Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Portrait of a shark by a fictional marketeer.

Beginning: What’s the point in a house style?

I saw a tweet from a clearly pissed off creative the other week lamenting the arts marketing team of a theatre forcing their brand’s house style on their show image. I’m going to be really up front and say that in my professional career while I’ve been able to broadly try to establish brand identities, I’ve never managed to get that to go all the way and include show imagery* or a full-on house style.

It’s inherently difficult it seems – co-productions, a myriad of creatives who have to be consulted, the views of the artistic leadership – all are opinions that know more about the show that’s being created. It puts the marketeer – ironically the one primarily responsible for selling the show in a weak position – most of the time your role becomes to guide artwork creation away from being something you really don’t want into a broad, wide area known as “not offensive”.

I’ll be honest, I’ve not always succeeded.

But I get where the creative was coming from – I make shows (although thankfully I never have to collaborate being the artistic failure that I am) and I’m sure I’d be pissed off too if someone who hadn’t spent 300+ hours making a shows started telling me what it should look like and that, to add insult to injury, they’d like it to be part of a set too (with lesser works).

But I also get, I think, the reasons why it’s a handy idea in many cases.

So, rather than write a dull-as-dishwater blog post with lots of SEO enhancing subheadings (like my website’s SEO optimiser wants me to), or indeed in a format that could be usefully shared with your boss, here’s a conversation between two fictional people: Artist and Marketeer, to discuss the matter over lunch. Ostensibly they’re both me, in case you’re wondering.

As always tweet me if you like this. And if you think it’s shit then that’s fine too**.

Best, Sam.

*apart from Christmas shows where it’s really easy and, if the show is good, works a treat
**there’s loads of very good consultants for this stuff who are far more articulate than I.

The Scene
A restaurant in a trendy bit of town – it’s probably an old warehouse or something like that – definitely vaulted ceilings and lots of staff who call you “guys”. The menu is printed daily and is short (as all good menus should be), and, crucially, doesn’t have pictures and isn’t laminated. Artist and Marketeer have just finished eating, their plates are scraped clean. There isn’t an ounce of smashed or unsmashed avocado to be seen.

Artist – So I’d like the image of my show to be a shark.

Marketeer – A shark, okay… An actual shark?

Artist – Great White.

Marketeer – Not a basking shark.

Artist – Don’t be ridiculous.

Marketeer – Or a hammerhead.

Artist(ignoring them) A great white shark is stood outside in a coffee shop holding a muffin.

Marketeer – What flavour?

Artist – Chocolate chip.

Marketeer – Nice.

Artist – It’s in the script.

Marketeer – I remember that bit from the read through.

Artist – So what I’d like is a black and white image of the shark and then the muffin in red.

Marketeer – Like blood.

Artist – Exactly.

Marketeer – And then the title above it…

Artist – In big bold, block capitals, handwritten.

Marketeer – Handwritten?

Artist – Yes.

Marketeer – And is the title still “The Shark Stood Outside The Café With The Blood Red Muffin”?

Artist – Yes it is.

Marketeer – And you’re sure?

Artist – It says everything it needs to.

Marketeer – Right.

Artist – It’s basically the entire plot of the show.

Marketeer – Like “Waiting For Godot”?

Artist – Exactly. So that’s done then, this has been, well, fine.

Artist stands up to leave.

Marketeer – Oh, wait a second, before you go, I wondered whether we could talk about our theatre’s house style a bit.

Artist – What?

Marketeer – House style, we’ve a house style for all our show imagery.

Artist – Well… Sure. I am incredibly reasonable.

Marketeer – That’s great. I am never defensive or unduly pushy.

Artist – Who was that for?

Marketeer – The readership, I find breaking the 4th wall increases retention and the average read time in google analytics.

Artist – Classic writing technique.

Marketeer – So the house style.

Artist – Yeah, I don’t really get it, can you explain it a little?

Marketeer – Yeah of course. So, the first thing to know is a little bit about our audiences. As you know we’re a producing theatre in a region.

Artist – Which region?

Marketeer – Any of them so that this is as relevant as possible to everyone.

Artist – Solid.

Marketeer – So we produce shows ever year and there is a core audience who see everything and really love our work. Then there’s the regular people who don’t see everything but do come regularly and who associate the making of quality shows with us, because our shows, like you, are amazing. Then finally there’s people who we’ve never met.

Artist – Never met?

Marketeer – Yep. Curiously they’ll have the most to say about us on local forums, particularly in relation to car parking, public toilets and how the arts should fund themselves.

Artist – Best save that for another blog post.

Marketeer – You mean day?

Artist – Yes day.

Marketeer – So most of the tickets for your show will be bought by our core audience. The next biggest chunk will be the regular visitors and then, the last chunk, will be a first-time visitors group, the people we’ve never met until your show.

Artist – Maybe shark enthusiasts?

Marketeer – Or muffin aficionados. Now your image, which sounds really great by the way, has to sell the show to all three of those groups. But remember that our primary target is our core audience, who love us and see everything…

Artist – I’d imagine that’s what they say in their post-show surveys

Marketeer – Exactly, and also incredibly perceptive. So anyway it makes sense to try and subliminally connect the imagery of your show with us a little bit more, it’ll help them feel safer that it’ll be a great show and they should book, even if they don’t love sharks or muffins.

Artist – But don’t they see everything?

Marketeer – Well, they say they do, I think they really think they do, but, generally, they don’t. Now of course we want them to come and see our work, rather than the other shows…

Artist – Filler?

Marketeer – Work of equal value but visiting shows. We want them to invest in the shows that we’ve spent weeks, months, sometimes years rehearsing, making, commissioning and discussing. After all these shows gives us the strongest return and mean that we can be more sustainable. We want them to buy all the shows in our season.

Artist – Like in a subscription package?

Marketeer – Exactly, it tries to build a core audience coming to see our excellent work. So we want our show, and indeed all the shows that we make in that subscription to feel connected to each other, but also to us, almost subliminally telling people “these are the best shows” and have that stamp of “best quality” approval.

Artist – So you’re saying it’s a team sport?

Marketeer – Yep, all the shows work together to reach the same goal.

Artist – Fame for me.

Marketeer – More people seeing more shows.

Artist – Fame for me.

Marketeer – Audiences.

Artist – Fame.

Marketeer – So we’ll want to adjust your image slightly so that it feels a bit more connected with us. As you know we try to use neon colours for our artwork. So rather than make the muffin red, we’ll make it a neon red muffin. And the text probably won’t be handwritten, it’ll use the house font we have (SamNewRoman.ttf) but used in a way that still feels genuine and connected to the image.

Artist – But still a shark.

Marketeer – Still a shark.

Artist – But wait, what about the people who like sharks and muffins but who don’t know that your shows are great, surely they won’t get the subliminal messages you’ve made.

Marketeer – Good point. So one thing we could look at is artwork variation according to audience – so the season brochure for example.

Artist – The Bible.

Marketeer – Yes, the book of dreams that takes 20 weeks to assemble yet always has an inexplicable error in it. So the season brochure is expensive to make – it sells loads of tickets but, y’know, gold leaf is pricey. But it goes to people who have already got a connection to us – so we’re going to use the neon and house font artwork inside that. But for new people, on digital ads for example, we might use artwork, that’s a little less neon… Or if it’s in a shark context, a little more shark…

Artist – So it’s slightly different images for different purposes but…

Artist whips out 10 past season brochures

Artist – You’ve only done this for the last 3 months, why should my show be a guinea pig. Why don’t you just do it on the next show, ideally one I’m in no way connected to?

Marketeer – Well, it takes times to build up that connection with a brand and identity. These things don’t happen overnight.

Artist – Like creating artistically ambitious yet commercially disastrous storytelling shows.

Marketeer – What?

Artist – Takes ages to make.

Marketeer – Sure yes. Well, take your shows – they’re lovely, people like them, but if you do one lovely storytelling show and then the next thing you do is something abhorrently different…

Artist – Like musical comedy.

Marketeer – Exactly, if you chop and change then people don’t know what to expect, they don’t make those associations between you and lovely storytelling shows, instead they think…

Artist – Rhyming songs about knobs.

Marketeer – You get it. So we have to build up over time. It’s not about having the identical poster for each show, but it’s about finding those beautiful design moments that connect the theatre with the show, and then each show with an aggregated body of work that is quality. Ideally without it feeling too exclusive and still working for the unique audiences of each show… But quality and a warmth towards what we do underpins it.

Artist – And people always buy quality.

Marketeer – Well no. People are fickle. But broadly, yeah, that’s the aim. When our audiences see the artwork we want them to feel connected, to feel they know the values and for one of those values to be “this is good and I need to buy tickets”.

Artist – But why don’t you start it with the next show.

Marketeer – You’re under commission for 2031, it’ll help sell that show.

Artist – I’m all in, but isn’t there an easier way, a badge maybe?

Marketeer – Ah yes, like a logo that is always splashed on our shows?

Artist – Precisely – maybe designed to look like a stamp of approval.

Marketeer – Well yes, we could, and probably will do that. But remember it’s about maximising what we’re doing, making sure the sailing race boat that is selling tickets is cutting through the water in the most effective way, with nothing slowing it down, no barnacles on the hull…

ArtistWest Wing reference?

Marketeer – No-one will get it.

Artist – Probably.

Marketeer – A logo is text led, it’s something you have to focus on, it’s not subliminal it’s…

Artist – liminal?

Marketeer – It’s obvious, and cynical, and can also get lost, or pull focus, or both. But, granted, it’s easy.

Artist – But you won’t change the marketing copy for the show will you? I spent 3 weeks crafting it and…

Marketeer – And… Yeah. We’ll change it. We want to sell the show in different ways to different audiences.

Artist – Have you an amazing example?

Marketeer – You’re aware of the “I love sharks” facebook group.

Artist – Of course.

Marketeer – Well for that group we’ll tailor the message to focus on sharks a bit more and muffins a bit less. And then on the “Muffins 4Eva” facebook group…

Artist – You’ll focus on muffins. Sneaky.

Marketeer – So there’s a few examples of this… So the National Theatre for a long time had some poster designs that all felt connected, the same with the RSC and, one of my favourites, Seattle Rep.

Artist – Well, that was incredibly informative. What a great job marketing people do. I shall send a tweet saying that some time.

Marketeer – No need, we work in the shadows, but glad we could chat about it.

Artist – One last thing. It feels like you’ve simplified this an awful lot.

Marketeer – Yes I have, but I’ve already written 1,895 words and frankly we’ve all got work to do.

And finally… I’m touring a new show in July to: Pwllheli // Preston // York // Huddersfield // Prescot (Merseyside) // Sheffield // Cardiff. It’s called “Every Time I Close My Eyes, All I See Is You” and you might like it… It’s max £5 to see it and it’s okay – join my mailing list and I’ll send deets once it’s onsale everywhere…