Well. Something interesting crossed my screen earlier: a brief discussion of the Minnesota Orchestra’s new branding campaign, found on the site, “The Minneapolis Egoist.”
I winced as I read it. And, I was again reminded of the strong negative feelings I experienced when I first saw the Orchestra’s new look a few weeks ago.
Let me say (again) that I hate to keep harping on things all the time, and the point of my blog is not just to vent about the Orchestra’ problems. But it strikes me that the Orchestra’s new branding initiative illustrates several deep-seated problems with the organization—problems that I feel need to be addressed if it is to ever achieve long-term success. Let me explain.
A Question of Timing.
First of all, I have some reservations about the timing of this new branding campaign. Essentially, the new brand was launched at precisely the same moment that tickets went on sale for the remainder of the 2014 season.
I think that simultaneous release was a bad idea.
Oh, I understand the thinking about why it happened. And I have, in fact, had several great conversations on this topic with friends who have backgrounds in marketing, and I fully admit that there is room for disagreement on this point.
But here’s my thinking. Unveiling a whole new organizational “look” (on a new website designed with this new look in mind) at the same moment that people were flooding said website to buy long-awaited tickets led to immeasurable confusion. I know this because my Facebook page and email lit up with questions as soon as people visited the Orchestra’s site: Wait, what happened? Is this the Orchestra’s website? Have they been hacked? Is it safe to give these people my credit card? Does that circle symbol mean the page is refreshing? And these questions were coming from season ticket buyers who were frequently seasoned ticket buyers.
I’m sure the plan was to leave behind the ugliness of the lockout, and inaugurate an exciting new era of the Orchestra’s history. A fresh start, if you will. But the overwhelming response I heard was one of confusion, which led to frustration. I will say also that these initial questions were followed almost immediately by angry comments noting that the Orchestra had spent $13 million last year without presenting a single concert—and wondering if this is where the money went? If the MOA had money for this, why didn’t they have money to pay the musicians?
Again, I completely see the value of giving the Orchestra a makeover now that the labor dispute is officially over. But launching the makeover at that particular moment led to irritation instead of the cathartic release the MOA was hoping for.
To me, it reinforced the idea that the Orchestra indifferent to the notion of customer service, and it was communicating poorly with its audience members.
Which gets to a larger issue—that of execution. There wasn’t a carefully choreographed launch. Instead, people independently stumbled across a radically new brand when they went online to buy tickets. Granted, there was a quick turnaround between the date the lockout ended and when the tickets went on sale… but surely the MOA knew that would be the case whether the lockout ended last October, on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, or mid-January. Wasn’t there an implementation strategy ready to go in advance? Since there were no concerts going on, it seems like there was plenty of time to come up with a variety of plans that took into account the most likely possibilities.
So, why no inauguration? Why no “coming soon!” features on the website? Or a publicity blitz? The MOA was able to take out full-page ads demanding the musicians come to terms, why not one announcing a new look as part of a new era? The Orchestra needed all the positive buzz it could generate.
And specifically, why didn’t they steer us toward the positive emotions they wanted us to feel, and do so in a strategic manner? Why no attempt to lay the ground work, build excitement and have a wonderful “reveal” that kept the momentum going—before people encountered it on their own? There didn’t seem to be any effort to control the message.
Had they done this, more people might have looked at the new branding and said “Yes! A new start!” instead of “Wait, is this the right orchestra?”
The Quality of the Branding
Which brings us to an uncomfortable topic—the actual look of the new brand.
It’s a miss.
In short, the new look is uninspiring, generic, and completely divorced from the Orchestra’s core artistic product. It doesn’t reflect… well, the Minnesota Orchestra.
Okay, I recognize that these things are subjective, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there’s a difference between clean and clinical, sleek and bleak, and understated and underwhelming. The new look is so oversimplified that it feels lifeless, as if it has no motion, no rhythm.
Let’s start with the logo.
It’s completely generic, as if it was basic clip art that says nothing about the organization or its purpose. Now I get that those hexagons forming the circle could be representations of Orchestra Hall’s famous acoustic cubes, seen at an offset angle… but if I have to explain that to people, it’s not registering. And is the circle shape a representation of the “O” in Orchestra, or representative of something else? Or is it simply a pleasing shape? Is there anything else that implies music?
I hate to say it, but it feels like this logo could just as easily represent “Minnesota Petrochemicals” or “Minnesota Savings and Loan” as it could the Minnesota Orchestra.
The rest of the website, the copy… everything carries through this pattern. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate overly “creative” marketing materials or a website design. And the materials are highly professional. But the overall branding feels characterless, generic, and cold. It doesn’t convey the powerful, and at times visceral experience you can get at a Minnesota Orchestra concert.
For me, a successful brand should evoke a specific company or product. It should, at a glance, tell a story and clearly represent the real you—who you are and what you do. In this case, it should convey the same energy and excitement that happens on stage to the broader public. And it should relate to your customers, too. I don’t see these things here.
Given my disappointment with the design, I was intrigued to read how the MOA views this new look. On the site I linked above, it makes its position clear: “The new identity preserves the integrity of the Minnesota Orchestra’s mission, yet refreshes our brand presence with clean, sophisticated and dynamic design. It is an authentic expression of our commitment to artistic excellence and providing memorable and entertaining experiences in a welcoming environment.”
I hate to single out the author directly, as the person is a professional doing a professional job, and hitting all the right marks that a veteran marketing manager is trained to hit. Plus, quotes like these are often assembled by a whole team of people, and are vetted within an inch of their lives.
But in many ways this quote gets to the heart of what’s wrong here. My goodness—to recap, the branding strives to be: clean, sophisticated, dynamic, authentic, artistically excellent, memorable, entertaining, and welcoming. And, it needs to preserve the integrity of the Orchestra’s mission.
That’s… a lot to take on.
Plus, the list of modifiers in these two very dense sentences includes all the great power words (even buzzwords) that everyone is using right now… this same list could be used by every performing arts group in the nation. And with minor modifications, by a wide range of non-arts organizations, too. So how does this speak to the unique character of the Minnesota Orchestra?
Plus, I don’t doubt that the Orchestra is indeed striving to achieve all these things in its brand, but using a whole slew of industry-standard buzzwords makes it nearly impossible to think of this branding effort as “authentic.”
We’re left with a campaign that is smoothly professional, that hits all the important points in textbook fashion, but seems generic, cold, and detached from the organization or its actual product.
* * *
Sadly, I’m noticing a trend here. Looking over this post, I’m struck by the fact that my criticisms of the new branding mirror my criticisms of the new lobby of Orchestra Hall nearly exactly. I’m worried that they’re becoming true of the organization as a whole: too generic, too corporate, un-artistic, and sloppy with execution. And, I would add, directed from the top down, with little consideration from the other stakeholders.
This is dangerous.
Fortunately, there are a few ways that you could tweak your branding that might help it immensely.
- Figure out what makes the Minnesota Orchestra unique, and weave those things more strategically into your materials. How does the Orchestra stand apart? What does it offer that other competitors cannot? What are focal points of the new Orchestra Hall that could be highlighted? But think bigger, too—can the presentation be varied so that images and such stand apart from competitors, and don’t feel like they were lifted from any other organization?
- Re-focus on the artistry. I get it, you don’t want to be too obvious and slap a treble clef on your logo so it screams MUSIC! But there has to be some way that the ideas of music and music-making can be incorporated into your brand.
- Work collaboratively. Again and again, it feels like everything going on with the Minnesota Orchestra is a top-down affair. It feels like management is making decisions in a vacuum, and imposing its priorities and vision on all other stakeholders. This isn’t helpful, nor will it lead to long-term audience engagement (let alone rapprochement with the musicians). I’d suggest involving audience advocacy groups like Save Our Symphony Minnesota in projects—they can provide feedback and help disseminate message into the broader community. And don’t forget about the musicians—they successfully managed their own concert season, and have all kinds of non-musical skills. Engage them.
Again, the Orchestra’s new branding campaign is problematic, and reveals some deep-seated problems in the organization. I hope that as the rebuilding continues, all stakeholders in the Orchestra can come together and address these issues, to ensure it will continue to thrive.