Colliding with reality

Here’s a thought that’s been on my mind for a while. 

Lincoln Center, in New York, has heightened its branding. Now (on 65th Street, next to its main campus, where all the big halls are) it’s got a row of very tall video displays, which often show moving images. Across the street from them, in front of the remodeled Alice Tully Hall, is another video display, looking spiffily contemporary. 

Well, fine. A move into current culture. Contemporary branding. 

Two problems, though. The images vary. Some are low-res. Painfully low-res — you can see individual (giant) pixels from eight feet away. That’s got to be fixed right away.

But the second problem is deeper, and more interesting. When the images are good, they’re very good. They light up the street. Lincoln Center looks beckoning, festive, and — to use the word again — completely contemporary.

But is that what performances there are like? Not many of them. Not the classical music presentations — not the New York Philharmonic, not the Chamber Music Society, not most of the events Lincoln Center itself produces. (Opera presents a slightly different problem, which I’ll get to in a minute.) 

So now the branding could backfire. To the extent that it succeeds, people might come to Lincoln Center expecting performances that felt like the video displays. But they won’t get that. So the branding — worst-case scenario, I’ll grant, but a possible one — proves deceptive. It might even turn people away, once they’ve been burned, and word starts to get around.

The opera variant of this possible problem isn’t so bad. The Met has been branding itself with striking images, typically one photo each year, taken from the new production that opens the season. These photos show up on the sides of buses all over New York. They make the Met look hot. 

And some of the productions truly reflect that. But many don’t. If you go to the Met on a random night, you probably don’t get a visual experience comparable to the branding images. So the Met, too, has this problem. To the extent that the branding succeeds, it might be deceptive.

But at least they’re trying. As everyone knows by now, Peter Gelb wants the performances to work as contemporary theater. It’s a long struggle, when you’re doing seven performances each week, and something like 20 productions each year, many of them (unavoidably) old. But still he’s trying.

The New York City Opera looks good onstage, too, and in fact — with their recovery from near-extinction proceeding brilliantly under George Steel’s direction — they might, on a random night, look even better than the Met. Not as spectacular; they don’t have the money for that. But just as contemporary. Or even more, because they do so few productions. Each one can be carefully honed, to be real theater. 

The bottom line here? The problem isn’t the branding. The problem is the content that the branding advertises. Until classical music changes decisively, attempts to spiff up its branding run the risk of looking empty, shallow, opportunistic, because they don’t correspond to what’s actually offered. 

Fix that, though — help classical music be reborn as contemporary art — and then we’re in business. And the branding makes sense. 

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  1. says

    Greg, I love the vision you’ve got here: marketing alone can’t solve the problem; so the challenge we call “arts marketing” is really about the experiences offered in the hall, or in the museum gallery, or for that matter the storefront theater or club or bar etc. And I agree with you that certain branding and advertising approaches run the risk of setting up expectations that the experience doesn’t fulfill, leading to disappointment. But that’s likely to happen most with newcomers to the arts institution or the art form, which may or may not be who these screens and bus ads are actually attracting to the performances. (They may be intended to do so, but I’d bet it’s largely arts-goers who even notice them, much less respond.) And after six or so decades of television in our collective lives, haven’t consumers gotten used to the gap between idealized advertising image and actual product or experience? I’m not sure most people would be surprised at what’s in store for them at Lincoln Center. In fact, I think they mostly discount those kinds of images and make their decisions to attend — or not — based on a pretty accurate sense of what the experience will be like and how it will make them feel. Which brings us right back to your prescription…

  2. Orchestra Marketer says

    This is definitely something we think about a LOT in classical marketing. Part of the problem, though, is that the Marketing Department has very little (if any) say in the artistic decisions. I don’t for a moment think that we should start basing all of our programming choices on what’s going to be most “popular,” but obviously if you’re going to bring in any revenue in ticket sales, the viability of any given concert must be taken into consideration. Often, the best we can do as marketers is to make suggestions for new areas of exploration, but if that’s not embraced by the artistic leadership, we’re still stuck with taking what we have and trying to make it look fresh, or at least less stale.

    We’re almost damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we brand ourselves with the same-old familiar orchestra look, our sales are dead in the water. But when we try to connect on a more fresh, exciting level, we’re not following through with the pay-off. It really takes commitment from all levels of an organization to get a consistent message and experience working together.

  3. says

    Out of curiosity for the videos you mentioned I went over to the Lincoln Center website.

    Have you looked at their new festival called Tullyscope? I would like to suggest you do so and write your impressions on this programming. To my eyes it looks extraordinarily interesting and fresh, the kind of thing you have been writing that you want to see in music.

  4. Nick Rudd says

    There’s an old adage in the marketing/advertising business: the only thing that can kill a product faster than bad advertising is good advertising for a bad product. More people try it sooner, see how bad it is and never come back.

  5. says

    Is this based on attending any recent Lincoln Center performances? Maybe the New York Phil still seems a little out of date despite the Alan Gilbert facelift and new programming (I´d blame Avery Fisher Hall more than anything for that). And despite Gelb´s re-vamping, the Met is still fairly staid. But don´t knock Lincoln Center itself, which has been putting on the most interesting programming in the city (and probably the country) in the past couple years–opening nights at Alice Tully with Bang on a Can and Alarm Will Sound, the recent White Light Festival successfully blending conventional classical music with other genres, and the upcoming Tully Scope festival with a similar mix.

    The advertising is good, the programming is good. The institutions changed when you weren´t paying attention.

  6. says

    Spot on, Greg. My sentiments exactly. While I like the spiffy, sexy ads, I do find them deceptive at times. And this coming from someone who LOVES opera. Can you imagine someone who knows little to nothing of opera seeing those ads and then seeing some of the productions? Disappointment I think might be an understatement. I think the ads speak more to what you get in the Met HD experience than what you actually get in the opera house. Even still, however, it is sometimes a stretch.

    Another question to ask is, “Is Met HD opera, in fact, “opera”? Or is it something else?

    This is a question that intrigues me, and that I will explore more this spring in my master’s thesis. Wish me luck! I’m gonna need it when tackling this topic. ha!

  7. Ken Nielsen says

    Very useful thoughts, Greg.

    In consumer marketing terms, a “brand” represents everything the customer has heard, see or experienced about the product. To work well, all that communication needs to be integrated – to say the same things, project the same image.

    Any conflict between the communication and the experience damages the brand. And if it is advertising, it is a waste of money.

    So “rebranding” that just looks at the communication often does more harm than good.

    Start with the product….

  8. says

    I could not agree more with your analysis. This is why we must reinvent the classical music experience and focus on cultivating and serving the younger concert audience that is hungry for new exciting repertoire, genre bending and crossing musical experiences, and technology-savy ensembles. Unfortunately for the old established orchestras in this country, they are heavily dependent upon the older audience that is and has been the source of the lion share of their financial support. Their problem is a boon to new groups that carry no such baggage. Our mandate is to make the symphony orchestra relevant to the music aficionados of today. A simple tweak here and there is not going to do it. It can be done and Orchestra for a New Century plans to lead the charge.

    Gary M. Schneider

    Music Director

    Orchestra for a New Century

  9. Joan says

    Digital visuals are digital, as impersonal a medium as we have so far produced. The medium is really and truly the message. Classical music is like folk music (which no one needs to tart up with ‘digitalia’) – it proceeds from and its meaning is made up inside flesh, muscle and vocal chords, wood and gut and hot air, ebony and horse hair and resin; thoughtful and complex thinking and feeling. We’d do better by advertising it with wood stoves, the smells of baking bread, waterfalls, sheep, street performers and other living things-somehow! People are also longing for life in that living direction as much as ‘non-thinking’ consumers of entertainment are trying to find oblivion in the hot, sexy, rich, utopian fantasy direction.