Us? Them? What’s the Right Balance?

My post from early last week, Super Sexy Symphony Ad, elicited a really interesting question from reader Kyle Clausen, who asked the following:

“I wonder what your thoughts are on the right balance. While focusing on the audience is essential, as arts organizations we also often (or, at least, sometimes) have unique products that can’t be found elsewhere. This isn’t a pair of jeans or a can of Pepsi, so what’s the right balance?”

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The situation will obviously differ from one organization to the next based on the popularity of the products and the amount of exploitable demand in the marketplace. If you’re marketing Barbra Streisand in San Francisco, for example, you won’t need to worry much about persuasion because there’s so much pent-up demand in the marketplace that merely releasing the information will be sufficient to open the floodgates.

But if you’re selling classical music in a market where avid audiences are dying and new audiences lack a self-motivating interest in the product, you’re going to have to persuade under-motivated people to participate. And since persuasion means demonstrating how your product will make them happy, there’s no more direct way to do that than to show images of people who look just like the ones you’re targeting enjoying themselves in your venue.

The happiness we’re talking about here, of course, is the result of having a basic need or desire satisfied. Avid fans who want classical concert experiences already know that going to a the concert hall will make them happy, but fence-sitting audiences don’t and it’s our job to show them that happiness is something they can reasonably expect from buying what we’re trying to sell. The expectation we create is the motivating factor that impels new audiences to buy tickets.

If you want to find an appropriate balance for your organization, the first thing to do is decide who your marketing materials are meant to appeal to and what’s most likely to satisfy their needs or desires. If you’re only speaking to highly motivated donors, subscribers, members and loyal long-time patrons, you can keep the spotlight on yourself because you’re promoting what they’re looking for. But if you’re also speaking to folks on the outer fringe of your audience who have varying levels of motivation, diverse personal reasons for participating and plenty of other options for satisfying their desires, you’ll want to make sure your messages zero in on their interests and motivations as well. The right balance is a function of how dependent you are on new audiences and the ratio of old to new audience members who are likely to see your messages.

There are many arts organizations that send a season brochure to their entire patron database – which includes both old and new audiences – yet fail completely at including new audience appeals. I know one financially troubled American orchestra whose current season brochure contains over 100 photographs and not a single one features new audiences enjoying themselves at the concerts. I’m assuming this organization has a life-or-death need to persuade new people to participate, but the message strategy they employed in their brochure was developed when Danny Newman wrote Subscribe Now! over 35 years ago.

Appealing to new audiences means striking an appropriate balance between the familiar, comfortable, habitual language we’ve grown accustomed to speaking, and the slightly jarring, uncustomary, you-oriented language we need to start speaking to folks who aren’t sitting there waiting for our stuffy old self-centered brochures. Can it be done? Absolutely. Is it difficult? No, not at all. Does it mean changing entrenched attitudes? Yes. And that’s a monumental undertaking that some organizations will never accomplish.

As for the jeans and Pepsi part of the question, I’m inclined to defer to the audience for an answer on that one. If our research into new audience dispositions reveals a pent up desire in the marketplace for unique arts products, we can boast about being unique and present ourselves as being extraordinary and important. But if research tells us that we’re competing against a broad range of entertainment experiences that younger, more culturally diverse audiences perceive as being equally appealing, we can’t afford to assume that our uniqueness is persuasive.

My heart goes out to folks who believe that marketing is there to communicate the universal value, cultural relevance, historical importance, intellectual rigor and transcendent aesthetic nature of the art form – a sentiment expressed by some other folks who wrote to me about last week’s posts – but that’s not the case. The role of marketing is to motivate people to buy the product. If telling folks how wonderful and important we are is the best way to do that, that’s all well and good. But if it’s not (and it isn’t), then we need to find out what new audiences value on a personal level and begin selling our products accordingly.

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2 thoughts on “Us? Them? What’s the Right Balance?

  1. Disney, love them or hate them, are great at marketing their theme parks, hotels, and cruise line. They are very definitely selling something, and it is something that people are buying. But their ad campaigns consistently show a wide variety of people, enjoying their products in specific ways. Generally you could pull out all the ad copy, and know exactly what they are selling.

    If it is a Disney Park, it is people enjoying unique Disney Rides, if it is the hotels, it is the distinct nature of the Disney hotels, not Motel 6. If it is the cruise line it is everything that sets them apart from Carnival or Royal Caribbean- which beg the question whether anyone can tell those two apart? Disney is selling something unique in all the categories that they operate. And if you think they never fail- look at John Carter which couldn’t decide what it was or who it was for- except an option for movie night.

    The thing is, these symphony ads are not about selling the ASO. It is not about showing at all what both connects it to the market and sets it apart. It does not differentiate. I could do the same ads, for a theater company, for a dance company, for a comedy club, for an art exhibit. It isn’t about universal value it is about unique value. These ads don’t show it. If all the other marketers are going this route (and yes, they are, these ads are even reminiscent of ridiculed ads for South Dakota), then what differentiates them out? I can tell you. Comfort in that I already know the others, I can reasonably be assured that others might be more convenient ( look at the importance of parking in Symphony attendance), or cost less. On these points the Symphony the symphony loses. When marketing for a Restaurant people don’t go to one doesn’t go with- “We do that thing you already like.” That is not enough. “It’s we do what you like and more” or “We do what you like, but because of x we do it better”, or possibly this is like that, but excitingly different in this way”. In any case There is no Symphony here. It could be anything. It it like watching a Super Bowl ad and trying to guess what company put their tag line on it at the end.

    If they don’t know what sets them apart, and can’t convey that. What there relevance is to the people that they want to go, they will fail. They deserve to, because it is not audience centered.

    These symphony ads are like beer ad selling sex. Yes beer facilitates it, but is that what beer is about? I would point to the trends in marketing beer now go towards things that point to healthier (gluten free, less calories) or Craft (the tons of smaller breweries who have set themselves apart. Bud isn’t growing, it stays leads by comfort and price. Can a symphony do that?

    The best marketing for classical music I have heard recently was Joshua Bell discussing his new recording of a couple of Beethoven’s symphonies #4 and #7. First, he is already as a soloist a unique property. Second, he didn’t rest of that, here he is conducting from the concertmaster’s chair (unique to conducting and unique for him). Third, he went to great effort as to what he valued in playing these works, and why for him that justified another recording of them and why people might like them. This all interwoven with him doing vocal translations of the works mixed with the recording itself. It didn’t make the case for “Classical music” it made a case for the music he was playing.

    Or I can use your example, there is no value unique value to a concert, but there is to Barbara Streisand. And for how Barbara Streisand markets- she goes on Dr. Phil for “The Guilt Trip,” movie where she uncomfortably talked about herself. She went to a book fair to promote her book on design. Even Barbara Streisand has to persuade people to read her book. She had to say look it’s by me, my view of design counts for x reasons. She had to sell it. Frankly, there is lots about her as a musical performer that sets her apart to. Years of building up a catalog, years of quality show, years of promotion. If it is easier now, it is because people worked hard at it. The pent up demand isn’t magical, it was built. I bet she would fire marketers who thought they could phone it in.

    It isn’t about transcendence. It isn’t about universal value. It is why should I go to the Symphony when I have a ton of other quality options for entertainment, socialization and just plain musical enjoyment?What makes them special? Because if it ain’t special, it ain’t worth my time, let alone my money.

  2. Edward, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you offer up some interesting opinions, especially when you suggest that specialness is a persuasive factor. If there is indeed an identifiable pent up desire among new audiences for the qualities in symphony concerts that make them special, then I agree that the ads should make that motivating connection explicit. But strategic persuasion demands that we start with the audience’s stated desires and work our way back from there. All too often we start with what we think is special – or what we think the audience should find special – and forget that their needs and desires are the primary consideration.

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