“This Opera’s Not Boring!” Crows San Diego Opera

After nearly a year of promoting their Nixon in China production with dull copy and images, San Diego Opera sent out an email yesterday with this subject line:

“IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK!”

And internal copy that reads:

Nixon in China is a theatrical treat.
You won’t want to miss it.

What Nixon in China is: energetic, imaginative and kaleidoscopic!

What Nixon in China is not: boring, pedantic, or sleep inducing.

Nixon in China opens on Saturday and you won’t want to miss this “rhythmical, pulsating, jazzy” romp through a moment in time that changed the course of history.”

And to support the copy, they added this odd pair of images, which shows Nixon at Disneyland along with a wacky production shot from the opera:

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Now, on the one hand, this is just great. For the first time since their near-death crisis, the folks at San Diego Opera are addressing something audiences are actually thinking about, rather than just blathering on about how wonderful and important their operas are. Somebody, it appears, learned that potential audience members thought an opera called Nixon in China might be boring. I don’t know if they did research, or a board member got an earful at a party, but either way, SDO actually developed marketing content in response to external market conditions and this is a huge step forward.

But on the other hand, it raises a host of troubling questions:

Why not promote the opera as an energetic, imaginative, kaleidoscopic theatrical treat from the get-go? You don’t have to do a lot of research to know that an opera about Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to communist China could be considered boring. Any professional marketer would have worked to counter those perceptions from day one.

Where was the research? In the absence of in-house expertise, SDO might have conducted some focus groups or single-ticket buyer surveys to learn about their audience’s Nixon in China perceptions. If proper research had been done back when the marketing strategy was developed, nobody would be shouting WE’RE NOT BORING today.

Was there ever a strategy? Given the “Boring…boring…boring…, But wait! We’re not boring!” way this campaign has unfolded, it’s fairly clear there was no strategic marketing plan.

Can you say you’re not boring without shouting WE’RE NOT BORING? Telling your entire email list that Nixon in China is not boring, pedantic or sleep inducing is a great way to let everyone know that some people think the opera is boring, pedantic or sleep inducing. If you discover a negative perception among your customers, by all means counter it, but whatever you do, don’t reinforce it by repeating it. Despite all the worthwhile things he may have done, including his historic trip to China, Richard Nixon cemented his reputation as the nation’s most notorious crook the day he stared into the TV camera and said, “I’m not a crook.”

Where’s the professional marketing expertise? You’d think a major opera company that all but died last year for lack of audiences would have secured some serious marketing leadership. Somebody who understands professional marketing should have caught this one before it went out. But, really, somebody should have professionalized the organization’s marketing effort long before a comeback was even considered.

Trying to bounce back from an audience development failure of this magnitude without a fully professional approach to audience development is unfair to the people who supported San Diego Opera’s resurrection, unfair to San Diego opera lovers, unfair to people who work in the opera profession, and profoundly unfair to new audiences who have yet to discover why opera is such an amazing and addictive art form.

I hope this is a signal that the organization has finally learned to listen to its community and respond with audience-centered marketing content. Given the amateurish execution, however, I’m not sure that’s what’s happening.

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