Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

Who am I? Being a brand

“Who am I?” 

I’ve had a few conversations with both new comedians and theatre companies recently about marketing themselves to increase bookings and profile.

For artistic types it can be the most terrifying part in the process of assembling a company – little time is spent educating people on the non-administrative side on company creation and even less on marketing and branding – so how do you pull together a cohesive identity for your work? Or even for yourself?

I wanted to write a little something as an entrée to branding yourself as a company or performer. This a bit different for a venue as it should be hugely more faceted, integrating into everything you do from the type of beer served to your attitudes towards pricing.

Firstly there’s an attitude to look at. When I speak to lots of artistic types a common theme is that branding ruins art or that it is unnecessary – a waste of time that distracts from ‘making great art’. When pressed about why the reason it is often linked to commercialism and the likelihood of making any money – there is an inherent distrust of anything which may, at some point be profitable, and also, it seems in my experience, an embarrassment about embracing it. Perhaps it’s born from the general disdain for the commercial side of the arts, or maybe a lack of knowledge. Either way, to reality and for theatre companies funding pools are getting shallower and comedians are vying hard to get spots – this stuff can be the difference between success and failure. Making great art is, in my opinion, close to pointless unless it has an audience.

‘An audience’ is of course a broad term, and partly what we’re aiming to do is find the right audience. Think about the great comedians who cultivate audiences, Kitson, Stewart Lee, Robin Ince, and the great theatre companies Punchdrunk,  Donmar Warehouse, Arcola – they all cultivate a specific sort of audience (deliberately or not it can be hard to tell in some places) that is likely to be more responsive to their work.

This is particularly useful for more niche artists – I’d argue that the more niche an artist the more successful and important branding can be – and arguably the more mainstream or broad your work the harder finding and conveying a strong brand identity is.

We should also throw away the word branding for the purposes of this – branding conjurers images of logos and fonts (in fact, most people associate it with just a logo) and that’s not what it’s all about, a better, more accessible word might be identity.

“But Sam, a few of those people you’ve just mentioned are totally against commercialism and branding and selling out – you must be talking bollocks” – yes I hear you cry. Let’s look at a few of those comics and theatre companies as examples in a moment.

So, the aim of your public identity is to reflect your values and personality (organisational or not) and to make them appeal to your target audience. Then to engage with this audience through multiple strands of media, but media that is appropriate to that audience. I would suggest that there are 6 steps that you should look at to start to develop this.

Please bare in mind this is just a suggestion, lots of other branding experts will tell you other ways of doing it and I’m sure this will stimulate interest, anger, disdain and possibly despair… Well, we can but hope.

So the 6 stages:

  1. Identify & learn about yourself and your audience and the audience you want to cultivate.
  2. Find the visual, thematic and linguistic traits that appeals to that audience.
  3. Find the channels they respond to and occupy those channels.
  4. Develop interconnectivity between your different channels.
  5. Ensure that you’re sending a cohesive message consistently.
  6. Collect good quality data and don’t fuck around with it.

Now to have a look at a few examples to illustrate what they do…

The three examples I’ll be using are Peter Kay, Michael McIntyre, the Donmar Warehouse and (a left-field choice) Daniel Kitson. I’ll also apply it to myself (that’s not to say I’ve branded myself but if I get good at stand up I might…).

1. Identify & learn about yourself and your audience and the audience you want to cultivate.

Peter Kay's Northern Shit Town website
Peter Kay’s Northern Shit Town website

Knowing yourself and your audience is important, no art is for everyone and no performer will be universally loved – take John Bishop, lovely bloke, great comedian, some love him and others don’t. It’s subjective. So it’s about deciding the most likely people to engage with you (but that’s not to say if you’re not a target audience member you’ll be fully leftout).

For loveable northern sterotyper (that’s harsh, some of his stuff is clever and brilliant) Peter Kay it’s a broad audience but it’s unashamedly working class Northern clientele – particularly people from 28 to 45, middle-class observer and skipper McIntyre fulfils the same duty for the South but with a greater emphasis on middle class values – popularist and slightly older (think about the themes he talks about), the Donmar Warehouse is highest-quality intellectual theatre at a premium price so is likely to be a richer more traditionally culturally active audience (perhaps older) and Daniel Kitson is the outsider who aims for artistic achievement over fame, the recognition of being the best is the measure of success rather than the finances.

For myself I perform longer narrative piece, often with an intellectual side and with lots of references to comedy and comic structure, but mostly with story arcs and usually participatory, the urban arts eclectic will like me, the stag party probably won’t as much. My audience are probably degree educated or have a deep knowledge of comedy.

2. Find the visual, thematic and linguistic traits that appeals to that audience.

McIntyre's skipping site
McIntyre’s skipping site

This is trickier – it always seems quite obvious when looking at specific examples but is harder to discover in practice. For me in theatre marketing it’s tough at a regional venue where there’s a mix of comedy, theatre and family work as it’s a broad mix of materials – as I said earlier the broader the sell, the harder to create cohesive brand identity (although Tesco’s creates brands within the overall brand..) when we switch to examining comedians and specific venues it becomes easy. I’ve started by looking websites which are easily accessible (and I can pop links to them).

Peter Kay’s site reflects his USP (Unique Selling Point) – it shows an image of, well, a shit Northern town – it’s loaded with catchphrases and colloquialism (“His official t’internet site”), the font is friendly, bold and fun, every link goes through to more pictures of inherently Northern stuff while also has the slightly pointless visual comedy elements – the page entitled ‘nowt’ is empty and the freebies section has a selection of shit wallpaper from the 70s & 80s – exactly the sort of wallpaper he’ll describe and the audience will remember. Linguistically it’s written as Peter Kay speaking to the audience, almost as if from the stage, there’s a push for the feel of the live experience.

McIntyre’s site also reflects him, the big bold, larger than life fun text, the animation of him skipping recalling his famous catchphrase, but inherently it’s more serious, it’s more grown up, more adult. It has an air of showbiz, that 90s, glitter and lights style – it’s more mature – interestingly his book is very prominent too – something not immediately visible on Peter Kay’s.

The Donmar goes for a more elitist arts-educated audience. Check out the classic colour scheme (red, black, white), very classy, distinguished. The image used is one akin to a gallery, a work of art, while the playwright’s name is treated with reverence – reflecting that the attending audience will book on the writer’s name. Linguistically, long sentences, no dumbing down, no colloquialism, text-led rather than images or, god-forbid, logos. It says money, expense, power, knowledge, elitism.

The Donmar's site, for smart rich people
The Donmar’s site, for smart rich people

Finally the wild card. Daniel Kitson’s website is, at first glance terrible. It has two pages, one for live shows and one for recordings. However the message it gives is perfect for the audience. The site isn’t well designed, has no egotistical biogs, but is written in the familiar and warming tone that characterise his shows. The lack of imagery enhances his reputation as a lone gun who doesn’t play by the rules, there’s no cohesive style, although when you look at the images he’s used they all share. Also no twitter, or facebook, just a mailing list to receive the personal e-mails from Daniel, known by reputation and cultivating audience rather than marketing jazz. But the lack of marketing jazz is the incentive for the type of audience member he’s looking for.

3. Find the channels they respond to and occupy those channels.

Peter Kay, McIntyre and Donmar all use Twitter and Facebook primarily, McIntyre adds youtube clips and a mailing list while Peter Kay has a faux membership section.

The first two, when touring, you’d be likely to see on billboards and in the tabloid dailies, also bus sides etc… They also use DVD sales to broaden their appeal and TV specials.

While The Donmar would be found in The Times, Independent and Guardian, perhaps Time Out, somewhat surprisingly they’ve not found their way into live broadcasting performances into art house cinemas. They all use a broad mix of channels (which is good because you can target a wide range of audience which increases your chances of selling a huge number of tickets) and at the same time are targeted.

Kitson's terrible yet genius website
Kitson’s terrible yet genius website

Kitson however, sells tickets so quickly because of that feeling of underground, niche, in-the-know. His work feels exclusive, that feeling cultivated through the infrequent yet personable e-mails, the select number of gigs, the reluctance to advertise or raise prices – all contribute to enhancing the power of the mailing list and the cult of performer. The lack of information on Youtube, well, anywhere really, merely pushes the intrigue of people – interestingly an article recently described him as the Salinger of comedy, referring to the anti-social cult writer JD Salinger. This comparison, would probably have been the best advertising for the audience he is aiming to get, educated, well-read, Guardian reading, artistically high brow, demanding and wanting to see the best work available – an audience titillated by his avoidance of the very tools that ensure the success of more broad based comedians. Also notice that he puts podcasts online of past shows – these are great because they are prefaced by introductions offering retrospective analysis of the shows and then the shows themselves (again the artistic element is key, reinforcing brand).

4 – 6. Develop interconnectivity between your different channels. Ensure that you’re sending a cohesive message consistently. Collect good quality data and don’t fuck around with it.

Points 1 – 3 all come together really (and also this blog post is getting very long) to form the basis of your profile (they’re examples really of what it is rather than a how-to guide… sorry).This of course may change in time and develop depending on the direction of your work etc…

The key after this is to follow 3 general rules to ensure a spread of information and to find and draw in your audience. #4 is about making sure that you regularly update every channel you’re engaged with – there’s nothing worse that someone showing an interest in something then getting nothing back (unless it’s deliberate – see Bridget Christie’s twitter feed), but also that you regularly try and propagate an audience to connect with you in multiple ways so that if they miss your e-mail, then they’ll get the facebook messsage or the tweet. #5 cohesive message is important too – if you are a lovely pleasant person who always writes lovely funny messages then your audience may be thrown by sudden bursts of anger, political statements, anything that doesn’t fit the values you’ve established in 1 – 3. That’s not to say don’t do it, it’s just it may have a consequence. Finally #6 is important because there’s nothing worse than getting irrelevant crap in your inbox. For example: I recently received an e-mail from a venue I love close to where I live telling me about the amazing show they have in London (ANTAGONISTIC), I’ve also had the classic “you may also be interested in” e-mail, fine if it’s actually relevant, but when it’s trying to sell me James Blunt’s new album when I ordered a laptop cover then it’s just going to turn me off to them and you.

This was meant to be a short blog post to be honest, if you have any questions then please leave a comment below or tweet me. It’s a beginners guide and some ideas rather than anything else – brand is much more than all these things, these are largely the window dressing – but are relevant I think for comedians in particular.

Let’s imagine this is the entree and if you leave a comment, tweet me, or like my facebook page and send me a message we can build up to the starter or possibly a main course.

T’ra for now.

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