Theater and Brand Stewardship


What do you think of when you think of the word brand?  Do you think, first and foremost, of a logo?  The swirled “G” of the Guthrie Theatre?  The lowercase red-and-white “tkts” next to the discount booths in New York, or the lowercase white “tcg” – inside an orange circle – associated with the Theatre Communications Group?  How about the big blue box with the white-lettered 2AMt inside it over there on the upper left of the screen right now?

If what you think of when you think of the word brand is a logo, you’re in good company – that’s what most people think of.  This is, however, a misperception – it comes from the notion of “branding” cattle.  But a brand isn’t a logo. A logo can represent a brand, but a brand is a different thing entirely.

So… what is a brand?  What do we mean when we use the word brand?  What are we referring to?

There are two definitions that I find particularly useful:

1)      A brand is the promise that an organization (or individual) makes to everyone it (or he or she) interacts with about its (or his or her) core essence.

2)      A brand is the way in which others perceive and experience your core essence.

The fact that there are different definitions of brand – there are far, far more than these two, though they all get at the same idea – speaks to the confusion that exists around the concept.  Understanding brand, however, is too important to the vitality and success of theaters and theater professionals, so we march on in search of greater clarity.

Brand as a Promise

When Walt Disney began drawing cartoons, he couldn’t have had any idea of the extent to which the Disney brand would flourish throughout the world.  (Stop for a second.  When you just read the words “Disney brand,” did you think of mouse ears?  That’s not the Disney brand – that’s an old Disney logo.)  All Walt was doing was pouring his heart and imagination into creating a family of fun characters… but that very essence has grown beyond Mickey Mouse to become the Disney brand.

Let me repeat some of that last sentence, this time with a new emphasis: “All Walt was doing was pouring his heart and imagination into creating a family of fun characters.”  Over time, those four italicized words have come to form the essence of Disney: heart, imagination, family, and fun.  Those words make up most of Disney’s brand attributes: the essence of what the Disney brand stands for.

Disney takes this essence very seriously.  It’s why they’ve been so tremendously successful at almost everything they do.  Whenever they think about making a decision – any decision, big or small – they ask themselves whether the decision would reflect their brand attributes.  When they design a new theme park ride, they do it in such a way as to minimize waiting in line, because waiting isn’t fun.  When they decided to offer domestic partner benefits to Disney employees (many years ahead of the rest of the country), it was because they believe in family.  And whenever they change their logo – from the old Mickey Mouse ears to the new script-font Disney – they ask themselves whether the new design reflects those attributes as well.

So, a brand is made up of attributes… and a brand is a promise to live up to those attributes in every single interaction between an organization and its constituents.  We call it a promise because failure to live up to those attributes, especially after they’ve been long established in constituents’ minds, is emotionally tantamount to the breaking of a promise.  A promise is a sacred thing – it must be kept, because once broken, it can be hard to restore.  As stewards of theatrical brands, we should all take this seriously.

For example: if a theater’s brand attributes are, say, preservation and intelligence and quality, it would make perfect sense for that theater to produce nothing but Shakespeare, and to do it well.  If the same theater tore down the façade of its well-architected 1920s Art Deco building and replaced it with cheap brick, however, or fired long-tenured employees with great institutional knowledge and replaced them with low-paid interns to save money, those would be broken promises, and they would undermine our ability to trust that brand ever again.

Note that this doesn’t mean you always have to do the same work.  The 3M company used to make scotch tape; then they invented Post-It notes; now they offer a range of products and services that would literally make your head spin – but all along they’ve continued to stand for innovation and security, and the attributes of the 3M brand haven’t changed.  A theater that produced nothing but imploded and reconfigured folk narratives and fables (whatever that means – I just made it up) could start producing mash-ups of classic musicals and anime (made that up, too) and still be manifesting the same brand attribute of reinvention.

Brand as Perception

The sad fact about brand – the thing that calls most type A control freaks, which (let’s face it) many of us are – is that it isn’t what we say it is… it’s what others say it is.

You work and you work and you work… but if your constituents don’t think you’re getting it right, you aren’t getting it right.  If your audiences see you as stodgy, you are stodgy… even if you think of yourself as forward-thinking.  And you probably are behaving in a stodgy way, too, or they wouldn’t be thinking that – because when it comes to brand, reality becomes perception… and perception is reality.  The qualities that people ascribe to you (positive and negative) are called legacy brand associations, and the only thing you can do to change them is to start behaving differently: to live up to the positive attributes you want to associate your brand with, over and over for a long time, and let the perceptions correct eventually themselves.

A brief case study… actually, more like a cautionary tale.  I think we all fear that our art form is increasingly perceived as irrelevant by the general populace.  Another way to say this is that the theater brand is suffering from a negative legacy brand association: irrelevant.  Among the many ways we might change our behavior to address this perception is to engage with our constituents on the communication channels they increasingly prefer – namely, social media.  As such, a great many theaters have begun marketing their work on Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter – what better way to seem relevant, no?

Unfortunately, most theaters have actually been making the problem worse – perhaps because they failed to see it as a brand problem in the first place.  The social media space is about conversation – about engaging in a two-way dialogue that asks questions, connects, gathers feedback.  By simply “inviting” people to performances, sharing news about upcoming productions, making season announcements, and tooting their own horns about positive reviews, by contrast, what many theaters are doing is tantamount to talking, but not listening.  They’re missing the point of the most far-reaching social innovation of our time.  How that for irrelevant?  (Thankfully, TCG is doing a pretty fine job, so far, of getting it pretty close to right – if you want to see what I’m talking about, just “like” American Theatre magazine on Facebook and you’ll see.)

Brand Is for Everybody

Everything I’ve said so far has been oriented toward institutions… but it’s equally applicable to individuals as well.  You, as a theater practitioner, have a brand.  You have brand attributes; you make a promise to the people you work with about your core essence.  If you’re a playwright, like me, the nature of your work speaks volumes about that essence… but so does the way you communicate about your work, and interact with your collaborators, and support your peers.  If you’re a lighting designer or director or actor, the same things hold true.

If you break your brand promise, you can generate negative legacy brand impressions you’ll have to work to overcome.  Does this sound like reputation?  In many ways, it’s the same… but it’s also not the same, either.  Reputation is about people liking you.  Brand promise is about people knowing you, whether they like you or not – believing that you always remain consistent to your core values, even if one of those value is, say, brashness or directness or crudeness.

Those of us who are independent theater professionals are independent business owners (of businesses with one employee each).  We are the stewards of our own brands.  In a moment of self-reflection, as you start to think about yourself in this way, ask yourself what your ideal brand attributes are.  Develop a list of four to seven adjectives you want people to associate with the essence of you.  Keep them in mind when you’re talking about your work… creating your work… updating your resume… building yourself a website… writing a blog post… rehearsing… having coffee with a playwright or an AD or a costume designer you might like to work with… and so on.  And then be true to them.


Unfortunately, brand is still a bit more complicated than I’ve made it seem here.  We could talk about a great many exercises you can use to determine your brand, and several analyses you can perform to make sure you’re making that brand manifest in everything you do… but I hope this serves as a useful introduction that will get folks thinking about brand and beginning to sharpen the brand-inspired decisions they make.

I leave you now with a video I found on Twitter recently – one that I think represents an organization making its brand manifest in a fun way.  (And one that illustrates how marketing is really all about changing brand perception… but that’s a post for another day.)

When you think of Volkswagen, what do you think of?  What brand attributes?  Let me propose a few: freedom, delight, zip, evolution, simplicity. Does that get close to it?  Those are words I’d ascribe not only to the Volkswagen Beetle, but also to the company’s long track record of advertising and the social relevance it earned in the 1960s and 70s.  In any event… how well do you think they apply to this?

As we start thinking about ways to promote ourselves as artists and as theaters, that’s the way we should be thinking.  Not “What designer should I get to do my new poster?” or “What should I include in this cover letter?” but “What can I do to act as a steward of my brand?” and “How can I express my brand promise to the world?”  Not that we all need to go into metro and subway stations and build sliding boards, mind you.  (For those of you who didn’t click the last link, that’s what the video depicted.)  We just need to focus on brand first and foremost – and keep our brand attributes in mind no matter what marketing strategies we employ.

  • July 6, 2010
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