I’ve seen a lot of arts marketing in my time.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve served as the marketing director of one arts organization, and as a staff member on several others. Over my career I’ve had the privilege of working on some absolutely fantastic pieces, some that were okay, and some that sounded great at the time but ended up missing their mark. And of course, I’ve worked on several clunkers that make me shake my head and wonder what I was thinking. That’s the nature of the beast—not every idea is great, or as great as you think it is.
But I have to say… I’ve just run across a couple of marketing pieces that were really bad. I mean, shockingly bad.
The marketing materials are from the Binghamton Philharmonic, and every aspect of them is a complete disaster. It is all the more horrifying to see these coming so shortly after the release of catastrophic promotional video, which I critiqued here. It isn’t just that the individual pieces are laughable… they completely miss the point of the art.
Not only that—collectively, they reveal a serious problem at the heart of the organization.
* * *
First let me say a few words of background. Binghamton has recently gone through a series of tough labor negotiations between the management and the unionized musicians. These negotiations have, unfortunately, followed the same trajectory of such arts organizations as the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and other ensembles. In all these cases, the managements declared that the organizations were tottering at the edge of financial ruin due to expensive contracts with their musicians and/or workers. Draconian cuts—borne primarily if not exclusively by the unionized forces—were the only solution. Strangely enough, in each of these previous examples the management’s position was shown to be highly overstated, with the result that the respective communities rose up and forced management to back down.
It appears that Binghamton’s management is trying this same strategy—which is surprising, in that it has been a dismal failure thus far. But so it goes. Binghamton demanded draconian concessions, cancelled the season opener to hammer home its point, and threatened to cancel the entire season. A new agreement is in place, but the actions of the leadership are still fresh in everyone’s minds.
In light of this recent history, it is curious to see Binghamton’s new marketing materials. They suggest that it is not over-generous contracts with the musicians that are the problem—incompetent management is the problem.
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So let’s begin, and look at this recent piece.
Without hyperbole, I can say that every part of this is a disaster.
First with the text at the top of the ad.
“BINGHAMTON PHILHARMONIC REMASTERED.”
I get it… this is a variation off the tried-and-true “New and Improved!” meme that companies use all the time on their products. I can see where you might be hoping to get the season off to a new start, or to show that you’re thinking outside the box. But In light of the cancellations, contentious labor negotiations, cuts, and the warnings of financial difficulties from management, it’s far too easy to leap to the conclusion that the orchestra has been axed and replaced by a new ensemble. This is skating on thin ice.
From there, we’re treated to this: “No stage. No preconceptions.”
If they were skating on thin ice before, here they crash right through. First, what does “no stage” mean? Is this a concert? Is it a flash mob? Does the audience help perform the music? Are we watching a video? This is far too nebulous for a potential concert-goer.
“No preconceptions?” At all? Well, my preconceptions of an orchestra concert are that I will pay a mutually-agreed upon sum of money to hear a pre-established collection of music at a certain venue at a certain time on a certain date. So… do none of these things hold true? Is this going to be one of those performances like Sleep No More, the deconstructed interpretation of Macbeth that took New York by storm a few years back, where the audience shapes the free-form, unfolding narrative in an abandoned warehouse?
I mean, in short you’re telling us this event has nothing to do with Binghamton concerts we’ve experienced in the past, without giving us any indication about what this entails or even what you mean. If I liked the Binghamton Philharmonic concerts in the past… would I find this appealing? For fans of the Binghamton Philharmonic, it suggests that the orchestra they love is hopelessly passé, and can only be saved through a barrage of bells and whistles.
Or is it just a bit of empty marketing jargon used to make you sound edgy?
Then we have the photo of the violinist. Which is printed backwards. An error that is instantly noticeable to anyone who’s ever seen a real violinist… presumably your customer base.
Then we have the words, “The Oblivion Project.”
What is this? Is this the name of the concert? A group? A piece of music? A new music initiative? No matter, “The Oblivion Project,” whatever that means, has a date by it. So that solves everything.
Or not, because the next piece of text is “The Roberson Museum and Science Center.” So… does this have anything to do with music at all? Or is this something to do with scientific research into memory and cognitive science?
But while we’re trying to sort this out, we come to another section of text: “Project Oblivion will transport you through an intimate night of seduction and passion as they explore the Argentine Tango with works from Astor Piazolla.”
So many issues.
First, is it “The Oblivion Project” or “Project Oblivion?” As someone who deals with branding, I bet this is a big deal.
Second, and more important, what on earth is going on? So if we arrive at 7:30 to the Roberson Museum, someone is going to seduce us and lead us to a night of passion? In the Planetarium (remember, no stage)? What if I’m not comfortable with that? What if I don’t want to pay good money to have strangers seduce me in front of my wife? Or for that matter, to pay good money to have my wife be seduced in front of me?
Plus, I’m not sure that Astor Piazolla is as universally known as you assume. With my background and musical interests, I’m aware that he’s a composer, and I have a great soft spot for his music. But the idea of that this is a concert of live music is only thinly implied; someone coming to this blind might think he’s a choreographer, filmmaker, author… or given the text here, an erotic artist. Couldn’t it at least read “…an intimate night of musical seduction” so we get that this is a concert instead of a steamy tête-à-tête?
From the photo that appears below the text, I’m guessing that The Oblivion Project/Project Oblivion is an ensemble… but you’re not setting them up well at all. Are they happy with this campaign?
More to the point, what does this have to do with the Binghamton Philharmonic? Are they replacing the Binghamton Philharmonic? Are they accompanying the Binghampton Philharmonic? Is this the remastered Binghamton Philharmonic?
There’s another problem, too. The name of this group has the additional challenge of being ironic in the context of the current ad. Again, there are those who feel that the current administration of the Binghamton Philharmonic is out to shut down or replace the current ensemble. In such a case, the word “oblivion” needs to be used delicately.
But beyond the specifics, there’s the much larger issue—I’m not sure this who this ad is for, or how successful it would be in building an audience.
Let’s say you’re a reasonably music-savvy person looking for entertainment. You’re aware of the Binghamton Philharmonic, and you’ve heard smatterings about the contentious labor negotiations. And then you see this ad.
What would you do?
Does this ad give you any kind of information about what’s going on, or what you’ll experience?
I mean, all it’s telling you is that on behalf of the Binghamton Philharmonic, if I go to a museum on this date, I’ll be passionately seduced by a bunch of guys—in an event without limits, where preconditions fall away.
Good God… is this event run by Christian Grey?
To be fair, if I dig around your website I can learn the answer to some of these questions, such as the fact that the “reMastered” series is a new concert format you’re trying to launch. But since it is new, will the broader public know any of this? Besides the sloppiness of execution, this whole ad feels like it’s speaking to an inner circle of staff members who have been living with this information for months.
I’m not sure outsiders coming to this cold, as I did, will get this at all… or be inspired to try and figure it out.
* * *
But while I was staring at this Binghamton ad in confusion, something worse came across my desk.
This is Binghamton’s season program.
Wow. Just… wow.
First and most obviously… did anyone at the administration notice that the back cover was upside-down? I mean…
… sorry, I’m just speechless.
But also, why again are the violinists playing their instruments backwards? On the season program? Does anyone in the orchestra’s administration know how a violin works? I mean…
… sorry, I’m just speechless.
And what’s with the color? That shade of fuchsia went out in the 1980s, and for good reason. I mean…
… sorry, I’m just speechless.
I’m terrified to imagine what the inside of that piece looked like.
How does such a travesty get made, let alone make it into the hands of the public? If this was somehow a printer error, I would demand an immediate replacement… before my bosses saw it and demanded an immediate replacement for me.
* * *
The problem with these marketing materials (and last month’s video) isn’t just that a single marketing piece was a dud, or even that several marketing pieces were duds. These materials represent a series of unforced errors that show a massive amount of organizational clumsiness. Worse, the kind of mistakes on display here show that the administration seems to lack a basic understanding of both their product and their intended audience.
This makes me terrified to read the Binghamton Philharmonic’s strategic plan.
I’m sorry that the Binghamton Philharmonic has been experiencing tough financial times. But as I said before, I’m growing convinced that the union musicians are not the real problem. The administration is.