Inspiration from the wonderful Ai Weiwei

The Taylor family are just back from what has to be the most inspiring, amazing, moving exhibition I have ever seen: Ai Weiwei at The Royal Academy. If you live in London, you simply must go. If you live outside London, find an excuse to visit! But hurry, as the show closes on December 13th, 2015.

For those who might not know, Weiwei is an artist and a political activist who has been highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government's record on democracy and human rights. Through his art he has highlighted government corruption and cover-ups. He was arrested in 2011 and held for 81 days without any official charges being filed.

The exhibition is first and foremost an experience that leaves you gobsmacked by Weiwei's potent combination of bravery, creativity and showmanship. I did also manage to find some inspiration that I think can be applied to marketing and branding. 

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1. Bake your idea into your product 
Weiwei is an artist on a mission to expose corruption and abuse of human rights. One way to pursue this mission would be the charity route, sell artworks to raise money for good causes, like like Stars on Canvas for example. However, Weiwei's approach is much more powerful. He actually "bakes" his ideas into the artwork he creates. The pieces are visually stunning ways of delivering a clear message. "It provokes feeling, be that sympathy, anger, or love. Its affective force compels us to pay attention, and sometimes to copy it, however we can," as The Royal Academy website explains.
For me, the most memorable and moving example of this is called simply "Straight". This exhibit is made of c.90 tonnes of steel reinforcing bars, which were mangled and twisted in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, in which 90,000 people were killed. A team of craftsmen spent two years straightening each bar. The piece is a tribute to those who perished but also a silent protest against corrupt officials who are suspected of cutting corners in building standards, causing the death toll to be bigger than it should have been. 
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The walls around Straight host another incredibly moving exhibit, featuring names of more than 5,000 students who died in the earthquake due to substandard school campus constructions. These names were discovered by a "Citizens' Investigation" instigated by Weiwei, in response to the government's lack of transparency in revealing names of the children who perished.
2. Distinctive visual identity
Weiwei has a highly distinctive and instantly recognisable visual identity. Warhol had his silver hair and Hockney his round glasses. Weiwei has his trademark beard, although it now has more grey in it, and his closely shaven head. Over the years since he arrived on the art scene, Weiwei has stuck with this look, creating over time distinctive "memory structure".

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3. Harnessing the power of social media
Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 15.41.02Weiwei is a master of harnessing the power of social media. As a lifestyle "brand" with a rich selection of emotionally compelling content, social media makes a lot of sense. He has 175,00 followers on Instagram, and 300,000 on Twitter.
First, he uses it to mobilise people to support the causes he champions. For example, when Lego refused to provide Weiwei with a bullk order of bricks for an upcoming exhibition in Melbourne, he used social media to engage the public to provide the Lego bricks. He created a series of “collection points” in the form of second-hand BMWs into which people can put pre-used Lego!
Social media is also used to help promote his exhibitions. One thing that quickly hit me as I entered the Royal Academy was the number of people with their iPhones out taking photos. Unlike most exhibitions where photos and video are not allowed, snapping and sharing in the Weiwei show is actively encouraged. This is a great way of amplifying the profile of the exhibition. For example, former Bond star Piers Brosnan posted a video of one of the exhibits in on Instagram here, where he has 196,000 followers. S.A.C.R.E.D is a series of six fiberglass dioramas depicting, at half-scale, his daily existence in prison, where he was permanently supervised by two soldiers. Each diorama is enclosed inside a 2 ½-ton iron box. 
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In conclusion, I highly recommend a trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition. It is truly inspiring and moving, and a great example of amplifying a cause in a highly distinctive and memorable way.