The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) has a branding problem. The persons in charge of the fair don’t seem to know what a brand is. On top of that, they have a PR problem in that no one thought twice about hashing out their confusion over brands and branding in the pages of The New York Times.
As the fair opens later this week, the print edition of the NYTimes will carry a story where the fair’s principals muse on the meaning of TEFAF’s brand as the fair tries to expand beyond Maastricht and Old Masters.
Once noted for its intense vetting, TEFAF wants to follow Frieze in expanding geographically. And to TEFAF’s credit, their leadership do have some sense that vetting remains central to their reputation—which is what Chairman Nanne Dekking means more than brand here:
“What we really try to achieve is to become a global brand,” Mr. Dekking said in a telephone interview. “But it’s a more complex brand because of the huge diversity of participants. We cannot say that we’re going to be a global brand in Impressionism or a global brand in contemporary art. What we have to establish is that we can become a global brand that people can trust.”
Chief executive Patrick van Maris also chimes in here:
“The brand stands for the best artworks selected by Tefaf, represented by the best art dealers in the world,” he said. “We have a very strong vetting system and the trust aspect is extremely important for Tefaf. One of the most important things we’d really like to come across is that the dealers have a story to tell, and we provide a platform for that.”
Here’s the thing about brands. They are constructed more by the consumers of a product than they are by the creators of the product. Consumers invest a brand with its meaning whether the company likes it or not. The origins of branding come from the need to create a uniform experience. You know when you go to a McDonald’s anywhere you’re going to get the food you expect, it might not be the best food but it is uniform food.
The biggest and best brands—what former Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts named ‘lovemarks’—build a devoted following through repeated exemplary experience. Think Apple, Nike, BMW, Rolex and others where buying the product means participating in an activity in a way that seems enhanced by the product. As a result, the product produces a cult-like sense of belonging.
An art fair isn’t a lovemark. And it isn’t really a brand. For an art fair, a brand is just their reputation. The TEFAF name should mean that one encounters the same the quality of dealers (and wares) in Maastricht and New York. But a fair really doesn’t have full control over that.
Look at the biggest name in art fairs, Art Basel, which runs three very different fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong. The Basel fair and TEFAF were, at one time, peers in different fields. Basel in Modern and Contemporary art; TEFAF in Old Masters.
As Basel expanded to Miami, it’s reputation exploded but for none of the reasons that make Art Basel in Basel the world’s premier art fair. Miami fused Art Basel’s name with the global art boom. But the buyers (and dealers) go to Basel when they want to play in the big leagues.
For TEFAF, which has done a very good job establishing the New York fair, the question is how to build a bigger, broader platform for its dealers. Bigger in terms of having more dealers from a wider array of collecting areas; broader in terms of geographical and seasonal reach.
The point of all of this is that branding is a concept from advertising. One doesn’t have to advertise to establish and build a brand organically. The best brands evolve through the positive experience of customers (here that’s both collectors and dealers) repeated over and over again.
Advertising seeks to amplify and accelerate that virtuous cycle. Many times it imagines it can pre-empt the cycle entirely. But no brand can outlive a faded or negative experience.
Tefaf Widens Its Focus From Maastricht to a World of Art Collectors (The New York Times)