Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Arts Brand

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........................."


Over the past decade we've talked a lot about branding and our brands.  It's a somewhat confusing topic, and we are often unsure what we mean by the term.  Briefly, our brand is the public's awareness and perception of our organizations, and the goods and services they offer.  It is the sum total of their perceptions and experiences with our organizations and what they offer.  It is created by all of the various parts of our organizations.

Larger arts organizations and those that have been around for some time have a more established brand in the public's mindset.  Smaller and newer organizations have a more difficult time both creating and establishing their brand. But whereas it may be axiomatically more difficult for the larger, older organizations to change their brand image, it may be easier for up and coming organizations to grow their brand at a faster pace.

But beyond our organizations, the arts as a whole also have a brand, and this is what interests me.

Private sector industries all have brands.  Take the airline industry as an example.  For the most part, the airline industry brand is that air travel is a safe, convenient and cost effective way to travel. The major aircraft manufacturers - Boeing and Airbus - are seen as companies that produce reliable, safe airplanes.  Competition has produced relatively affordable ticket pricing.  Airline routes are extensive.  But the brand has suffered of late for a multitude of reasons - including increasing incidental pricing of services that use to be free - from baggage charges to onboard food purchases to extra charges for premium seating.  The brand has suffered from a public perception that air travel for the passengers has become unpleasant at best, and insufferable at worst.  Crowded airports and planes, security line hassles, long waits, delayed and late flights all make for an increasingly unpleasant experience.  Compounding the tarnishing of the brand has been the recent spate of individual airlines mistreating passengers.  The Friendly Skies of United are now perceived as anything but friendly.

And while the airline industry brand has thus diminished, because of the convenience, relatively reasonable pricing, and safety, people are likely to continue to fly, and the industry is likely to continue to profit.  But the brand itself may be in trouble, and over the long haul, that may cause problems for the industry.

What is the Arts Brand - not that of any individual arts organization - but the whole of the arts?

I think over the past couple of decades we have succeeded in increasing the brand's image as a sector that has an economic component valuable to both the local and national economy; as responsible for jobs and economic benefit.  We've moved the dial in the perception of the brand as valuable to placemaking, and as an important part of overall education.  We've expanded the brand somewhat to include a wider consideration of creativity and its importance.  And there has been much discussion of the wisdom of the brand emphasizing the ancillary values of art over the intrinsic values.  Both are part of our brand. While audience attendance may be down in many situations, online involvement is up and the choice of arts experiences has never been deeper.

But despite those developments, we still suffer from our brand being regarded as a  frill; something elitist and exclusive and, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as not a priority item when it comes to support - both financial and otherwise.  While we may legitimately think of the arts as essential to the very fabric of society, alas, that's not our brand image.

How do we change that part of our brand?

Unfortunately, we lack the economic resources, the organizational capacity as a sector, and even the will to mount any massive and successful campaigns to re-brand ourselves as a top tier priority and the producer of goods and services that are essential and not a luxury.  But that remains the challenge if we are ever to change the necessity of continual self-defense and having to fight for our very lives (as evidenced by the ongoing struggle to protect the NEA and state and local government funding attacks, which are decidedly political), and if we are ever to elevate ourselves in the public mind.

There have been some attempts in the past to tackle the problem (I'm thinking of efforts like AFTA's television ad campaign as part of the Ad Council's program as an example), but those were limited and not part of any larger, sustained campaign.

Somehow, we have got to figure out a way to move the brand in the public mind to being considered a value of such magnitude, and one without any reasonable disagreement, that the consensus is that the arts are as important as the ecology, as necessary as education, as valuable to the individual as health.  Unfortunately, the overall brand is more than just the sum of the individual brands of the thousands of organizations that comprise the field.  It is both a part of those individual brands and something distinct and separate from them.

One problem is that all of those organizations that have their own individual brand within our sphere, very few, if any at all, spend any concerted or coordinated effort at pushing for the overall sector brand change.  What is needed is consideration by every organization, that in addition to marketing itself as valuable, is the simultaneous marking of the value of the overall arts.  And not just in times of defending the arts against specific attacks such as the recent NEA issue.  And, of course, countless of our organizations unable to do much about their own brand.

How do we mount the kind of cooperation among ourselves that might move us in this direction,? Perhaps we can build on the current effort in our own defensive, to move to a long term, sustained effort of cooperation and collaboration among ourselves to work together to rebrand the Arts as a whole, with every organization including that marketing goal as part of their wider marketing efforts in an attempt to re-brand the arts.

Mind you that effort is not simply a catchy slogan or fancy logo. While the Art Works phrasing initiated during the Rocco Landesman NEA era is of value, it simply isn't, by itself, enough to have changed the public's brand perception.  Partly that is due to the fact that for the most part, the audience for the slogan and the meaning behind it, is largely us.  It is  principally directed inward. It preaches to the choir as it were.  We haven't had the money or other resources to mount an effective campaign to make the public aware of it.  And while it's inclusion in the marketing materials of thousands of arts organizations across the country is enormously valuable in trying to assert it as a sector brand, that's not enough by itself.  The problem is more complex and at a different level, and we haven't yet spent enough time trying to address that challenge.

It would be helpful if the challenge itself were taken up by a wide variety of our national service organizations and funders.  There have been occasional murmurs about trying to strategize about the challenge, but nothing ever seems to come of it.  That's a shame.

Re-branding on that level would be of invaluable help in making our advocacy efforts easier, and might well help overall marketing efforts of our thousands of organizations, including, ultimately increasing audiences.   When we talk about increasing public value of the arts, we are talking about a re-branding effort.

The alternative is to simply let the Arts brand mean what it has meant (not to me, not to you - but to far too many) - an elitist pursuit that while valuable, is a luxury society can often ill-afford when compared to higher priorities - despite its contributions to society on other levels, and despite its theoretically widespread public support.  (I say theoretically, because while public opinion sampling polls invariably show substantial public support, the perception of us as an elitist frill still dominates decision making on every level.)  People say we are important, but rarely translate that belief into actions.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit


  1. Excellent questions, Barry. It’s critical that the sector communicates in ways that create the echo-chamber we need to shift the landscape of public understanding.

    There’s research designed to answer these questions. Topos research for ArtsWave was designed to learn more about public thinking on the arts – with the long-term goal of building broad support and action for public funding of the arts.*

    Today, I am on my way to the ArtPlace Summit where I’ll be sharing the findings of that research and the implementation of it with the creative placemaking grantees–with an eye toward that long-term goal of changing the national conversation. We want the arts to be less vulnerable in public policy debates and we want the public to consider the arts a priority investment for public funding.

    Our research was designed specifically to uncover a strategic communications approach to building broad support for the arts as a public good. The research methodology utilizes framing science – and is intended to find more than what people think; it’s designed to find out how the public thinks about an issue. The survey methods used reveal an idea, something that the majority of people already believe – importantly, not something we have to persuade them to believe. (If you’re interested, the report also reveals traps and barriers in our current advocacy, and a number of tested ideas that did not work.)

    What did the research on communicating about the arts show us? People already believe that the arts – our music, dance, galleries, festivals, museums, theatre and more – create vibrant exciting places, neighborhoods that are unique, busy, and vital. These are places people want to be – places they want to live, work, visit, and invest. Highlighting images and stories about this impact can change the landscape of understanding and build shared responsibility for the arts.

    Our problem is that while people already believe this is the way the arts work, it’s not their default or natural way of thinking about the arts.

    Today, the dominant way that people think of the arts is as consumers: Art is a nonessential nicety and an individual option, something that arts lovers choose to do with their own money. (How many times have you read that opinion in the comments to an article about public funding of the arts?)

    When we fund and highlight what people love about the arts, it can become the way they more naturally think about the arts.

    If we share a collective narrative about the role of arts in creating places we love, the public will come to more automatically think of the arts as the investment that creates a ripple effect of benefits for the whole community, even people who aren't active "goers." Creative placemaking can become a dominant idea about the arts over time precisely because people already believe in it.

    When we are asking for broad support of public funding, we want people to view the arts through a citizen lens. This will happen over time if we consistently share a common narrative, painting the picture of arts ripple effects at every opportunity with credible messengers who have big megaphones.

    Importantly, we can’t just talk about the role of arts in creating vibrancy and community. We have to do it or we lose all credibility with the public.

    When we invest in creating community through the arts, it has the benefit of both: creating stronger communities as people interact and get to know each other better, and making places memorable and unique. Since these are the two benefits people treasure from the arts, we will naturally be creating stronger support for consideration of the arts as a public good.

    * I managed the research for ArtsWave and led the work of repositioning the organization’s brand and communications strategy based on the results. Now, I am a senior fellow with Topos Partnership, the national group that designed and implemented the Ripple Effects research.

    1. I agree with you Margy. The problem is how do we push the "narrative"? How do we get the whole of the field to share the "ripple effect" so that we can move the needle? Is this going to take a generation to accomplish? Is there anyway to move it faster?

    2. You are asking the right question! It helps when the national organizations model the way to talk about the arts for broad support—as ArtPlace is doing this week. People with megaphones (Mayors, local leaders) can help get the message into the media. In the end, media shapes public understanding. Echo chamber is critical.

  2. Quick thoughts:

    You differentiate between messages that are directed inward (preaching to the choir) and outward (often leading to the interpretation as an elitist identity). You either are speaking to insiders who get it or to outsiders who need to be told.

    The problem I see is that as long as we phrase the message as being *for* outsiders there will always be an 'us' and 'them' type distinction. Art will always be what other people do. And mo matter how well we link it to social values like benefits to the economy, the connection to the arts will always be tangential and conditional.

    Which suggests that we *need* to make the message an inward directed version that simply includes more people. Make the message something that highlights their inclusion, that they already belong. Phrase it in such a way that they get it. If you have to make the message either inward or outward, and outward has this built in limitation, what is needed is an inward directed message that simply starts from a wider position such as to embrace more of the people who can feel as though they belong.

    The thing most people take for granted is how embedded art is in our lives, and so we need to remind them that they *do* have a stake in art. Not for the economy, but for their own way of life.

    Imagine the world without art, and you have a comparison of how much we depend on art for our existence. Every parent has a kid who learns the world through creativity. Ever adult was once a child who drew pictures. Most people's homes are decorated with creative flourishes, and these are far from incidental. *Everyone* recognizes beauty and includes it in their lives. Everyone listens to music. What would a world be without music? If folks can even imagine that we have a case for the human necessity of creative acts and for the requirement of art for a human life.

    The best brand for the arts as a whole will be a reminder that art is not optional for human life. The confusion has been that the individual brands for individual art forms and institutions have the tendency to overreach. It is not the case that Opera is itself necessary, and it is only our attachment to it that offers up a claim along these lines. We need to think deeper. Spaghetti may be optional, but food is not. Imagine a world without any food. We cannot argue the case for food simply on the merits of spaghetti....

    1. I agree with you too Carter. But see my reply to Margy above. How to we implant the message in the public consciousness? I am less concerned with what the message ultimately is. I believe smart people in our field such as Margy and yourself can help create smart messages - but how do you get them into the public mindset? That's the issue.

    2. I think there is also a dichotomy here as well, between what one puts out positively as a message promoting the arts and what needs to be done to silence the negative/counterproductive messaging that stalls people's identification with the arts. In other words, it may be more important to *not* say certain things that would otherwise orient perception of the arts in a polarizing and marginalizing way.

      Human psychology is endlessly weird, but also strangely predictable. With entrenched world views there is something frightening about how pervasive and deeply situated our motivated reasoning, our confirmation bias, and also the backfire effect seemingly are. One of the hurdles we definitely need to transcend is the negative perception of the arts, based in part, as Margy points out, on the way we frame things. We simply need to stop feeding this negative framework. You don't often change minds with direct rational appeal, but rather need to open the cognitive space in which new ideas can flourish.

      Consider it something like weeding a garden patch before sowing seeds. The soil must first be prepared. And it is little wonder that the positive messaging is so fruitless when sown in hostile and barren environments.

      So yes, I too believe that folks like Margy will come up with great ideas for the branding the arts need, but in the meantime we can do the work of clearing the field and removing the stumps and boulders. For a crop to be planted and eventually harvested we need to have a soil that can support what we hope to grow.

      So the question for us laborers becomes, "What are we doing that marginalizes the arts? What do we need to stop doing so that the soil will have a chance to become receptive again? What messages and actions undercut the value of the arts in general, even if they are enacted in the name of specific arts and specific art causes?" Anything on this list needs to be looked at closely and weighed against the goal of the more arts appreciative society we hope to one day build.

      My two cents worth, at least.