The article “Branding in the Age of Social Media” by Douglas Holt published in the Harvard Business Review has nullified my degree in communications from Columbia. I have to go back to school again. Everything has changed.
Basically, with social media, culture has transcended geographical bounds. Cultures grow hyperbolically, instantaneously. And (purchasing) power arises seemingly from out of nowhere. Holt gives these “crowdcultures” two classifications: “subcultures, which incubate new ideologies and practices, and art worlds, which break new ground in entertainment.” Funny videos and celebrity sponsorships that are obviously trying to sell something don’t work anymore. Holt advocates “cultural branding” over “content branding.”
To summarize, this means you should determine a crowdculture that your brand has a natural affinity with. Holt used Chipotle’s alliance with the local food movement as an example. Then, embrace it. Chipotle, through small media buys followed by social dissemination, promoted two films about pre-industrial agriculture: “Back to the Start” and “The Scarecrow.” They went on to win awards at Cannes and garnered tens of millions of views. Brands can also target new ideologies flowing out of crowdcultures, as did Unilever (“body-positive”), Axe (“the lads”), and Old Spice (“hipsters”).
How does this translate for small arts organizations? For public events and programs, market to affinity groups as well as theatregoers. In the NJPAC Stage Exchange new-play commissioning program (StageX), we featured readings at NJPAC of three new plays on relevant social issues. We brought in one community partner for each commission: local non-profits who reaped the benefits of the ticket proceeds. These were non-profits that aid and advocate for the mentally ill, aboriginal Americans, and high-achieving young Newark students in lower socio-economic brackets.
Those beneficiaries brought their constituents to the readings and subsequent talk-backs, and we were able to introduce or re-introduce people to theatre. 16.4% of exit-survey respondents stated that they had not attended a theatre event in the past 12 months, and 20.5% of respondents said they had attended only one or two theatre events in the past 12 months. And 96% of these people said that attending the StageX events made them want to see more theatre.
This is how the arts can take hold of trends and movements in bigger brands, and find hidden audiences.
Photo of the safety chain at The Presidio in San Francisco by Guillaume Paumier