary of the renowned brand entering the Chinese market.

In line with the exhibition, Hermès invited the celebrated Chinese painter Ding Yi to reinterpret the colorful rhythmn of his painting "Appearance of Crosses" on a silk scarf especially for this exhibition. Limited edition versions of the scarf at the local Louis Vuitton shop sold out almost immediately.

The move gave Hermès shoppers in China “a feeling that the brand is not just an import to better upgrade their status,” said Hung Huang. The CEO of China Interactive Media Group, publisher of the upscale women’s magazine iLook, is also one of the architects of the Dashanzi art district (originally called 798 Factory), the heart of a growing art and culture community in Beijing.

“High-end Chinese consumers are outgrowing the whole ‘I just want to buy it because my neighbor or friend has it’ attitude. They’re more sophisticated and looking for local relevance," said Ms. Hung. "The better the brand, the more they need a Chinese artist to reinterpt the brand and give it a Chinese context."
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