Apr 09, 2015

Tattoo culture: a new language for brands?


Having become a fashion phenomenon, tattoos hold a fascination because they essentially symbolize a counterculture, far from the mainstream. This fascination also affects the world of branding. How are brands currently using tattoo culture? What should they include to create a consistent language, a source of engagement and value?


For an individual, the tattoo represents the act of marking one's skin with a sign, a pattern or even a symbol. It is at one with the individual, it expresses part of their personality, even their identity. This definition of tattooing echoes that of "branding", which in the beginning was used for marking cattle with a red-hot iron to be able to recognise them better. 
The concepts of identity and recognition are at the heart of what constitutes brands. 

Tattooing, like the visual identity of a brand, is a visible and encoded sign that is built on a bedrock of values, a culture and sometimes a philosophy. The sign’s power lies as much in its aesthetic as in its symbolic aspect.

Another raison d’être for the language of brands and tattooing? The search for identity. We live in a homogenised society where individuals are looking for differentiation to feel unique. Elise Müller, a sociologist and anthropologist, who contributed to the preface of the book The Tattoorialist, gives us her point of view: "We also realise that the number of tattooed people today provides body branding with a role to play in self-construction. In many cases we observe a need to ritualise a passage into a world where the sacred is tending to disappear, a need to choose and set long-lasting points of reference, whereas the times in which we live are pushing us towards the fleeting and transient. For these people with tattoos, the brand represents a commitment to promote and assert themselves as they are. Through contemporary tattooing, we are looking for our real self, asserting our uniqueness, insofar as it also helps us to make ourselves visible, particularly in the anonymity of large cities, and get as close as possible to the feeling of being ourselves." Intrinsically, we see that the cultures of tattooing and branding are closely linked. And it is startling to see that it is mainly the alcohol and perfume brands that most frequently use the language of the tattoo.


It seems natural, even justified, that alcohol and perfume brands draw their inspiration from tattoo culture. Why?

Alcohol and perfume brands attract the public by playing at very emotional levels. They are addressed at groups of individuals desperately seeking identity. Belonging to a tribe and adopting certain brand codes enable them to define a territory and to exist. One of the main drivers used by identity brands to attract consumers’ attention is their packaging. When the packaging is event-based and associated with a tattooist who enjoys a certain reputation, the brand becomes more desirable and consumers most loyal to the brand feel comfortable with it.  Tattooing has become a source of graphic inspiration, just like the street art movement. For alcohol brands, dressing up their packaging with a tattoo design enhances the packaging and gives it star quality in a market where status and image are vital.  The temporary aspect of a limited edition with "tattooed packaging" breaks with the permanent aspect of tattooing. This type of tension or paradox can be a factor in driving development for brands that want to adopt a bold or even a ground-breaking approach.

Examples of brands which have capitalised on the aesthetic power of tattooing:

TUACA: the world of liqueurs 

TUACA is a brand of liqueurs that traces its origins back to the Italian Renaissance. It was created for Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose philosophy was based on the spirit of discovery associated with his era. New packaging has been designed in a tattoo style that uses the brand’s two symbolic lions. The packaging is experimental since the tattoo changes colour through the magic of an ultrasensitive ink that reacts to temperature. So temperature is a key variable in alcohol consumption; it is part of the ritual.

Wicked: the world of energy drinks

Wicked is a new brand in the energy drinks market whose name reflects its positioning: an invitation to subtly rebel. The choice of the tattoo helps to nurture the brand’s position and attract young people who are looking to assert their personality. The choice of the dragon reinterpreted in a "colourful tattoo" design creates a language in tune with the target market. This quirky graphic territory enables Wicked to offer a distinctive emotional territory, breaking away from brand leader Red Bull.

Deejo: the world of knives

The brand's founders had the great idea of giving an elegant makeover to an old-fashioned action: opening an everyday pocket knife. A knife resulting from a unique combination that blends quality with extreme lightness. A steel tip designed to slice the toughest food, in the most delicate fashion. It is easy to carry, use and adopt. Since Deejo is more than a knife. The brand offers the option of tattooing the blade of the knife, as we might tattoo our arm, with a symbol that is dear to our hearts. Deejo thus becomes unique, something even finer, a personal object that you wear like a second skin. Knives designed to accompany their owners in their everyday experiences.

Apart from its aesthetic value, the use of tattooing by identity brands finds justification in its symbolic power. In the case of alcohol and perfume brands, it is the values of rebellion, daring and freedom that are at work. These are values that resonate strongly with the young target market whose relationships with brands are more emotional. It is interesting to note that brands are increasingly associating themselves with the tattooist’s personality, as well as their style. Tattooists are not only defined by their work but also by their own legendary status.

3- For a virtuous relationship between brands and tattoo culture: new prospects.

Going far beyond a packaging rationale strongly influenced by aesthetic considerations, the art of tattooing comes across as a powerful tool in building brand identity.

1/ J&B Scotch whisky: British cheek

In 2013, J&B donned a new skin, tattooed in homage to the London Underground, with a colourful design using fluorescent inks and black light glaze. A bottle that shines, ready to melt into the shadows of the night.

In 2014, J&B launched 25 genuinely tattooed bottles in a strategy of ultra-exclusivity to celebrate the British origins of the brand, created in 1749. It was in the middle of the 19th century that tattooing developed in London with the return of Royal Navy sailors. To pay homage to this history, J&B covered 25 of its bottles with a latex skin tinted to give it the colour of human skin. The brand then called on French tattooist Sébastien Mathieu to carry out the tattooing.

Limited editions that pay homage to its origins and to its mindset

2: Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion: tattooing to express a new vision of male beauty. 

Jean-Paul Gaultier has inspired a new image of the modern man: the right to be sensual and to assert one's sensitivity. Tattooing has become a source of inspiration for the creator and one of the attributes of this "new man", which breaks with its traditional representation. "Jean-Paul Gaultier looks for stories involving skin that combine masculinity with sensuality." This is how the world of tattooing is related to the life of the creator and imbues all his work: perfumes as well as co-branding with Diet Coke in particular.

3/ Peugeot cars: a new trinity - brand, tattooist and tattoo.

Towards a new form of co-branding between a brand and a tattooist’s style.  It is not only that the tattoo that interests the brand but a new trinity: brand, tattooist and tattoo.

The case of the Peugeot 108 illustrates the unique collaboration of a tattooist/graphic designer with the creative director of the automotive brand. A totally measured, controlled and consistent approach: the choice of design, the ink (black car engine oil) and its accepted French origins (the Peugeot brand’s "motion and emotion" philosophy, with a reinterpretation of the lion, an iconic symbol of the Peugeot brand). For Peugeot, it is also about adopting the underlying trend of ultra-personalisation and event branding of their models to turn them into cultural icons.

Collaboration with French tattooist XOIL to launch a limited edition of the Peugeot 108.

4/ When brand and tattoo are as one: the Sailor Jerry success story.

Sailor Jerry is the shining example of a brand that was able to incorporate tattoo culture into its strategy to become an iconic brand both in the world of rum as well as tattooing.

A brand embodied by its inspirational founder

It all started with the story of an American, Norman Collins, who became Sailor Jerry. He refused to comply with the norms of the society of his day and created his own way of life. He decided to explore his country by train and to live without restrictions. His American dream was driven by two powerful values: freedom and wanderlust. During his inaugural trip, two significant events occurred: his enlistment in the U.S. Navy and his trip to Chicago, where he trained as a tattooist.

The "made in Sailor Jerry" tattoo: graphic territory that has become a cultural icon

His initiation in the art of tattooing in Chicago enabled him to discover the fundamentals of the technique and the use of the first electric tattooing machine. His enlistment in the U.S. Navy brought out a passion in him for the world of the sea: sailors, boats and the taste for travel in general. His stay in Honolulu (where he would set up his tattooing workshop) and his knowledge of the sailor's lifestyle (women, tattoos and alcohol) were his first sources of inspiration. For Sailor Jerry, tattooing represents the best way to express one's philosophy of life.  Another major aesthetic influence came to define the "Sailor Jerry" style: the excellence of Japanese master tattooists with whom Sailor Jerry kept in correspondence. This sharing of experiences gave rise to the tattooing that we now call "Sailor Jerry": an irreverent and daring style that represents the marriage of Japanese and American styles. The power of the Sailor Jerry brand lies in this visual identity that evokes the signature of its founder and whose graphic territory is distinctive. The tattoo designs are all brand icons: sailing boats, sailor designs and women, of course. All powerful markers for creating an emotional and relational link with its followers.

Engaging brand imagery on the theme of travel that enriches the product experience

Rum is a product that has travel in its genes. Imagery that may therefore be pre-empted by other brands of rum. Sailor Jerry's tattoo culture has enabled the brand to become unique, iconic and long-lasting.  The brand’s name, the founder’s story and the iconographic style around tattooing feed this travel philosophy. They legitimise the brand’s myth, which is to be found in the very design of the rum with its recipes that are both sweet and surprising. Faithful to the tradition of sailors who reconstructed and personalised their rums on board. At each new port of call, through chance encounters, the brand discovers new rituals, new recipes and reinvents the rum experience. Consumers choose the rum just as much as the Sailor Jerry lifestyle that it promotes.

Tattooing has become a graphic trend highly valued by brands and consumers.

It is recognised for its aesthetic utility and represents a rich source of inspiration. An immediate way to create an emotional connection with individuals and society. However, when we think about tattoo culture, it reveals a symbolic power that goes beyond the purely aesthetic appeal. Brands that understand this subtlety will be perceived by consumers as being more qualified to speak about identity and of belonging to a new generation of identity brands. Alcohol brands have already paved the way: incorporating the symbolic and aesthetic aspect of tattooing in their brand heritage and elevating it to the level of culture and lifestyle.

A tattoo is not only an aesthetic design, just as a brand does not just boil down to its visual identity. Markers, signs that then become an emotionally rich and powerful language and that represent the point of departure for a story to be told, unfolded and shared.

- A point of view written by Michelle Taing, Strategic Planner.
Also published on l'ADN.


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