Not so long ago, every forward-thinking company was trying to cast itself as a tech firm: from sneakers to salads, placing tech as your secret, core proposition seemed to be catnip for VCs – take the US-based farm-to-lunchbox chain Sweetgreen, which always claimed it “acted more like a tech company than a food one”, and which placed developers rather than groceries at the heart of its business. A September 2019 funding round gave it a valuation of $1.6 billion – and yes, this is a startup that delivers salad, but has that all-important glossy tech-firm sheen. So, the benefits of being “tech” are not to be understated.
However, for auto manufacturers, they’ve arguably always been in the “tech firm” space, and so as they wrestle with an ever more likely automated, driveress, on-demand, non-ownership future, their next rebranding step has been to become “mobility” firms – a catch-all for everything from flying drones to shared-ownership hatchbacks and electric charging point infrastructure. This year’s CES – the infamously vast technology show – featured most of the big car brands in attendance, all showing their own particular “mobility solutions” while rarely using the “C” word. Hyundai, for example, didn’t even place a conventional electric car at the heart of its showcase, presenting instead a flying taxi that had been co-designed with Uber. The five-seater, all-electric, rotor-driven SA-1 VTOL craft, would lift off from hubs that Hyundai helpfully suggested could double as coffee shops.
The future question for auto brands is that when no one owns a car, but every vehicle manufacturer has a rentable solution to get you from A to B, how do you choose who to ride with? The answer is which one you identify with as sharing your values (or has really great coffee).
Take today’s ride-sharing services: do you choose one out of habit? Or do you prefer one over another because, say, Bolt takes a lower cut of the ride fee? Or do you like the fact that Uber sponsors some of your favourite tech events, like SXSW? Or that Lyft has a more appealing “plucky underdog” narrative? Maybe some future mobility startup will plant a tree for every 50km travelled?
Auto manufacturers with a long-term vision have recognised this need to align themselves with things that create positive associations in the minds of potential customers – and arts and culture are at the forefront.
“The right art association can be of huge benefit to a major brand, as art and culture can bring poetry, be seen as philanthropic and can clean up a brand’s image,” says Fred Mann, Director at New Art Projects, an independent gallery in Hackney. “These kinds of cultural and intellectual associations are highly desirable. Take Viktoria Modesta’s Rolls-Royce Black Badge collaboration – she is a brilliant disabled performance artist, an amputee and a fetish model. She really made them look edgy and very, very cool.”
Culture and corporations have a long history of being complementary bedfellows, but getting involved with the arts is a double-edged sword – the increased scrutiny it brings can damage institutions and businesses alike: in March 2019, the Sackler Trust, a philanthropic wing of the billionaire family behind Purdue Pharma, announced it had pulled out of funding UK galleries (though the galleries were in fact turning down Sackler money before this) due to negative reports that Purdue – creator of OxyContin – was driving the opioid crisis in the US. The Tate and the National Portrait Gallery understandably don’t want to be part of an apparent Venn diagram of ruthless Big Pharma profits and lives blighted by addiction, and have turned down or given up funding and grants from Sackler. Despite this, we’re used to seeing support from other key sectors, including financial (Barclays, JP Morgan, Ernst & Young), energy (BP – though they’re also being dropped by the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company), and technology (Samsung, Microsoft) at our museums and galleries – but car manufacturers’ out-and-out sponsorship is still relatively uncommon.
Automobiles and the arts aren’t complete strangers, though – artist Sonia Delaunay famously repainted a Citroen B12 car in 1925, and repeated the trick in 1968 with a Matra 530 (you can still see it in the Cité de l’Automobile, in Mulhouse, France). In more recent years, YBA Tracey Emin created four “Drawing in Motion” pieces on Fiat 500s for the 2007 Frieze art fair, and Pop Art icon Peter Blake decorated a Bentley in 2016 – but straight-up car-brand sponsorship of a broader exhibition is a rarity in recent times, and even oblique connections to motoring can be controversial. (The V&A’s 2019 exhibition on car design was sponsored by Bosch, rather than an automobile firm, but this decision was still mired in controversy since it was Bosch’s labs that enabled VW to cheat on its diesel emissions-standards tests.)
Still, with increased electrification and other overtly green moves by automakers, opportunities to decry cars as polluting menaces are diminishing. And if the galleries are still unwilling to engage, another option has presented itself – if the brand in question has the resources. By opening their own spaces in which to establish their cultural credentials on their own terms, brands get the cultural kudos, dodge the enhanced scrutiny that comes with associations with public institutions, and perhaps keep a little more influence over the subject matter.
Samsung’s KX space, for example, hosts symposiums on gene editing, gaming sessions, cookery classes and more – all carefully curated to align the brand with science, leisure, home life and more. It could be compared to the carefully curated flagship spaces of Microsoft, Glossier and Apple – the aim isn’t really to directly sell you something there and then, but to have an experience that leaves a positive association.
Outside the UK, Hyundai has opened a series of “Motorstudios” in Seoul, Moscow and Beijing, ostensibly to showcase art with a technological aspect, and to host events on subjects such as bio-art and AI. Unlike other brands’ “art car” projects of the past, Hyundai aren’t sponsoring specific artists or tasking them with anything as cheesy as redecorating a Kona – shows are centred around a theme, albeit one that Hyundai may find a useful exploration of materials, attitudes and interactions. The Beijing space, a repurposed industrial building, has also been designed to champion Hyundai’s green technology and sustainability efforts – it has a passive air filtration system and uses geothermal heating and cooling.
There is also a question of scale, in terms of transmitting the message of being a cultural brand: Hyundai’s current exhibition exploring the intersection of humanity and technology, Human (un)Limited, is running simultaneously across all its Motorstudios, showcasing the works of 18 artists in a variety of media – something any curator would struggle to achieve across independent sites. It also fulfils its hybrid model of adding cultural value while, as Hyundai CMO / Executive Vice President Wonhong Cho, puts it, serving as a research lab for “transforming people’s lives for the better in the age of the fourth industrial revolution, [which] will be possible when our understanding of humanity through the inclusive ethos of art is combined with the right technology.”
“The artists we work with can perhaps help us think about doing things in a different way – and maybe give some insights as to where the future is heading,” agrees Head of Space Innovation at Hyundai, Cornelia Schneider. “When people visit the exhibition, Human (Un)Limited, we want to see their reaction to the ideas – how do they respond? Are they even ready for them? This is looking at how we can, for society, be sustainable and adopt new practises.”
Car culture is changing – the switch from fossil to renewable is laudable, but becoming a given in the minds of the public. To appeal to – and understand – future consumers, auto brands need to represent something more than getting from A to B: the intellectual, cultural and emotional journey is becoming as important as the physical one.
Find out more about Hyundai Motorstudio Global Art Project by visiting hyundaimotorstudio-art.com/en