China’s next challenge? Mastering the art of cultural car branding

    From BMW art cars to Rolls-Royce streetwear by Stüssy, European luxury automotive manufacturers are in the lead for being creatively fluid tastemakers.
    Andy Warhol's BMW M1 in 1979. Photo: BMW
      Published   in Hard Luxury

    Whether it is Moncler’s puffer aesthetic being transformed into a Mercedes-Benz G Wagen fit for the moon, Rolls-Royce’s fashion collections with the likes of Stüssy and Hermès, or street artist Joshua Vides partnering with Puma and Scuderia Ferrari on a race suit, the world’s most prestigious automotive names are cultural tastemakers across the creative industries.

    And as brands are moving more freely than ever before between market segments, the global competition to be at the apogee of culture is heating up.

    Mercedes-Benz x Moncler collaboration. Photo: Mercedes-Benz
    Mercedes-Benz x Moncler collaboration. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

    This trend has been decades in the making, led by major players – BMW’s art car project, for one, began in 1975.

    Ever since the first BMW Art Car when French racecar driver Hervé Poulain commissioned Alexander Calder to paint his vehicle, the series has continued on to feature some of the greatest international artists, from Andy Warhol to Roy Lichenstein, David Hockney, and Frank Stella.

    The most recent example, a BMW car painted by New York artist Julie Mehretu, premiered at the Paris’ prestigious Centre Pompidou on May 21. Visitors might think the vehicle was simply a canvas to be marveled in a museum, but it will hit the Le Mans race track in a few weeks.

    BMW Art Car #20 by artist Julie Mehretu. Photo: André Josselin © BMW AG
    BMW Art Car #20 by artist Julie Mehretu. Photo: André Josselin © BMW AG

    “The artists have full creative freedom to do whatever they wish with the car, but cannot mess with the aerodynamics, they cannot mess with the weight, they cannot in any shape or form,” says Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Engagement at BMW Group.

    Each collaborative piece is an authentic piece of work that enables both the car and art to function in all their glory.

    “The BMW art car project didn’t start because public relations and marketing people put their heads together thinking about how we can use the BMW brand in the arts,” adds Girst. “It evolved from the racetrack. Poulain was as passionate about the arts as he was about racing, and he asked his good friend who happened to be an artist to paint his car. It was supposed to be a one off, but the car was cheered on during the race by everyone, so the collaborations continued. The BMW art car series was born.”

    The no-nonsense, versatile BMW i4 M50 model might be the brand’s best-selling car, but the company has attained an esteemed identity worldwide which has benefitted hugely from being a disruptor within the arts.

    When consumers buy a BMW i4 M50, they are buying into the cultural cachet that the company has built up.

    “We do consider our core brand, BMW a very cultured brand, and the BMW Group has been active in the arts for over 50 years with hundreds of initiatives worldwide,” Girst says.

    “Cultural engagement, besides societal engagement as a whole, is something that we are proud of and take really seriously,” he says. “We engage in long-term partnerships with museums and give full curatorial integrity to the institutions that we work with, as well as full creative freedom to the artists that we work with.”

    One defining factor of BMW’s success within the arts is how the company knows when and how to take a back seat to allow its creative partners to flourish.

    “The subtlety of our brand positioning speaks for the sophistication of how we do things,” says Girst.

    BMW ensures that it connects with consumers all over the world through supporting the arts in each market, whether that is through partnering with Opera Australia, hosting the BMW Classics open-air concert in London, or inviting international artists to be part of the art car program, such as Beijing’s Cao Fei, a move that naturally resonated in China.

    Similarly, Porsche is another luxury automotive player that focuses on championing art and culture in its branding beyond cars. Among the various exhibitions Porsche has presented, last year saw the brand host a collection of artworks telling the brand story at leading art fair for photography Photofairs Shanghai.

    Running at Ateliers Jeanne Barret, Porsche Scopes in Marseille 2024. Photo: Porsche
    Running at Ateliers Jeanne Barret, Porsche Scopes in Marseille 2024. Photo: Porsche

    Then in April this year, the global creative platform Porsche Scopes held an event in Marseille showcasing 40 artists’ artwork and performances, such as art car installations, live bands, DJ sets, panel discussions, and workshops.

    Since 2018, the festival has been a co-curation project by Porsche managed by its department of experiential marketing. A representative on the team told Jing Daily that the youth-focused format is a celebration of art, design, tech, music, and socially-relevant discussion.

    Due to the immensity of mainstream appeal that car brands garner, few cultural arenas are left untouched.

    “Cultural collaboration, as well as pioneering spirit, has always been very important to Porsche since it’s part of its foundational values,” said the team.

    Interestingly, China’s newer additions to the car industry, such as BYD (1995) and Geely (1986), are still much more focused on providing innovative technology rather than creating cultural strategies — it is news such as Geely Auto’s driverless drifting technology and BYD’s Yangwang Y9 electric supercar featuring a bouncing “dance mode” that garners online attention.

    “It’s about the visibility and the reputation and the image of the company and our brands,” says Girst on the BMW Group’s dedication to the arts.

    Founded in 1916, BMW has over a century of car innovation under its belt, providing the freedom to explore other areas and ensure it remains an innovator.

    Chinese automotive manufacturers are certainly flourishing in 2024. Whether they follow in the footsteps of the industry’s creative moguls will not become apparent for some time.

    • From BMW's iconic art car series on its 49th year, to Mercedes-Benz collaborating with Moncler, European luxury car brands are becoming further recognized as cultural tastemakers, reaping the rewards of merging the creative industries.
    • The heritage luxury automotive brands coming out of Europe are increasingly presenting strategies focused on having esteem within the arts industries, projecting the significance of cultural capital in luxury brand identity.
    • Thomas Girst iterates that the key to BMW Group's success is the subtlety of brand positioning, allowing creative partners to have full freedom to flourish.
    • As Chinese car brands flourish with a core focus on technicality and design innovation, their stance on the global stage will be influenced by whether they choose to compete on a cultural level with luxury's favorites such as Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.
    Discover more
    Daily BriefAnalysis, news, and insights delivered to your inbox.