Arts Branding Sucks. Here Are 4 Ways To Fix It

Brian Millar explains why cultural venues aren’t getting the PR they need, and what they can do about it.

Bad arts advertising, it’s everywhere once you start to notice it. If Hollywood movies were as bland and formulaic as their posters, there’d be no point in going to see them. If the writers, directors, and performers on Broadway were as memorable as their publicity materials, their shows would be unwatchable.

Of course, there are some truly outstanding campaigns for the arts. But like great radio ads, great arts advertising stands out because it breaks the surface of a sea of meh. Museums, movies, music, and publishing all deserve better.

Over the last few years, some of the U.K.’s top cultural venues have had their fortunes transformed by using the kind of marketing thinking that usually goes into shilling packaged goods. As a result, London’s whole cultural scene has been revitalized and appeals to a much broader audience.

We’ve been involved with a few of those campaigns, from the South Bank Centre and British Museum through to the National Theatre and Young Vic. Here’s a few of the things that we’ve learned along the way.

You love ballet. Don’t imagine anybody else does.

People don’t end up as marketing director of a ballet by accident. They do it because they love ballet in a way that flour marketers probably don’t love flour. So they make a fatal assumption: that ballet is interesting to the rest of us.

If you’re the promoter of a U2 gig, you’d be stupid to do anything except paste up a big picture of Bono, Edge, Larry, and the, um, other one, adding venue and dates. But an unknown theater director needs to work a lot harder to get the audiences they deserve. If a name doesn’t sell itself, then somebody has to sell it. Approach the problem like selling a battery or a pack of frozen peas.

So forget ballet, and think about your potential audience. What are the tensions in their lives? How could ballet help them make a breakthrough? What if you sold ballet to guys as a first-date idea? Now you’re talking to a much bigger audience—in their language.

Forget research.

Hollywood movie posters are a lesson in what happens when research dictates your advertising design. It’s like putting a Michelangelo sculpture into a wind tunnel and letting it smooth all the interesting bits off.

TBWA’s legendary adman Jean-Marie Dru advises creatives to pin up their competitors’ work on a "disruption wall." Then ask: What are the clichés of the category? What can we tear into? The answer you’re looking for is on the wall in front of you, not in a focus group.

When a category is as hackneyed as movie trailers, a little originality can make you stand out like a guy in a rented suit at the Vanity Fair Oscars party—but in a good way.

[Orson Welles upended the movie-trailer formula with a clip that relayed very little of Citizen Kane’s plotline.]
[The trailer for Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian pokes fun at the usual voice-over tropes.]

You know what you’re selling. Find out what people are buying.

The Young Vic Theatre has always been known in the trade as the director’s theater. But when we talked to its audience, nobody knew what that meant. Even the extreme users we talked to, like theater critics, were quite vague about what difference a director made. Actors, writers, set designers, yes. We needed to explain the difference that directors made. And sell that difference.

The answer: They’re storytellers. Maybe the Young Vic produced great directors. But people buy stories. So the theater adopted a storytelling strategy: Poster and digital campaigns spread the stories out of the theater and into the lives of Londoners. We wrote them a new strapline: It’s a big world in here. And their season almost sold out.

Selling isn’t selling out.

Great arts marketing makes more than money. Performers and creators live for full houses. An excited audience makes a show magical. Queues turn an exhibition into a blockbuster. Word of mouth turns an unknown genius into a star. The world is full of advertising claiming that a product will change your life. Great art is the product that really can, if only it’s sold right.

[Image: Ballet via Shutterstock]

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  • jmco

    I would break “arts” into  a number of categories before I addressed this but, fundamentally, there is for profit and non profit. Most art is non profit. From music to plays to dance concerts in local communities and cities. 
    I think it is impossible to be critical of commercial art, like movies, music, and TV (other than the occasional branding stinker). 
    But the non profit world, with the exception of a few great groups in major cities like NY and around the world, and some notable small groups, in the U.S. - it stinks because the people that run the groups - artists, dancers, musicians, etc. - have little or no understanding or concept of what a brand is. 
    I have worked with a lot of non profit performance groups and, they could never understand that, the image (or brand) used in the promotional material like posters, does not have to be directly connected to the imagery in the play. This would be akin to the incredible change, for the better, that happened in book cover design about 20 years ago. Because of a few great designers, led by Chip Kidd, the publishing industry realized that a cover is a small story in itself and “brands” the book. But does not have to be, exactly, the content of the book, per say. But even that change was a challenge for designers as certain authors had very specific ideas about what THIER cover should look like.
    Frankly, I have little hope for the majority of arts organizations in understanding that, they need to leave the branding and design branding of performances and seasons to the designer’s creativity and not try to shove a mishmash of their own concepts onto the design in an unfortunate effort to shift the visuals of the play or dance or exhibit into the brand.
    It does not work.
    The thousands of total crap posters for 99.99% of all theatrical plays in the U.S. every year proves it. 
    One exception: The Public Theatre. Which uses a design firm.

  • Henry Ruddle

    I find this article incoherent except for the last point. Maybe Coca-cola had the luxury of convincing the world it wanted a coke before selling it's brand, but ballet companies, to use your example, do not. By economic necessity, they have to focus their message on people who already appreciate their art form or are at least open to giving it a try. Research helps pinpoint those market segments. Using movie trailers to criticize arts marketing is absurd because movie goers are a captive market. Orson Wells could afford 3 minutes and 53 seconds to get to the point. Arts marketers designing a poster, postcard, ad or brochure have about 3.53 seconds to do the same, so sometimes clarity and the occasional cliche are necessary just to avoid being ignored.

  • James

    Bit confused why the headline says 'branding', the standfirst says 'PR', and the article talks about 'advertising'.  Well done on selling out your client's season, though . :)


    Great piece, just felt I needed to mention a campaign for the Swedish Opera made by a gang called Studio Total. 

    The opera wanted to attract young girls, so they started a fake blog for one of the main characters of the new premiere, a young rich depressed girl that loved to party. The opera is about big feelings, so were this girls life.

    The blog became one of Swedens biggest. Eventually, before the premiere, the fake blogger took her life and lots of fans showed up for her fake funeral. 

    Wonderful and creative! (I think the blogs name was: black ascott)

  • MaimsJeweler

    The last subheading there is the most important, I think. I know so many artists, talented and untalented, that view the concept of making money as antithetical to being artistic. La vie Boheme is not the way to run a business, or be successful in your life.

  • Ruika Lin

    "The world is full of advertising claiming that a product will change your life. Great art is the product that really can, if only it’s sold right." This is absolutely true - art is one of the few subjects in life that actually involves something real and something that inspires, motivates, builds trust, reshapes perspectives, etc. However, arts, particularly those in traditional forms such as classical music or fine arts, are generally *perceived* as luxury, exclusive, "high arts", which are not accessible (i suppose both physically and emotionally) to the general public. Because of the power of arts, I can only imagine the potential to leverage arts in a lot of different aspects in life and businesses. And as we enter a creative era, hope to really see more artists integrated in the world of public affairs and even businesses, and more collaborative activities among the arts community (especially traditional art forms) and the business community, and that's where marketing steps in. 
    Thanks for this article!

  • Miss Emily J. Hart

    Selling Art with Art:
    Really enjoyed your article. Good art needs good marketing, in fact one could argue the way art is marketed directly affects its overall value and message.  Your words were able to flip my mind's perception in a way that I found very useful, so I thank you for sharing.  Note to self: Time to watch Citizen Kane again. X

  • G_gottlich

    Brilliant! In a perfect world, I would broadcast an interview with Stephen Few and Brian Miller, contact Sequoia Capital, sprinkle in a few big data and analytics professionals with equal parts  digital visualization professionals, mix it with the most extreme R, Hadoop developers and architects, add just a pinch of Program/Product Manager extradordinaire and let is marinate for 8 months :-D

  • Inese Smidre

    Great article. Though I would argue that in Britain at least branding of cultural venues and organisations has taken a giant leap in the last 5-10 years. The likes of Tate Britain and V&A are now seen as hip destinations in their own right, which is a far cry from an old school stuffy image of museums. 

  • Brian

    I stumbled upon this blog post via Linkedin, which is odd, since I rarely pay attention to that timeline, but alas, I'm glad I did.

    I'm not in a marketing position, but still I've a fascination with the world of advertising. Your point about the new tag line was brilliant. I've written a few novels and as they continue to come out, I need to really THINK about how I'll entice people to buy.

    The key, it seems, is asking the right questions and then it will open up all sorts of ideas.

    So, it isn't just, "Who reads mysteries?", but "Why do they read mysteries?", "Who would like a tale set in the past?", and "How can my book fill a need?"

    Just writing down questions has got me thinking, so, I think I'll hit "post" and start jotting down ideas.

  • loususi

    I think the last portion of the article starts to hone in on the real key. Advertising, marketing, experience design, political campaigns — whatever the creative endeavor might be, if you focus on the story first you'll tend to be tons more effective and interesting. 

    By focusing on the story, you then need to consider who you are as a company or person telling the story ( or at least how you want to portray yourself, how you want to be perceived by the world ) and more importantly you need to define an audience. Who are you telling this story to? Who will be most apt to listen? And then, what other audiences might you consider as your second and third ripples out beyond the primary audience? Also, as you develop your story, how will the media interpret what you're trying to say? The media, both mass media and social media, become additional audience components that need to be considered as both of these personae will help you get the word out to other potential audiences — audiences that might not be approximated to your locale, audiences that might gain more interest through the kind of potential awareness the mediated storytelling networks pass on for you to the larger breadth of humanity.

    Story first. I highly recommend it.

  • Daniel

    arts advertising, it’s everywhere once you start to notice it… Of course, there
    are some truly outstanding campaigns for the arts… We wrote them [the Young Vic
    Theatre] a new strapline: It’s a big world in here. And their season almost
    sold out.”



  • Richbeckhiker

    why does it take me seconds to find something to buy; yet minutes to find something aesthetic that i might want to see, listen to, visit, etc. do i have to bookmark every museum, community billboard, fair and arts festival in creation to find out what's going on? i retired in june; it shouldn't be that hard for me to find something to do...maybe the difficulty of access gives the acitivity a kind of elevated status and exclusivity or maybe advertising is just not a budget priority for non-profits...

  • peter spear

    I feel caught in some infinite loop of self-congratulatory contradictions. Brian, I have enjoyed your pieces in the past, so maybe you can help. I am wondering if you could help me understand how it is that you can confidently encourage readers to "FORGET RESEARCH" (cap lock yours) while championing the need to "FIND OUT WHAT PEOPLE ARE BUYING" (caps lock yours), to and understand "what are the tensions in their lives?"

    It sounds to me like you have used the tools of qualitative listening and are aware of the power the insights they generate have on shaping strategies and communications, yet recommend against them in dramatic fashion (Michelangelo in a wind tunnel!).

    Do you really intend to recommend that creatives and brand teams not do any research with the audience and sit together in a room with images on the wall and "think about their potential audience?"

    For it appears that in your story of Old Vic, no one was able to think their way to the insight that defined the work that whose virtues you extol. Rather, it was in conversation with the audience you sought to inspire that you uncovered the insight into their experience that put you on the path towards effective creative. 


  • alix

    I don't think you need "research" to figure out that someone might be buying tixs to the ballet to impress a date. And then imagine some creative marketing/advertising campaign to remind potential audiences that the ballet makes for an ideal romantic evening. That kind of insight comes from being a close observer of human nature and having the empathy to appreciate how others feel differently from you.

  • Jonathan

    I love the "Forget Research" and "Find out what people are buying". I thought he was being ironic. 

    Seems the conclusion is simply that good advertising is good, and bad advertising is bad. Who knew? 

  • Esacconcia

    Great piece! As a former arts publicist/marketer (I'd go back to that in an instant) I so identify with the "don't assume everyone loves [the arts] as much as you do" premise. So often the artistic directors would be so enthusiastic about a piece -- visual or performance -- but they just could not convey why "normal" people would want to come and see it. Yes, there is a place for niche performances, etc. and not every theater has to show The Nutcracker or Cats, just to make money, but there should be a way to express why/how the regular folk could enjoy art and ways to make it more approachable.