Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Translating the brand (part one)

***These are just a few thoughts I’ve had, you may disagree with them but if you do then please share why at the bottom or tweet me***

I’ve recently started work on the early stages of a capital redevelopment and the re-branding opportunity that accompanies it for my theatre. We’ve a limited budget that needs to be spread thinly and so I’ve started examining this myself rather than get consultant in. I am aware, it should be noted, that my perspective is compromised, but I’ve done this before, albeit in a different way to the ideas below and I think it is still fully acceptable to do this in house (but importantly with support), also the ideas are still in development. I’m also a firm believer that with rebranding there’s no real wrong or right way to do it, you find out if it works in implementation (and even then I think it takes a while to come to fruition or disaster). Some methods may mitigate these risks but they’re still options not rules.

Capital redevelopment and re-branding  should go hand-in-hand, it’s an opportunity to create a good, well-managed, high-quality cohesive experience for both customers and artists. However it is not a simple process and, over the past few months we’ve stumbled upon some interesting, and I’m sure you will find familiar questions.

  • What is our brand?
  • Who defines our brand?
  • What do we want our brand to be?

These are, naturally problematic questions and are made harder because of a misunderstanding of what we mean by brand and the challenges in finding the values clearly that define it.

For many marketeers there’s a constant frustration about brand. We, of course, know that it is the holistic implementation of our organisational values that helps define who we are, how we react and what we look like. It should define everything from our programme and pricing, to bar stock and service to the visual aesthetic and organisational voice and tone and much much more. However much of the time if we’re lucky when those around us mark it as simply the “visual identity” and if we’re unlucky brand is simply defined as “the logo”.

Can you hear the conversation? Where you say“I don’t think that’s quite on brand” to be met by “but I put the logo on” or “it’s not marketing’s business” or simply dismissed as “commercial” (or sometimes the opposite!), which, as we all know in the arts is often theatre slang for “led by the devil”. People misunderstand the term, and we don’t help as it is, after all, jargon.

Organisational values are equally tricky to define and they in turn motivate brand (which we’ll come back to).  For most theatres work can be defined as programmed for artistic or financial reasons (or, more likely both but leaning heavily in one direction or another). The breadth of work will, by necessity, include shows that conflict in terms of the message they give and the values they have.

This can cause problems, for example a theatre may value “bravery” and have a commitment to presenting “brave new writing”, but also has to produce a pantomime each year, do 10 stand up shows, a monthly acoustic night and a night of amateur operatics to get bums on seats and keep the lights on.  This can make setting values based on a programme of work tricky. If “bravery” is a core value and you compromise on it regularly by playing it safe (for good reason), is it actually a key value?

Pragmatism overcomes the romanticism of what we want to define ourselves as.

Our values should inform brand and brand should also be holistic and incorporate every facet of the organisation ensuring that the audience experience and the way the organisation operates incorporates these values. Taking “bravery” as our example, how does that bravery translate into marketing strategy? Or bar sales?  Or how our policies are written?

Do we live our values?

So if we can’t make our values led by programme, then what are they led by? Do we base them on the audience we currently attract and aspire to attract and their values? Perhaps the niche we’re filling and our place in the theatrical ecology? Or maybe our brand is about what our funders want us to be? Who defines them? Artistic director? Staff ballot? You?

While I might understand it all and have a clear idea of some of these things it was becoming increasingly complex. We started to wonder if brand is the right word for us. Is it an accessible enough term? Does it get to the crux of what is important for the organisation, motivate behavior and activity but yet also be understandable to everyone to get universal buy in?

Is there a simpler way?

And that’s how we got on to the idea of the party…

To start we imagine your organisation, as it is now, is a person. Flesh and bone, walking and breathing, and tonight they’re hosting a party, there’s going to be lots of different people there, neighbors, friends, colleagues, funders, other organisations made-flesh. It’s going to be a busy party. Now ask yourself questions about them? Here’s a few:

  • How are they dressed?
  • Do they offer you a drink when you arrive?
  • Are they funny or serious?
  • Are they the life-and-soul or do they stand in the corner?
  • Would they talk intellectually about the value of art or show you photos on their phones?
  • Are they nice people to hang around with?
  • If you arrive late to the party do they berate and blame you or relax and calm you?
  • Would you be their friend?
  • If you offered them drugs would they take them, politely decline or report you to the police?
  • Are they truthful?

Remember this is your organisation now. An example might be:

“Concert Hall X is dressed really seriously for the party, they told me the party would be incredible, when I arrived they scowled at me and told me to be quiet because this is a serious party, I also had to take my shoes off. They kept nagging me about contributing towards the price of the caviar even though they’d been rude”


“Theatre Z was loud, loud, loud. Everything was at 100db and rising. They walked in, sold us some pills, told us they’d blow our minds but we had to trust them, then said we could sit in their lounge and they’d make sure we’d be okay. The pills didn’t work, so they gave me some more until I found just the right ones”

I’ll continue this blog over the next month or so!