Catastrophic Brand Management at Santa Monica Symphony?

You may have heard that the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra has invited an outspoken anti-gay bigot and right-wing talking head named Dennis Prager to guest conduct at a concert this week. According to music director Guido Lamell, donations were down so he thought Prager’s fans might boost the struggling orchestra’s numbers.

I’ll admit up front that I’m biased in this matter. I have nothing but disdain for Dennis Prager because of the harm he’s done to innocent gay kids, and I think that any orchestra that would align itself with Prager just to suck cash out of his followers’ pockets is despicable. (I spent years volunteering on a suicide prevention hotline for gay teens. I know exactly how much damage men like Prager do, and I am appalled that the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra would give him any sort of platform.)

But this post isn’t about politics, it’s about branding. I read about the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra’s fondness for Prager in The New York Times, of all places. Think of it. A tiny ailing arts organization on the West Coast gets coverage in The New York Times and it’s about the controversy surrounding the Prager incident, not about art. This is probably the most famous The Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra will ever be and the brand message they’ve decided to put forward is this: “We’re perfectly comfortable aligning our organization with an outspoken anti-gay bigot.” (Prager embraces many other right wing ideologies so feel free to replace ‘anti-gay bigot’ here with whichever one you prefer.

The point is not that Prager promotes extreme right wing points of view, it’s that the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra has decided to align itself with those points of view by defending their choice to use Prager to get cash from his followers.

The question everyone’s asking right now is this:

Is it OK to invite outspoken anti-gay bigots to conduct an orchestra?

But the question Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra’s funders should be asking is this:

Is this a fiscally responsible way to manage the orchestra’s brand?

Folks can argue for years about the first question, but the answer to the second question will be evident when this news cycle is over and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra finds itself relying once again on its community for sustenance.

Brands are reputations. They’re how people think and feel about a product or organization. They’re how people behave toward products and organizations based on the way they think and feel about them. This highly public controversy will undoubtedly influence the way people behave toward the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra for quite some time.

There’s a chance that the controversy will unleash enough long-term loyal support from Prager’s conservative fans to offset the losses among the orchestra’s disaffected liberal supporters, but this seems unlikely. What’s more likely is that in ultra-liberal Santa Monica and surrounding L.A. communities, the taint of the Prager affair will linger among local perceptions of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra for the rest of its life.

In my mind and in my heart, for example, their brand is damaged beyond repair. I wouldn’t dream of attending a concert or giving money to an organization that celebrates someone like Dennis Prager.

It’s no secret that symphony orchestras are struggling everywhere and that community based orchestras are especially vulnerable. If I were on the board of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, I’d be wondering if adding such an ugly taint at this perilous time is a useful way to nurture a healthy future support system.

 

 

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What The Heck Is Aggressive Arts Marketing?

Diane Ragsdale has an interesting post on her Jumper blog this week about uncommitted arts audiences. In it she poses this question:

“…is it really reasonable to expect those lured to our events by aggressive marketing or buzz to be sincerely interested in the arts experience and aware of the rules of the game, so to speak?”

Later in the piece she asks:

“Where are we aggressively luring looky-loos rather than inviting participation?”

[Emphases my own]

At Dictionary.com the definition of ‘aggression’ reads as follows:

The action of a state in violating by force the rights of another state, particularly its territorial rights; an unprovoked offensive, attack, invasion, or the like.

Any offensive action, attack, or procedure; an inroad or encroachment.

The practice of making assaults or attacks; offensive action in general.

Pity the unsuspecting community member minding her own business when militant arts marketers kick in her door, drag her off to the box office and force her to buy tickets. I can certainly understand Diane wondering if this woman’s going to be interested in the event, or whether she’s going to be aware of how to behave. I mean, really, who dresses for the theatre on the odd chance that a SWAT team of nonprofit workers will crash in and haul her off to a show?

As for those looky-loos, I think if they’re looking, they’re fair game, but aggressive luring is a tricky business. We tend to station the marketing team along a perimeter around the theatre and position a guy on the roof who shouts “CELEBRATE” every few minutes. If someone looks, we squeeze the perimeter until they’re forced up to the box office window. If they don’t want to buy, we start screaming “SUBSCRIBE NOW” as loud as we can until they’re lured into submission. It’s effective, but once again, expensive and hard on the old vocal chords.

Arts marketing was a lot easier back when people wanted to come, but times have changed and we have a lot of arts organizations to keep in business. If we have to use aggressive means to get reluctant patrons to come down and cough up some cash, it’s all in the service of art, and that’s a cause worth fighting for.

Speaking of art, we’re launching a new campaign next month: Here’s the header and tag line:

A BREATHLESS, HEART-STOPPING, LIFE-ALTERING EVENT!

You don’t want to miss it. No, really, you don’t want to miss it.

 

end

fARTy, tARTan underpARTs

Can we please stop capitalizing the word ‘art’ when it appears inside other words?

Seriously.

This is just about the most fatuous practice in arts marketing, and it goes a long way toward explaining why arts organizations are failing to attract new audiences.

If your organization is doing it, you should stop now and swear never to do it again.

If you’re thinking about doing it, consider this:

  1. You are about the ten millionth marketer to come up with the idea
  2. Any idiot can Google the phrase “words that contain A R T”
  3. It’s got everything to do with you trying to be be cute and clever
  4. Nobody thinks you’re cute, and if you’re doing this, you’re not clever
  5. If you think it’s an attention getter, you’re targeting the wrong audience
  6. It does absolutely nothing to motivate people to buy or give
  7. Marketers who are fully engaged with new audiences wouldn’t do it
  8. Executive leaders who understand professional marketing wouldn’t approve it
  9. The artists your organization represents would think it banal
  10. Your graphic designer might do it, but she is not your strategist

The only reason anyone should ever capitalize the letters A R and T inside other words is if their market research has revealed a tendency among less avid patrons to be motivated by graphics that contain artsy wordplay. I’ve been doing market research for thirty years and have never once heard a respondent describe such a motivation.

Older arts patrons accept intuitively that arts organizations adhere to less-than-professional nonprofit standards. This is especially true in marketing where content creation is carried out by amateur insiders who have limited insight into the motivations of outsiders. Back in the olden days, nobody cared if the brochure was dressed up in a bunch of silly nonsense if the core message got through.

But younger, more culturally diverse audiences don’t necessarily understand why their local art museum or advocacy organization, which they think of as professional, would allow itself to project a brand image that’s frivolous or passé.

Arts audiences are in steady decline across the cultural sector. At some point we’re going to have to adopt a more professional, future-oriented approach to communications.

Cutting out this sort of mindless cutesiness is a great place to start.

 

Pop Quiz: It’s All About: _Us _Them _ Both

In my last post, I said that arts marketing is always about the product when, to be effective, it should be more about the customers.

Older arts leaders still cling to a self-centered, self-important style of mid-20th century promotional marketing that places the art, artists and organization in a position of preeminence, while paying only perfunctory heed to what audiences are looking for.

If your organization still uses “it’s-all-about-us” marketing content, here’s a quiz that can help you determine if you should back off the self-congratulatory boasting for a while and start focusing on what your new customers are looking for instead.

Keeping new audiences in mind, answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these ten questions:

  1. Is there abundant pent up demand for your product? (i.e. Hamilton)
  2. Are you an aspirational luxury product? (i.e. Bentley)
  3. Do people think you brand will elevate their social status? (i.e. Coachella)
  4. Can you afford to be exclusive? (i.e. Mar-a-Lago)
  5. Do you occupy a trendy niche? (i.e. Yeezy)
  6. Are you perceived as being on the cutting edge? (i.e. Tesla)
  7. Is your brand universally familiar and well established? (i.e. Coke)
  8. Is it plainly obvious why an average person would buy? (i.e. McDonald’s)
  9. Are you a huge corporation that can influence public perception? (i.e. Anheuser-Busch)
  10. Do you have access to marketing resources that would enable you to change the answers to 1-9?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, go out into your community, talk to several hundred young, culturally diverse people about your organization, then take the quiz again.

The marketers in the examples above don’t have to be audience centered. Companies that sell popular products can afford to boast about themselves. So can companies that enjoy universal brand recognition or that sell highly desirable luxury products. You might be tempted to compare yourself to these marketers, but if you’re struggling to find new customers for increasingly unpopular arts products, you don’t belong in the same category.

The key to attracting customers for products that are not popular lies in convincing buyers that the product will satisfy their unfulfilled desires. And this means making the content of your communications about their desires and how your product will satisfy them. Or in other words, making it about them.

If new audiences are telling you they want opportunities to do interesting/entertaining things with peers, for example, the content of your marketing should feature people who look like your new audiences having a good time together in your venue. Not all of it, but enough that new audiences can see themselves being made happy as a result of having purchased what you’re trying to sell.

Look at all the marketing content you’ve disseminated in the last three years. How much of it is about you and how much is about them? If you’re like most nonprofit arts organizations, it’s about 95% you and 5% them.

Your goal should be about 50%-50%.

Fifty years ago the answers to the quiz above would have been different. Fifty years ago, arts marketing was all about the art, the artists and the organization. If you’re still using fifty-year-old marketing content to attract new audiences, you have to stop.

Now.

 

Is Marketing About The Customer Or The Product?

If you work in the arts, the answer is:

It’s about the product.

Marketing in the arts is all about promoting our products’ superior qualities. Take a look at just about any arts marketing vehicle and you’ll find the content there devoted exclusively to the art, the artists and the institution. Marketing is about telling the world how wonderful and important we are, and that means making the content of our marketing all about us.

But in the world of commerce, professional marketers know that marketing is about the customers and the extent to which products will satisfy their needs and desires. This is why so much professional marketing features people having their needs and desires satisfied as a result of having purchased the product.

Start looking thoughtfully at the advertising around you and you’ll begin to notice a preponderance of images of people being made happy by products. And you’ll find language that zeroes in on customers’ needs and desires and then describes the way the product satisfies them. In the example here, Hyatt could have featured all sorts of images and copy about its wonderful rooms, conference facilities, restaurants and amenities, but they chose to show a woman being made happy alongside language that addressed her needs and desires.

Professional marketers know that marketing content is about both the customer and the product. It’s about the place where customers and products come together, and how happy the customers will be as a result of this meeting.

If you’re an arts marketer who’s having trouble persuading customers to purchase your products, and your marketing is all about you, consider what would happen if you focused on them instead. What’s more likely to move a potential new customer to come to your concert, a picture of your conductor swinging a baton? Or is it a picture of someone who looks just like your new customer having a great time in your venue?

If you’re like most arts administrators – especially older arts leaders – you’re stammering at your screen right now: “But, but, but… this isn’t how we do it! That’s not us! We’re above pandering to the customer. We don’t descend to their level of needs and desires, they’re supposed to come up to our level of presumption. Art transcends the mundane. It lifts people to a higher plane. We tell them how wonderful and important we are so they’ll be moved to aspire! We exist in an elevated place that people are supposed to know is worth wanting to try to get to. If we come down to them, we may never make it back onto our lofty perches.”

Genius Cartoonist B. Kliban

Here’s the deal. If you don’t connect with people at the level of their needs and desires, you can’t move them. It just won’t work. The only reason self-congratulatory arts marketing ever worked in the first place was that there were a lot of people who believed they needed to aspire, or who possessed an unfulfilled desire for the kind of aspiration that the arts wanted to sell. But that’s just not true anymore.

Effective marketing is about customers’ needs and desires. If you don’t have a large pool of available customers who possess a preexisting, avid, motivating desire to obtain what you’re trying to sell, and you’re devoting all of your marketing content to talking about how wonderful and important you are, the game’s pretty much over.

If on the other hand you have a pool of potential new audiences with a different set of motivating needs and desires, and you use your communications to demonstrate how your products will make them happy, the possibilities are abundant.

I dare you to do what Hyatt did. Publish a picture of people who fit your audience demo having their needs or desires satisfied at an upcoming event. It doesn’t have to be the only image you use, but have the courage to put your customers front and center for a change, and let your product be the background in an experience that’s all about them.

 

 

An Orchestra That Actually Listens to New Audiences

Kudos to Greg Sandow for pointing us to this incredible post from the California Symphony. Every leader of every major orchestra in the world should read this post and do what California Symphony is doing.

What’s so exciting? Well, Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer and her team are listening to new audiences to learn how to communicate with them. And they’re actually changing the way they do business.

Yeah. I know. Sounds like a “duh” sort of announcement, but this is nothing less than monumental because large, ailing classical music organizations simply don’t do it. They all pay lip service to the idea, of course, but there are two things happening at California Symphony that make this situation exceptional.

First, Bergauer is actually using what she and her team are learning to change the way they communicate with their customers – a practice that’s virtually unheard of among large traditional arts institutions. Take a look at any major orchestra’s marketing materials and you’ll be hard pressed to find evidence that they spoke to new audiences, let alone listened to them or allowed their perspective to influence the content of their communications. What makes Bergauer extraordinary is that she’s an executive leader who is not only willing to listen to new audience members, but she’s willing to shake up decades of entrenched music industry tradition to speak to them in a language they understand.

Second, California Symphony is not paying expensive consultants from deep inside the industry to tell them how to do it. They’re going out and finding likely new audiences in their community, inviting them for pizza and beer, listening to them – even when what they say is painful to hear – and learning how to facilitate their access. It’s something any arts organization can do at little to no cost, and something no established industry consultant is going to recommend. (Consultants sell elite arts leaders what they want to buy and inviting young brown strangers to tell them what they’re doing wrong is never on the list.) But once again, it’s not just about gathering information, it’s about using the information to change organizational behavior – which is something entrenched arts leaders just can’t bring themselves to do.

The fact that this is a surprising discovery speaks volumes about the sad state of marketing in the classical music world. This should be common practice throughout the cultural sector – and new audiences should be pouring into theaters and concert halls.

I’ve always been happy to mention Jason Nicholson in Austin who’s been learning from new audiences for several years now. I couldn’t be more pleased to see the folks at California Symphony carrying the same torch.

The Four Most Horrifying Words in Arts Management

I started this blog about four years ago and have written 174 posts to date. Some posts have gone viral, generating thousands of hits, while others have seen fair to moderate readership for a blog on arts marketing. Most posts eventually faded into the past, which is the nature of blogs, but a few continue to attract readers years down the line – presumably because of the phrases people type into search engines.

By far the most widely read and most consistently accessed post on this blog appeared on March 6, 2012 and its title was: Never Say “Get the word out.” People access this post almost every day.

There’s nothing earthshaking about the post. I’ve written many more provocative essays, but there’s something in this title that continues to draw people to my site. Clearly, these visitors have entered four particular words into their search engines looking for ways to sell more tickets or attract more audiences, and they are, by far, the most destructive words in the cultural sector:

Get

The

Word

Out

I’ve already said that arts administrators who speak these words need to be fired immediately, so there’s not much to add, but since people continue to search for them, I will say this:

If you’re not selling enough tickets and your prime communications directive is summed up by these four words, your failure is your fault. Getting the word out is an amateurish and fiscally irresponsible way to sell tickets.

If on the other hand you’d like to change that directive and sell more tickets, here are four words you might want to use as the foundation of your new communications philosophy:

Persuade

People

To

Come

Examine these two phrases carefully. Look at the underlying differences in their meanings and the actions they impel. Ask yourself honestly which one is likely to produce more productive communications and the answer is clear.

‘Get the word out’ is a one-way mechanical process with an inside-out orientation. ‘Persuade people to come’ is a two-way human process with a outside-in orientation. The difference is nearly palpable. One is about spraying information while the other is about connecting with people and guiding them toward something that will fulfill their desires.

Communication strategies developed within a ‘persuade people to come’ strategic framework will work better because they’ll have been designed to persuade people to come.

The alternative is to keep spraying information at the world until the last person who cares dies, and that’s an idiotic way to build new audiences.

Language matters. In the arts, where marketing is still an amateur process, it means a great deal. The language we use to describe the work we do will determine what sort of work we do. If we talk about spraying information at the world, that’s all we’re going to do. But if we talk about persuading people to come…

Stop saying get the word out.

Now.