"When you mix culture with brands there has to be an understanding between both parties, because the brand world doesn't really understand the culture world and the culture world don't understand the brand world. It's very rare that you find a partnership with the same goals and the same mission."
This is the view given by Swizz Beatz, the man proclaimed by no less than Jay Z to be one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time.
New York born Beatz (born Kasseem Dean) has worked with some of the biggest names in modern music, but away from the day job he also harbors a love of art, which led him to establish The Dean Collection to promote the work of artists internationally.
In recent year’s brands have begun to wake up to the influence that they can wield by working in collaboration with major celebrities and lining up their values with someone of influence who can take that brand to their audience and share a connection. Beatz has already built a brand collaboration, having been named as Reebok's creative director in 2011.
In the last 18 months, Bacardi has undergone 'a step change' on the marketing side of the business and has been looking to find a way to convey its historic connection with arts and culture, which led to a grass roots partnership with Swizz to create an international project called 'No Commission'. This involves the hosting of a series of art fairs around the world, showcasing the work of selected artists, who instead of taking a 50% commission, receive the full fee for the sales with no strings attached.
At the time of writing, the partnership has put around $3m back in the pockets of the featured artists so far. Of those involved, their work has been erected in the Barclays Center, among other success stories. "That's no small change," comments Zara Mirza, head of creative excellence for Bacardi, who works on a daily basis with Swizz on No Commission in an effort to evoke 'the spirit' of the brand in a more engrained manner than most celebrity-fronted partnerships.
"Brands have always supported culture. All your big commercial media models are based on brand investment that is paying for the program being made on TV. You get access to the mainstream culture but it's at a cost and it's very transactional. We are breaking that model and we are looking to contribute in more authentic ways, beyond buying attention. We went to Swizz because he has access and credibility in the area of culture that we want to get involved with," she explains of the initial approach on the collaboration.
Beatz, who has just finished a 14-hour flight from Paris when speaking to The Drum, says that the concept was one that fitted his belief that artists should receive more money for their work and that galleries need to be more welcoming in their experiences.
"No Commission is where everyone is welcome. It's free to enter, you get to see a free performance from one of your favourite artists without paying, you don't have to pay to see the art and then the artists keep 100% of what they sell. It's by the arts, with the artists, for the people and that's the whole message; making everyone happy."
Mirza adds that this is not about using Beatz's celebrity to simply hoc some Bacardi products. "You won't see him in a campaign or in our advertising but it comes from the grass roots with sleeves rolled up."
She says that he is a constant figure, attending meetings with different departments at Bacardi on a daily basis, while different Whatsapp groups have also been created to allow him to input and ask questions of the team at any time.
As to that input, Beatz exemplifies an artist who wishes to be steeped in the culture of the brand he is working with. "I look at it more as a partnership. I am a partner in the company, rather than a talent, which is cool. I like to work on the business side and I love being in meetings and understanding the company. [I want to know] how to progress to the next level and how we can continue doing things, even outside of No Commission, that can make the brand respected at all the levels. The brand has hundreds of great products all around the world. I love to sit down in those meetings and figure out new locations for instance. Usually people would have other people go out there and do that for them but I say we're all on the same level and we all want to get to the next destination of greatness. So all hands have to be on deck."
Asked what his ambition with this project is, Beatz refers to the $3m already given back to artists, and explains that he sees this work as being part of his "legacy building" that changes people's lives, a process Bacardi has bought into wholeheartedly.
Activating the collaboration has also included Bacardi branding on The Dean Collection website which also has a branded Instagram feed to share work and pictures from No Commission events. In December the project used Instagram Stories to allow users to create a virtual experience, allowing users to use digitally created DJ decks to compose their own tracks.
Mirzra says that after a few months, the collaboration is already paying off as Bacardi sees its numbers 'stabilize' and it forecasts growth for this coming year. While No Commission isn't fully accountable for that stability, aligning with Beatz has handed the brand renewed credibility with the world of culture that it has long aimed to drive resonance within.
So where next? Having run the first European No Commission gallery in London last year, which led to a 20% growth of intent to purchase and brand equity it claims, the project will soon follow up with events scheduled in Shanghai, Miami, Berlin, Dubai and New York. As a result, Bacardi really is putting some Swizz back into its swagger.