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Marketing can be quite difficult. John Wanamaker, who founded one of the first department stores in the US, is attributed as saying, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

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Free Artwork

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Of course, there are always new tools that aim to make marketing easier and more quantifiable. For example, Wired is currently trying out a technology from a new company called SnapAds that simplifies performance testing. They take a banner ad for a Wired Magazine Subscription – you know the ones, “Subscribe to Wired… Just $10 a year” – and simultaneously are able to test 9 different covers, 6 product offers, 7 calls to action, and 10 colors. That’s a lot of data to analyze, and fairly groundbreaking.

So as I was walking home through Union Square in Manhattan recently, I came across an artist displaying his work, and I was struck by something so simple, that I wanted to highlight it and share it with you.

It’s certainly nothing new. And it’s far from groundbreaking.

But it does tie in three themes that I’ve been covering lately.

1) The concept of FREE

2) Personality-based marketing

3) The power of branding

Let’s take a look at what happened, then dissect each one


The scenario on the busy sidewalk that day involved NY pop artist Michael Albert. The first thing you see is a small crowd gathered around, engaged with a personable individual. I approached and saw a handmade sign advertising FREE POSTERS.

[Click the image at the top of this post to enlarge it for readability]

Of course, New Yorkers aren’t the only ones with the copyright on ‘OK, there’s no such thing as free lunch. What’s the catch?’ Only there was no catch.

Next is the artwork itself. I know it’s purely subjective. Probably one of the most subjective topics in life. But because he strongly works with brands, I figured the audience listening to this podcast could identify with it.

Michael Albert Posters


So how is Michael Albert using a unique brand of marketing to entice people to look into his artwork?


Giving away the first piece of art for free completely changes the dynamic.

The concept of Free as the future of business was covered by Wired Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson in the March Issue of Wired Magazine, where you can read the article, view examples, and watch a short video.

Let me be clear… Michael is not giving away ALL of it for free. If he were, then it would be just a step above a free poster give-away at a basketball game. You feel it has no value.

Artwork Crowd

But it’s also not the scenario that most other artists do. You have some interest, you’re hesitantly sizing it up, not wanting to look too interested. And then you get the courage to ask… how much is this piece? Somehow, whether the answer is $30 or $300 or $30,000 dollars, it’s never quite the answer that you were expecting.

But in this case, after saying that the first one was free, I found myself really analyzing each of the 15 items he had. It was crazy… I spent almost 20 minutes picturing which piece spoke to me the most, mentally framing it on various walls in my apartment. In the end, I took the first one for free, but bought a second one from him.

And that’s how he works. He gave away many for free, a smaller percentage also bought additional copies, and still others will come back another day, go to his website, or tell their friends through word of mouth.

Michael told me ‘This process gives value to it, even if I’m giving it away for free.

2) Personality-based Marketing

The main piece of art in my apartment is a painting by a good friend of a scene in the town we grew up in. Why? I could identify with it.

This topic came up last week in my podcast interview with Julia Allison. She argued that the best way for a company to get noticed and go viral, is to base their advertising around a personality. Again, this is nothing new, but many companies choose not to focus on it.

Want an example? Look no further than the boring insurance industry.

When I mention Aflac, what immediately comes to mind? I’m guessing you thought of a duck. You might have even made the sound. AFF-LACK!

What about when I mention Geico? You’re a winner if you’re thinking Gecko. Bonus points if you did the accent. “I, am a Gecko.” Or maybe you went with the cavemen.

What about AllState Insurance? Gold star if you said Dennis Haysbert, but ‘The President from 24’ or ‘Pedro Cerrano from Major League’ is more than acceptable.

People associate the personality with the product.

Michael said to me ‘How many times have you seen art and not identified with the artist.

3) The Power of Branding

Michael builds his art around universal themes and brands. What is his artistic theme? Bright colors, vibrant imagery, and lots going on.

But lots of artists do that.

The key is that he then ties this style to something that every person can identify with.

Mike said ‘I take universal themes such as Shakespeare, The Beatles, and the Empire State Building, and that really grounds people with a foundation of something they know.

Frosted Flakes Artwork

One of his other predominant themes is breakfast cereal. While people’s tastes change as they mature, you could literally see onlookers lose themselves in their past, staring straight through the painting of a Frosted Flakes or Cheerios box.

In a world where the Whole Foods 100 yards away makes a very good living selling soy milk, macadamia granola, whole grain flax seed pancakes, and free-range eggs, the 35-year-old next to me probably hadn’t bought a box of sugar Frosted Flakes in years.

But could I see the artwork transporting him mentally back to a time when he was a toddler sitting at the kitchen table across from his mom, smiling ear-to-ear, grasping a giant spoon, shoveling the tasty flakes into his mouth? Hell yes.

The flashbacks came fast and furious for me as well as I examined his artwork more closely, the ones that look like a ransom note.

The R from Ritz crackers. The O from Oreos. The M from M&Ms.

He was letting those companies that had already built a lifetime of branding serve as a conduit for bringing his brand alive.

Marketing can be difficult and navigating the world of art can be complex.

But by incorporating the new concept of Free, infusing personality, and building a brand and style on existing universal themes, marketing artwork became as simple as a bowl of Frosted Flakes.

Michael Albert

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