Sponsored graffiti: how can brands play a respectful role in the street art scene?

As a forward-thinking Manchester PR Agency, we’re constantly looking for new sources of inspiration in the world around us, wherever they may be found.


In fact, as part of our Creative Manchester blog series, we’ve already shared some of the stories behind the most inspiring street art masterpieces in our home town. Today though, we’re taking a look at another side of the street art scene: commercial graffiti.


Graffiti has its roots in counterculture, as an artform born from outspoken individuals flaunting the law to showcase their creativity & express social commentary, so it wouldn’t seem the most natural fit for brand partnerships.


However, as street art gained popularity, brands begun to take notice, wanting a slice of the action within the lucrative youth market. As early as 1968, the term ‘commercial graffiti’ was used by Time Magazine, and the phenomenon had begun to spread as far and wide as Los Angeles, London and Berlin by the 1980s.


Even in our home town in Manchester, there are a surprising number of examples of brand-sponsored graffiti, though they’re not always as easy to recognise as you might think.




Commercial graffiti in Manchester


For example, Red Bull partnered with French collective Subism to create a giant mural on the side of the Northern Quarter’s Ridelow bike shop to promote togetherness following the UK wide riots of 2011. In the same year, Converse commissioned a photo-realistic bluetit piece by Sarah Yates, a Sheffield-born illustrator and environmental activist. Then in 2015 Dr Martens commissioned Akse to spray a giant boot onto another Northern Quarter wall along with the #StandForSomething hashtag.


But it wasn’t until Starbucks entered the scene in Christmas 2016 that the city really started to take note. The brand plastered a glaring red & white mural across an entire side of Shudehill’s Hare and Hounds pub, complete with its trademark mermaid logo and Twitter handle, leading to an MEN article full of scathing tweets from the local community.


So should brands be dipping their toes in the street art scene, and what can they do to ensure they produce content that receives attention, but not notoriety?



Right brand?


The reasons many brands want to sponsor street art are the same reasons some of them shouldn’t. Graffiti has long been associated with ‘alternative’ culture and rebellion, which has given it a cool factor that brands want to borrow.


In today’s sceptical social media generation though, consumers are pretty cynical about corporate brands’ blatant attempts at harnessing trends to gain popularity, and are quick to vent their frustration publicly if the partnership doesn’t feel genuine.


The biggest criticism of Starbucks’ foray into the Manchester street art scene was that as a global chain it has no right to occupy spaces usually reserved for independent artists, often to offer a thought-provoking opinion on real societal issues.


Right place?


It was not just Starbucks’ size that caused a backlash though, the situation was made worse by the location of the sponsored graffiti, as the Northern Quarter is so known for championing smaller brands, without a chain coffee shop in sight. By trying to buy its way into spaces known for rejecting traditional corporate culture, Starbucks was asking for trouble.




Right reason?


Just around the corner from Starbucks’ previous effort, a new Netflix sponsored mural appeared in the Northern Quarter in 2019, but the response from the local community was much less frosty, despite Netflix’s undeniable commercial intent.


Not only is the artwork beautifully detailed, but the subject matter, promoting the David Attenborough Our Planet documentary series to push Brits to take action on climate change, rings true with the historic role of graffiti in providing a voice for under-represented social causes.


Right art?


Perhaps the most poignant point in defence of branded graffiti is the fact it provides funding for talented artists to explore their craft. Not only that, but the brand’s purchasing power & connections often also open up larger and more prominent canvases than artists would be able to work on if operating illegally, giving them more time to create giant, impactful murals.


This positive for the creative community only holds true if brands work with genuine street artists with a real affinity for the product though, and give them enough design freedom to create a piece that’s true to their aesthetic. Otherwise, rather than promoting talent, they are using their budgets to block the best spaces for public art and stifling creative opportunities.


In the case of Starbucks in Manchester, and more recently Umbro, their commissions were heavily branded and had the feel of being created in a graphic design suite under strict brand guidelines, rather than in the mind of an individual armed with a spraycan. The result is something that feels like just another billboard for consumers to ignore on their commute, and is a real missed opportunity to capture the public’s attention or contribute to the cityscape in a positive way.


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