By some measures, the artisans of the Haitian village of Croix-des-Bouquets are hugely successful: Their works are in galleries around the world, and the United Nations' cultural agency has recognized them with a UNESCO Award of Excellence. But by the only measure that seems to matter in a capitalist system, they are abject failures, for they can barely scrape out a living.
Tony Pigott believes he knows the solution: branding.
To those who know Mr. Pigott, this will not come as a surprise. As the president of the ad agency J. Walter Thompson Canada, he spends his life mulling the magic that a little branding can bring. So a few years ago, when he strolled through the metalwork shops of Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside Port-au-Prince, taking in the spectacle of hundreds of artisans transforming discarded oil barrels into extraordinary masks and wall hangings and mirror frames adorned with intricate native designs, he saw an opportunity.
According to Mr. Pigott, the artists depended in large part on distributors who would buy up the work "by the pound," paying only a small fraction of the ultimate retail price.
"In our view, this is a classic role for branding," Mr. Pigott explained recently in his midtown Toronto office. "The history of branding has been to validate the value of something, to create a trust, an authenticity about something."
"This was beautiful stuff, UNESCO had recognized them - and they didn't even have a name," added Mr. Pigott, who, as an ad man, seemed faintly stunned at this. "The work traces back to West Africa, it has a beautiful lineage, the story is extremely compelling, but it was never captured."
So he and two other Canadians, the development expert Cameron Brohman and the Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis, created BrandAID Project, a for-profit venture to develop and launch brands from some of the world's poorest countries. First up were two from Haiti: Croix des Bouquets, elaborate metalworks that sell for between $100 and about $1,000; and Carnival Jakmèl (based in Jacmel, the hometown of Governor-General Michaëlle Jean), vibrant papier-mâché masks and other pieces that retail for an average price of about $500.
Taking a page from the fair-trade movement, which seeks to build sustainable economies and reduce exploitation of the developing world by developed countries, BrandAID Project purchases the works at the artists' asking price. It then assumes responsibility for marketing and distribution. The Haitian works are currently in a handful of retail locations and available on brandaidproject.com. Mr. Pigott says the organization is in the process of securing wider distribution.
But if the work is to go wide, the brand must be built. Recognizing that buyers of art like to connect with the people behind the work, Mr. Pigott travelled to Haiti with a crew to shoot biographical sketches about the artisans, some of which are posted online.
"We created a whole brand strategy, we designed a word mark [akin to a logo] we designed a platform, went down there and did all the shooting, took a commercial director from New York to help do the filming, and have created brand and marketing assets for this microenterprise. And they probably employ about 150 people. So in Haiti, in that basket case of a country? This is something of significance," Mr. Pigott said.
Perhaps the most important advance of the project is that the identities of the individual artists are amplified rather than lost on the way to market - you can browse by artist name on the BrandAID website - the increased visibility creating the possibility of more design or sculpture work for them. Those opportunities would belong solely to the artists; BrandAID does not have an exclusive arrangement.
As the venture progresses, Mr. Pigott hopes the cause will be adopted by smart advertising agencies around the world interested in doing pro bono work. BrandAID proposes to travel to a community in need, secure raw materials for marketing, such as documentary footage, photographs and interviews, and then pass them along to agencies that would create the brand elements.
Just about anyone can help. The BrandAID website says: "If you are famous and want to lend your fame to champion an artisan community and present it to the world, we'd be pleased to accept your confidential inquiry." BrandAID patrons include Diane Lane, Josh Brolin and the Haitian-born actor Jimmy Jean Louis ( Heroes). In September, the New York designer Diane von Furstenberg hosted a Croix des Bouquets exhibition during the city's Fashion Week, featuring pieces by master artisan Serge Jolimeau.