A many years ago, I got wrapped up in a discussion about how to market “elite” products like classical music in a “regular joe” kind of society. Should you appeal to the snobs and insiders? Go for the everyman? And in either case do you lose something by making it either more and more esoteric and unattainable so that only the chosen few can enjoy it (like, say, Abercrombie and Fitch clothing), or by dumbing it down beyond recognition?
One answer came from beer.
Not in a “drunken-ramblings-that-solve-all-of-life’s-questions” way, but in a discussion of how beer companies have grappled with a very similar problem in their own industry. Let me explain.
Here in the US, beer is a billion dollar industry. But it is dominated by a few big brands that have established a huge market share over the last 50 years. Despite increasing challenges from competitors, “beer” in the US is still widely understood—and experienced—as pale industrial pilsner as sold by Budweiser or Miller. But against this domination by mass-produced labels, there has emerged a countervailing trend—specially crafted, artisan beers that have sprung up either domestically from microbreweries or have been imported from abroad.
It is curious to note that there is plenty of room for both approaches in the market. While smaller breweries might never approach the total revenue of the giants, they do quite well for themselves, provide good jobs for dedicated workers, and have a rabidly loyal clientele.
What does this mean for an orchestra? Can an artisan brew master really provide business lessons to a group of overworked arts administrators, besides the obvious way of providing the means for them to drown their collective sorrows?
Philip Van Munching, scion of the family that imported Heineken beer into the US shows how it can be done. His 1998 book, Beer Blast, is a colorful tale of the inner workings of the world of American breweries. He explores in particular the near demise of the beer industry between 1970 and 1990, when brewery after brewery chose to cut costs by buying cheaper ingredients and letting the beer age for less time before shipping it out to market. The result? Financial disaster—it seems people really can tell the difference in quality. Van Munching ends with a series of basic laws of beer marketing, emphasizing in particular how a small, quality product can stand out in a sea of mass produced competitors; he goes on to boldly state that these laws apply to other areas, too.
I think it will be clear that they can, if nothing else, inform a discussion on how to market an orchestra.
1) Start with a good product. More important, you need to believe it is good to market it, or you are wasting your time.
Van Munching is brutally clear that it is absolutely necessary for a company to believe in the excellence of its product—and this belief has to pervade the entire organization. This is true not just for a brewery, but for an orchestra as well. Just as it does a brewery no good to have master brewers, accountants, and executives who are not passionately committed to its product, it does an orchestra no good to employ ticket sellers, ushers, or other front-line staff who are disinterested in the art form. And it certainly does no good for an orchestra’s top leaders to be indifferent to its core product. How can you be an advocate, and ultimately sell your product to the public, if you aren’t an advocate yourself?
2) Beware “small” changes that affect overall quality, as they can add up and destroy both your product and your reputation.
The world is littered with defunct, empty breweries that tried to cut their way to higher profits. One local example is the once-proud Grain Belt. People do notice changes; again and again, breweries that decided to cut corners netted a few short-term gains, but over the long term began losing customers to their competitors. It is very hard to stop the bleeding once it starts. Similarly, an orchestra that sets out to save money by dropping from “great” to “pretty good” will slowly begin to die. An orchestra that loses its passion for excellence can hardly expect its audience members to maintain their own level of passion. And as public apathy sets in, ticket sales will start to drop and fewer large-scale donations will roll in. There is just too much competition for this kind of complacency.
3) You have to know who your customers are and speak to them in your advertising.
There is a lurking danger in the world of marketing to allow yourself to be seduced by your own clever ideas and snappy phrases, with a result that you come up with advertising that looks great to you but has no meaning for your intended audience. The goal—for both beer and orchestral music—has to be about connecting customers to your brand, convincing them to take that critical step of making a purchase, or at least taking the time to talk you up to their friends. What will convince them to take that step? Figure that out, and make that the core of your ad. It seems basic enough, but this simple truth is often lost in a rush to simply make something “memorable,” “exciting,” or even “artistic.” Similarly, don’t create an ad simply with the aim that it will “go viral.” This almost never works the way you want it to, and certainly not on the timetable you need it to. Again, the aim of the ad isn’t to delight their senses or bring about a laugh—it’s to get them to buy a ticket.
4) Protect your flagship product.
Van Munching notes that he quickly learned Heineken’s overall brand would suffer if the company put forth a light beer—all of their marketing had been build around creating an image of Heineken as a high-quality, high-status product and a “light” version would negate all their hard work. So when they released a new product to capitalize on the growing light beer market, they released it as “Amstel Light.” Similarly, there is no sense diluting the Orchestra’s brand. This is not to say that an orchestra can only perform “stuffy” art music in the most formal of settings, or that popular performers can never take the stage at Orchestra Hall. No, casual concerts and more popular music are great, and fulfill an important role in the mission of the Orchestra. There is ample room for series like Casual Classics and Pops. But these programs can be branded separately, and should never overwhelm to core mission of the Orchestra to present orchestral music at the highest level.
5) Don’t chase someone else’s market just because you see dollar signs.
Every company, every organization has a specific niche in the marketplace. Within this niche you have a competitive advantage, something that makes you unique and distinct from others in the same category. Embrace that. Go after your niche and take advantage of it. No one can be all things to all people, so decide who your market audience is and go after it. Sure, you can always spread out to other areas, but realize that when you do, you are running into someone else’s competitive advantage, and you’ll be at a disadvantage… be strategic when you do so, and wise. The Orchestra can try to be a presenting house for popular music, but there are already organizations that do that better, and it will be very hard to compete with, say, Mystic Lake Casino on its own terms.
6) Beware sacrificing existing customers for new ones.
Again, it is not a bad idea to develop new customers—it is, in fact, critical that you do so for long-term growth. That said, studies show again and again that it is expensive, inefficient, and labor-intensive to bring new customers on into your fold, so you need to be very strategic about doing so. Especially if you have limited resources. Remember it takes work to keep your customers loyal, but doing so pays dividends—loyal followers are far more likely than recent converts to be invested in your success.
7) Protect your pricing, and let your image justify it.
At the end of the day, price is always an important factor, but it is hardly the only factor. Obviously you don’t want to price yourself out of the market, but people will buy your product if they perceive that it has value commensurate with its price. People still buy a premium beer even if it isn’t the cheapest, most readily available beer on hand; they do so because they want the quality, the taste, and the street cred it gives them. Yes, you can lower your price… but that often lowers the perceived value, too. Why not work instead to raise the perceived value of your product? The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra provides an obvious case study that speaks to this point. Several years ago, the SPCO radically dropped its ticket prices with the hope that lost revenue would be made up by scores of new concertgoers snapping up all the newly-cheap tickets. It was an interesting idea, but the plan does not seem to have worked as planned. Many have argued that the SPCO’s artificially low prices serve to diminish the value of the music, and ultimately serve as an insidious disincentive towards attending a performance.
8) Use research sparingly.
This might be controversial, and I’m not sure I fully buy Van Munching’s rationale. His point is that research deadens creativity, and too often it is used to “prove” someone’s pet theory. This certainly has a ring of truth to it. That said, the majority of his points depend on a business knowing its target audience, knowing what makes it respond, and knowing their values. For that, you need to do research.
9) Image counts.
Although Van Munching wrote before this term really caught on, his work is a virtual celebration of the idea of branding. He noted in the 1990s that people who drank Heineken were a distinct group that wanted to proclaim their refined taste and cosmopolitanism by “showing off” their high-status bottles. Therefore, it made no sense to sell it on tap—draft beer all looks alike in the glass. The company adjusted its sales techniques to match the demands and desires of its consumers, and was hugely successful. While that specific example doesn’t necessarily have a musical equivalent, it does show how a savvy company based its plans on a thorough understanding of its customers, and then using that understanding to take appropriate actions. How can an Orchestra build and maintain a brand creates street cred and status? How can it integrate its activities to create a through-line that constantly reinforces it’s high status brand?
Just food (or… er, drink) for thought as we head out to the weekend. Cheers!