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