Take The “Gal in a Starbucks” Test

Say you’ve just been named CEO of a major North American symphony orchestra. Would you approve this copy for publication in your new sales brochure?

“Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Before you answer, take the “Gal in a Starbucks” test that I mentioned a few posts ago:

Imagine yourself sitting in a busy Starbucks where the gal sitting next to you is a smart, 28-year-old tech executive who, as it turns out, played oboe in her college orchestra. You get to chatting and you decide to persuade her to come to your upcoming concert, so you lean in and gutenbergpresssay, “Mendelssohn’s extraordinary symphonic cantata Hymn of Praise, heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of a seminal moment in human history: the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Appropriately, Mendelssohn chose the Bible as the subject matter for his commission, and created a work that has been celebrated through the centuries for its sublime beauty.”

Would you approve it now?

Of course not. It’s didactic horse shit that has nothing to do with the young woman you’re talking to. If you actually spoke to someone like this – someone who represented an excellent shot at attracting new audiences – you’d come off as wildly out of touch, pompous and condescending. Or in other words, you’d sound like a typical classical music brochure.

The brilliant advertising guru David Ogilvy once said,

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

Clearly, this is not the language that new arts audiences use every day. It’s not even the language old arts audiences use every day. It’s the language boring history teachers use every day. Arts organizations that should be speaking to new audiences in a fresh, conversational vernacular about things those audiences actually care about are instead lecturing the world about things they think people should know – a practice that is presumptuous, amateurish and fiscally irresponsible. The entire cultural sector is desperate to understand why audiences are disappearing, but nobody seems to realize that we’re boring new audiences to death by trying to educate them in our marketing materials.

Here’s a shocker: Marketing is a terrible vehicle for arts education. New audiences want to know how attending arts events will satisfy their personal desires, not how those events fit into the history of western civilization. And even if new audiences do have an interest in being educated about the art form, the job of marketing is to promise that education, not to deliver it. Johannes Gutenberg belongs in the program notes, not in the brochure.

The reason arts audiences are shrinking is that arts administrators are too far out of touch with new audiences to know how to talk to them. And instead of learning how to talk to them, we hole up in conference rooms with fellow out-of-touch insiders filling our marketing content with pedantic puffery that’s designed more to appeal to artistic directors and CEOs than it is to persuade outsiders.

How would you describe that Mendelssohn piece to the 28-year-old former oboe player in the Starbucks? If you can find language that will tap into her personal desires in such a way that she’ll be motivated to come to your Mendelssohn concert (or La Bayadère or Miss Julie or Tosca or an exhibition of Renaissance paintings), then that’s the language that belongs in your marketing content.

Arts administrators who understand intuitively that lecturing the gal in the Starbucks isn’t a good way to motivate her to buy tickets, should apply that intuition throughout their organization’s strategic sales communications.

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3 thoughts on “Take The “Gal in a Starbucks” Test

  1. I did have a little chuckle over this one, but I also had a question for you, Trevor. How would you have described the Mendelssohn 2 to the girl in the coffee shop?

    The reason I ask is that there are plenty of examples of bad copy out there, and marketers generally tend to pick up on the language without questioning it too much. But there seem to be less examples of tried and tested ways of communicating to newcomers / curious audiences, and so it could be that – even if the marketers agreed with you that their copy could need improvement – they might not know exactly what to say.

    So I was wondering if I could be cheeky and request an impromptu copy re-write for the old Mendelssohn?

    • Hi, Matt,

      I don’t know the piece well enough to write something, but if I did, I’d do some role playing to create a conversation similar to the one in the Starbucks. I’d find someone who typifies the younger audience I’m targeting and have her ask me this question:

      “Why would I want to go to that concert?”

      Then I’d answer the question in unscripted conversational language using what I know about her needs, desires, experiences, etc. to make the program seem relevant and appealing. I’d record what I said and use it as the basis for drafting the copy.

      If you approach writing this way, the material will be about the customer as much as it is about the product, which is the ideal.

      Good copy should sound like generous conversation. The best way to write is to start by talking to someone.

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