Deadly Arts Marketing Cliché #9: Artsy Wordplay

Speaking as a long-time arts marketer who’s created countless marketing messages over the years, I can honestly say that there are few experiences more satisfying than applying skill and talent toward the process of developing creative campaign ideas.  And there are few experiences more rewarding than discovering the ultimate solution to a unique marketing challenge.

We all know that magical moment when the brilliant headline or campaign concept rises up to proclaim itself as the obvious choice because it makes everyone in the conference room crack up or slap their hands on the table in enthusiastic affirmation. “Yes! That’s it! That’s the one we’ve been looking for.”

And we all know that incredible feeling of pride and accomplishment that comes from seeing the results of our creativity in print or on screen for the first time. “I did that. That’s my idea. Those are my words. I made that incredibly clever, catchy, coy campaign concept up out of nothing and here it is in tangible form.  Why, tomorrow it’ll be printed on a huge banner and hoisted over the marquee!”

There’s no mistaking the creativity and cleverness that fuels the development of so many arts marketing ideas. Arts marketers are a creative bunch of people who work in a creative enterprise. It stands to reason that our output would be more inspired than ordinary marketing and that we’re better prepared to rise to creative challenges than most ordinary folks. After all, marketing is a creative endeavor that calls for creative solutions and the creative energies of creative people.  Isn’t it?

“It’s Time to Face the Music and Dance!”

“Buckle up for Broadway’s Boeing Boeing

“The Pops Presents a Scintillating Symphony of Stars!”

“It’s a door-slamming, scene-stealing, side-splitting zany, madcap romp!”

“Join us for a Singularly Sensational Season!”

Or is it?

The arts have a long, venerable history of talking to loyal audiences with clever but not necessarily strategic wordplay.  It’s so much a part of what we do that we never really step back to look at it or ask if it’s doing the job it’s meant to do. But what happens if the campaign idea that cracked us all up in the conference room has no impact whatsoever on the audience we’re trying to persuade?

I remember being in the lobby of the Wynn Resort while Avenue Q was playing its short-lived Vegas run.  For marketing, the show had stanchions throughout the casino with posters that said, “See what all the fuzz is about,” and on the posters they had mounted actual puppet fuzz.  As creative goes, it couldn’t have been more cute, coy or clever, but as strategic messaging goes, it didn’t work. I watched for a painfully long time to see if anyone looked at the signs, much less tried to figure out what they were saying, and nobody bothered.

This is the perfect illustration of how the clever wordplay we love so much in our conference rooms fails to connect with new audiences.  In New York where loyal, pre-motivated audiences abound, the fuzz concept was fine.  But in Vegas where shows compete fiercely for distracted customers, the same message failed to connect. In the nonprofit arts where we once had the luxury of speaking to large audiences of loyal patrons with cute, coy, clever – but often inane – messages, we did OK.  But now that we’re engaged in fierce competition for distracted new audiences, we have to ask if our inherent creativity is up to the task.

As I point out in the book, marketing is a rational process that involves knowing what people want and describing how what we sell satisfies their desires. If new audiences want high quality artful leisure entertainment and great places to enjoy time with peers, that’s what we need to be talking about in our messaging. Yes, we do need to get their attention, but if the fuss is about the fuzz and not the fervor (damn that creativity), all the cleverness in the world won’t bring new audiences through our doors.

Ours may be a creative industry, but when it comes to marketing, it’s probably best to keep the creativity on the stages and in the galleries and start using more objective approaches in the conference rooms.

Next up: Fill-in-the-Blank Templates

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