How an Unknown Street Artist Used Content Marketing to Build a Global Brand

image of shepard fairey's OBEY poster

The word “OBEY” first caught my attention in 2000.

It was printed underneath a huge black and white silhouette of the famous wrestler Andre the Giant, and plastered across a derelict billboard on Wilshire boulevard in LA, of which there are hundreds.

It appeared both haunting and hilarious amidst the bland, big-box advertisements for Office Depot and Vons grocery chain.

What did it mean? Was it a call to arms, coercion, a warning? I really wanted to know.

Then it seemed to be everywhere I looked, light posts, sides of abandoned buildings, and then suddenly on a t-shirt I bought at an independent shop on Melrose Avenue.

I felt like I was part of something, that I knew the secret handshake.

Now Shepard Fairey, entrepreneur to some, criminal to others, is considered to be one of the art world’s most iconic and collectible commodities.

What’s the secret behind his success?

What does it take to go from making $4.25 an hour, hand printing skateboard stickers, to being one of the most influential American artists of our time?

You might say hype.

Others might point to the controversial image of an unknown senator from an historic presidential campaign.

But perhaps there is something underneath all of the noise and media attention that you don’t recognize about street artist Shepard Fairey.

After all, he’s still making millions doing what he’s always done.

I’ll argue that Fairey is one of the greatest living content marketers.

A relentless DIY work ethic

There is no secret; Shepard Fairey is one of the hardest working artists in America and a dedicated content producer. He employs scores to help design his apparel line, create ad campaigns for mega-brands like Pepsi, and even album covers for Led Zeppelin.

His DIY work ethic has never changed.

He employed a captivating story from minute one, always producing work both unique and entertaining, and always true to his message.

By appropriating the styles of 80s punk band flyers, pop artists like Andy Warhol, and constructivist propaganda, he created a “unique story proposition“, and produced loads of free content from the start.

Your story must take on a life of its own

Two decades before he designed the cover of TIME Magazine, sold-out gallery shows, or appeared on The Colbert Report, Fairey used guerrilla tactics to put up his street art in highly visible places all over the world, night after night after night.

He worked for years doing graphic design by day to create a steady income so that he could concentrate on his first love, his art.

And by sharing his public art for free over many years he created something viral — the brand Obey Giant — and his audience demanded more. After a couple years, they were the ones spreading the message.

With the help of the internet, his posters hit the streets over a million times all over the world, and the emotional response to his work was undeniable.

In the acclaimed Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, Fairey summed it up:

The more [it’s] out there, the more important is seems. The more important it seems, the more people want to know what it is, the more they ask each other, and it gains real power from perceived power.

The essentials of Content Marketing 101

Shepard Fairey put in years of sweat equity to build an extremely profitable brand.

He saw that the traditional model was on the decline and was prepared to get rich slow.

Over the years he a built a blog, and a loyal email list, and now that email list buys up every limited edition print that he offers in record time … often turning purchases around immediately to collectors, for a large profit.

Mr. Fairey utilizes the fundamentals of Content Marketing:

  1. He shares entertaining free content that attracts his prospects. His consistent, high-quality content production keeps them coming back to see what he’ll do next.
  2. He turns those prospects into customers over time by earning their trust. He has positioned himself as an iconic artist at the crossroads of fine art and street art. His unique viewpoint is valued by a cultivated audience that meets at the intersection of those worlds.
  3. He has earned his audience’s opt-in permission to deliver his content to them over time via his content net. When he offers new content, they snatch it up quickly because he has built-in demand and trust as an artist.

To review: great content builds trust and rapport over time. Obey Giant has done just that.

A cautionary tale?

Shepard is no stranger to run-ins with the law. He has been arrested, roughed up, and sued for his non-traditional methods of spreading his message.

For all of his success, he has had his share of setbacks, and recently settled the criminal case filed against him by the AP for “fair use” of a rather high-profile photo.

Sometimes, in the pressurized worlds of publishing, journalism, and art, unfortunate liberties are taken, and it is not unusual for prolific content creators to let their emotions get the better of them.

Building a large audience over time has its benefits, but it can be a high-wire act where bad judgment is highly scrutinized.

Although Fairey ultimately received a slap on the wrist and 2 years of probation, he was forced to settle out of court with the AP in the civil case for a reported $1.6 million over the misuse of a single photo.

Nonetheless, that very artwork that caused the firestorm is still housed in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, enshrined forever with Fairey’s name on it.

Are you creating compelling content?

Are you publicly displaying your work, in order to demonstrate your expertise and talent?

If not, why?

Shepard Fairy is only one of many examples (like the site you’re reading right now) of how the distribution of high quality content can drive a business, even an art business.

Are you ready to become a smarter content marketer?

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Reader Comments (37)

  1. says

    Interesting how you cross his Fairey with content marketing.
    He’s one of my favorite artists, especially the way he brands himself. And the propaganda design style is just as iconic – this guy really built his career from scratch, and I believe one major part of his success is not only his relentless work-ethic, but also his understanding on creating a unique style with an emotionally charged message and then getting it out his most authentic style possible.
    He’s even Seth Godin’s favorite artist – he mentions him soooo many times.

    Too bad Fairey’s online presence sucks – I wonder how he would built his career if he started out online.

  2. says

    I felt nice to read about Fairy how his distribution of content made his business. CopyBlogger itself is a example. Because of high quality content and popularity, someway it is helping Brian :)

    I think I should take action about this.


  3. says

    “The more [it’s] out there, the more important it seems… and it gains real power from perceived power.” That’s pure genius.
    I often forget to keep it simple, and my impatience leads to frustration. Thanks for the reminder to stick to the fundamentals, value the lessons learned through a DIY work ethic, and don’t expect the overnight success.

  4. says

    Fairey had a vision/goal and stuck with it—that’s what makes his work resonate with audiences. He doesn’t apologize for who he is/what he does and people have to respect that. He tells his story and sticks to it.

  5. says

    I’m not sure I’m super comfortable with comparing art to web content just because, well, artists often don’t do it for the money, at least not at first: they do it for love and because they couldn’t honestly do anything else.

    In any case, your comparison makes for an interesting lesson in impact and tribal marketing. I personally did not know about him. Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      Hey, Annabelle! Art is what you say it is. The web happens to be another platform, or means to share it.
      I’m still currently searching for my “voice” with my writing, and don’t have a large readership, but using the web doesn’t make me any less of an artist.
      Many bloggers who create web content don’t do it for money. You use the web for your book reviews and writing yourself (and you write very well, by the way), do you not consider yourself an artist?

    • says

      In an interview with Iggy Pop, Fairey is quoted as saying “If you’re creating something that has some sort of cultural currency [read: art, information, web content] —if the idea is getting out there—then that will probably yield money in some form, whether it’s through selling art or selling books or being asked to give a lecture.”

    • says

      A lot of artists are very uncomfortable when it comes to marketing what they do. But we can still learn a lot from watching and listening to the artists who do find that larger audience and commercial success — especially those, like Fairey, who also do terrific work.

  6. says

    This is an inspiring blog post. Shepard Fairey sounds iconic to content marketing as Banksy (English born artist) is to graffiti art! I love it when a culmination of entrepreneurial efforts and deceptive formalities bring rise to success. At the end of the day, it’s the success that counts!

    • says

      I love how it describes Fairey’s art market stability as “…always on point, on message, on topic, on target, and most importantly, on audience.” Slow and steady wins the race.

  7. says

    I like that you mentioned that word of caution. I’ve seen other bloggers, who are otherwise rational, intelligent beings, use third party content without permission. And I’ve seen many of them pressured to change 100’s of posts to avoid getting sued or to lessen the damage after legal action was taken. It’s just not a good idea unless you have express, written permission from the source of the content.

    • says

      MaLinda: One of the biggest errors I’ve seen, even from some pretty big-time bloggers, is the copyright-infringing use of photographic content to illustrate blog posts. There are plenty of pay sites out there where you can obtain almost any type of photo imaginable for a nominal fee, and then use that photo in almost any way you want; plus Flickr is filled with tons of photos generously licensed by their owners using Creative Commons licenses. It just doesn’t make sense for any self-respecting content creator (such as a blogger) to steal content created by other content creators (such as artists and photographers).

  8. says

    This is awesome! I’m working with a young street artist who has an incredible story and natural artistic gift. This article will help him see what is possible in his life and lays out a plan for him to follow!

  9. says

    Interesting post Kelton. I have seen his work but didn’t know the artist. It’s intriguing that he is constantly dogged by copyright infringement issues and that content copycats (or outright scrapers) are a concern in content marketing. I think in the content marketing world, people are OK when you put your spin on their work but I would think they would at least want (and deserve) attribution. (until you make millions, then they want a piece of the pie). I’m glad you included the Cautionary Tale section.

  10. says

    great post, very unique and inspiring artwork,
    this art works are really meaningful,
    its just amazing how art can change peoples lives.

  11. says

    My pulse went up reading this one :) I love Shepard Fairey! I remember having the same reaction around the same time when the Obey images were showing up all over San Francisco.

    But art is its own thing, and I feel strongly that the AP’s suit against him was B.S. If we’re going to let that kind of thing go on, we might as well burn everything Andy Warhol ever produced. It was selective litigation. Someone should start a blog cataloguing the use of AP images in art that never end up the subject of a lawsuit.

  12. says

    Definitely an inspiration! It certainly does take a lot of work before it can pay off big. And sometimes the setbacks themselves help us to be able to work harder to reach our own goals.

  13. says

    I have to admit that Fairey’s success has been an inspiration for my own effort to raise money for Obama’s campaign selling my original artwork at my website. Although I am not even close to Fairey and there is still a long-long way to go, but I am also thinking about using content marketing. Such as offering Obama wallpaper for download.

  14. says

    If we all want to be successful then we need to have patience, we need to be inspired, and we also need to have mentors. All in all we need to work real hard because nothing good comes that easily.

  15. says

    This is amazing post! Very unique and inspiring artwork indeed! I really enjoyed the read; sounds so helpful and I wanna thank you once more for it; Keep it up the great job!

  16. says

    Great article. Exit Through the Giftshop is a tremendous example of how you don’t have to be an amazing artist as long as you’re an amazing marketer. Interesting movie. I do have a question, though. I run a blog but I’m also a self published author. How can I apply these lessons to getting more attention and sales for my books? What are my “billboards” and “city walls” that I can plaster my book on? My initial thought is to try to go where the readers are but finding them and promoting to them is tricky.
    Writing a novel takes hundreds of hours, it makes sense that we should spend a great amount of time on promotion. I’d just like to know how or where to spend it. My first release did okay. I’d like to make the next one huge. Ideas?

  17. says

    It’s funny how simple these ‘rules’ are but how hard they are to put into practice. I’m wondering how you all have used content to build a brand – especially those with fairly new businesses?

  18. says

    Really inspirational story. But the main problem or benifit with going free for a long period of time and not charging for premium work. either you go big or you are nothing, even your work have quality to compete with big names.

  19. says

    Wait a second. I love Fairey’s style, but can you imagine how cluttered and noisy our physical world would be if everyone decided they were entitled to create their content and post it wherever they chose? It would look like 1970’s New York City. It would also look like, well, the current blogosphere. A *lot* of noise.

    “The more it’s out there, the more important is seems. ”

    No. This is the wrong lesson to give people. Lets not focus on just getting it out there, whatever the cost or method. This leads to more noise. We need to focus on something other than ubiquity. Quality.
    The thing about Fairey is that his work happens to be unique and brilliant.
    But his distribution method on the other hand (his marketing, if you will) is *terrible*. It is the exact opposite of permission marketing. Perhaps we should call it “forgiveness” marketing, as in “it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

    Whatever we call it, the only reason we tolerate him is because of his talent. We would not be so amused at his distribution methods if he were a mediocre artist, or if everyone chose to express themselves this way. I don’t think there are a lot of good lessons to draw here from Fairey..unless you happen to be a creative genius, in which case you can make your own rules.

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