Hartford Symphony Fails “Gal-in-a-Starbucks” Test

I read yesterday that Hartford Symphony was having financial difficulties:

“The orchestra says it’s “severely undercapitalized” and struggling with annual deficits of more than $1.3 million, a fully-drawn $2 million line of credit, falling subscriptions and ticket sales that are flat.”

So I went to their website to look for signs of trouble and there I found the blurb below. Before reading it, you might want to revisit the Gal-in-a-Starbucks Test guidelines:

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 say:

“Back by popular demand, guest conductor William (Bill) Eddins returns to conduct the HSO in an all-Beethoven program. The overture, inspired by von Collin’s play Coriolan and Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, contrasts a warrior’s bold resolve as he is about to invade Rome with the tender pleadings of his mother to desist. Beethoven’s third piano concerto pays homage to Mozart’s 24th in its melodies, rhythmic gestures and phrasings. His eighth symphony is light and humorous, contradictory (and perhaps conciliatory) to the composer’s circumstances during the summer of 1812, when he ended a romantic relationship in a famous letter written to his “Immortal Beloved.”

I don’t know about you, but my gal was out the door shortly after von Collin’s play. Who the hell is von Collin? I’ve worked in the arts my whole life and don’t have a clue who he is.

And the rest of the blurb is just self-indulgent nonsense that has nothing to do with the audiences Hartford Symphony needs to stay in business. If you want the gal in the Starbucks to 200198920-001-300x300come to your concert, you have to actually know her, you have to know what she finds appealing and you have to talk with her about what interests her in a fresh, colloquial, conversational language she’s likely to respond to.

This blurb talks to no one in particular about arcane historical trivia in a stuck-up, canned, old-fashioned language that’s self-important, absurdly didactic and completely out of touch with the world outside the classical bubble. I’m shocked that the leaders at Hartford Symphony have the audacity to complain about poor sales – or worse, to tell the musicians’ union they can’t sell enough tickets – when they do marketing at this level. If you do amateur marketing, you can’t expect to sustain a professional enterprise.

My heart goes out to the person who wrote this. I’m sure she was doing the best she could given her situation. But I don’t think it’s fair to let the person who approved it off the hook. Somebody at Hartford Symphony allowed this copy to be published – an arts leader who clearly lacks the marketing expertise to know that this language is non-strategic drivel. And that leader is no doubt responsible for a broad range of other marketing decisions that determine the organization’s fate.

The article quoted above continues:

“An approach that capitalizes on video, different types of performances and intense competition from other forms of entertainment is imperative,” said David Fay, president and chief executive officer of the orchestra. “We need to become more market-driven, more market-oriented,” he said.

If Mr. Fay wants to be more market oriented, he should probably head down to Starbucks with his company’s marketing materials and strike up a few conversations.


11 thoughts on “Hartford Symphony Fails “Gal-in-a-Starbucks” Test

  1. Thanks so much for this. I have found your articles so helpful. But, I’m wondering if I’ve missed out on one thing – that is – do you ever (or could you) give examples of marketing the arts done right? Surely, there must be some orgs out there that are really nailing it. For me, some examples of GREAT copy or great strategies from organizations that are really getting it would be extremely helpful. Thanks in advance!
    Carla Milarch
    Theatre Nova
    Ann Arbor, Michigan

    • Hi, Carla. Thank you for commenting. Your question is a good one, but I’m going to disappoint. To know who’s really nailing it requires that we know what their research told them, how they developed their strategy in response to their research results, and what the sales data say about the material’s performance. I may be able to point to copy that looks reasonably well crafted, but the only way to measure its value is sales.

      If you want high quality guidance on writing copy that sells, please try the Coppyblogger blog:


      I just read/listened to this entry and it was brilliant:


      You can try to find quality advice on writing copy in the arts, but arts audiences are shrinking throughout the cultural sector, so you should probably look for models among successful businesses in the commercial arena. (Some of the largest, most venerable arts institutions in the world crank out absolutely dreadful promotional copy.)

      I will send you a copy of my book under separate cover. The middle section contains detailed advice along with examples. You may find it useful.

      Ultimately, the only people who can tell you how to write effective copy are your potential buyers. The more time you spend with them learning about their desires and expectations, the better able you will be to appeal to them in your strategic messaging.

      I do appreciate your question and I don’t mean to be evasive. I wish I could simply copy and paste a great blurb here for you, but arts professionals have a tendency to skim across the surface when it comes to marketing, and I make a specific point of not providing skates.

      • Thanks! I appreciate the response. I look forward to receiving your book – what a generous gesture! I also looked around on your blog and found the Austin Symphony brochure, which was helpful as well. Have a great day!

  2. You write:
    “My heart goes out to the person who wrote this. I’m sure she was doing the best she could given her situation. But I don’t think it’s fair to let the person who approved it off the hook. Somebody at Hartford Symphony allowed this copy to be published – an arts leader who clearly lacks the marketing expertise to know that this language is non-strategic drivel. And that leader is no doubt responsible for a broad range of other marketing decisions that determine the organization’s fate.”

    You know, I’ve been in that poor girl’s shoes, and I will tell you that it is absolutely the fault of the arts leader. The reason that poor marketer is writing this way, is to appeal to her audience: HER BOSS.
    My experience has been that there is NO WAY that the Artistic or Executive director would approve friendly, intriguing, and approachable copy. They are simply that out of touch, and often too caught up in their own interests, to know who the audiences are anymore much less how to speak to them.
    This “amateur” marketer likely knows exactly what to write copy in order to get the audience in the door, but doesn’t even bother, for fear of having to re-write it 3482956 times into something that we see here.
    Arts leaders need to discover how to RELATE your old favorites and standbys to the new ways of life; that’s why you’re in this field — to open up minds. Why are yours so closed?

  3. Bull. A good boss relies on a good marketing director to advise her on trends and what approachable copy is if they don’t know themselves. In this HSO example, the MD and the ED are both to blame, him for hiring the MD and the MD for being bad at his or her job. I have been the ED many times and thankfully, keep myself in touch and informed because that is also my job, but it is ridiculous to assume that a professional MD’s end goal is to satisfy his or her boss when the success or failure of the organization relies on their efforts to sell tickets. If you had terrible experiences writing for your boss, you ought to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you are doing wrong in terms of selling your boss on your ideas. THAT is your job.

  4. You make interesting points about the relative roles of EDs and marketers, Jessica, but allowing this to become a quibble about job descriptions misses the point. This copy could have appeared in any orchestra brochure. If fact it typifies classical music marketing in being formulaic, self-important, condescending, insular, didactic and utterly unrelated to the desires and expectations of new audiences. If the entire industry can’t recognize this language for the hackneyed nonsense that it is, does it really matter who’s making local decisions?

    • Yes. Definitely. But it’s not just copy. It’s the language that orchestras use to attract audiences and that includes all words, images and actions that are meant to persuade. Most of the marketing content the classical music world uses now is as misguided as this blurb.

  5. Pingback: Does Your Station’s Announcing Staff Pass the “Gal-in-a-Starbucks” Test? | Scanning The Dial

  6. Pingback: Better Marketing Copy Though GiaS (Girl-In-A-Starbucks) | Adaptistration

  7. I wonder how that 28-year old tech executive would feel about being repeatedly referred to as a “gal,” and whether that would bring her to the symphony. I have my doubts. And really, the “gal-in-a-Starbucks” test? Ugh.

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