What business are you in?
It's a deceptively simple question. And it isn't a rhetorical one, either. At last June's Dance/USA Roundtable in Miami, opening keynote speaker Alberto Ibargüen, editor of The Miami Herald, urged every attendee to consider the question seriously. Are you primarily an entertainer, he prompted, or an employer? "What," he asked, "do you stand for?"
And, furthermore, how do you communicate that core essence to the rest of the world? Defining your identity is at the heart of branding, the much-ballyhooed trend in marketing that has penetrated into the performing arts. Neill Archer Roan of the Roan Group spent three hours with a wall-to-wall crowd at the Miami Roundtable delivering "Strategies to Combat Low Awareness and Misconceptions about Dance," a primer on branding principles and practices.
As Roan pointed out, there has been no substantial change in dance marketing in the last 20 years. He proved his point convincingly—and humorously—by quoting from a variety of dance marketing copy, most of it indistinguishable from the next.
Now branding offers a coherent methodology for creating or refreshing your identity and to differentiate your work from the rest of the crowd. And if you don't have the surplus dollars to hire a consultant, you can effectively undertake your own branding process using the basic tools of clarity, context, and conversation.
What Is Branding?
Down here in Texas, the word "branding" quickly calls up the image of a ranch logo (we've got "Circle C," we've got "Double R"—you get the idea) iron-burned into the rumps of a herd. The brand is a permanent visual mark that identifies one cow from the next, because there are a lot of cows out there, and, let's admit it, a lot of those cows look pretty much alike.
As products in the marketplace have proliferated like cows on the back forty, corporations felt the same need to "brand" their goods and services—to make them instantly identifiable and, what's more, desirable. "Today most products and services are bought, not sold," write Al Ries and Laura Ries in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. "And branding greatly facilitates this process. Branding 'pre-sells' the product or service to the user. Branding is simply a more efficient way to sell things."
These days, the number of dance-making entities in this country—small and large, incorporated and non-incorporated—is by conservative estimate greater than 2,000. So similar distinctions need to be drawn for the consumer between your dance experience and all the others.
Your brand is the promise you make about your work—a guarantee of quality. As with any promise, it implies a relationship, this one between you and all your potential audiences. It tells them what to expect from your performances. A brand tells them how you are relevant to their lives, and how you are different from other dance companies. In short, a brand suggests to the world how to perceive your work before they've even experienced it for themselves and—even more—prompts them to want to experience it for themselves.
If it is consistent, relevant, and distinctive, a strong brand will accomplish three things:
* Audience preference
* Premium price
By branding your dance company, you choreograph its public reception: sharing its values, earning public confidence, and building participation.
Why is it important to be intentional about defining your brand identity? Because, by implication, it also defines your audience, and your patrons, and all your other relationships. Those relationships define your success.
At bottom, defining your brand means being clear about who you are, where you want to go, how you're going to get there, and with whom. It means beings direct about attracting those people who will value your work. You have the power to define yourself to the world. Why let others do it for you? By branding, you create your own self-fulfilling prophecy.
The term "branding" has become a media buzzword. In the process, it has morphed into a fuzzy concept, referring to everything from identity to logos to advertising campaigns. I like the distinction drawn by branding experts Alycia Perry and David Wisnom III in their excellent book, Before the Brand. They separate out brand identity from brand image. Brand identity refers to who you are, and brand image refers to how you project that identity out into the world (the packaging: name, logo, color, typography, tagline, etc.). In this article, I'll describe the tools you need to define or refine your brand identity.
The Positioning Statement
The goal of the brand identity process is to write a positioning statement, which explicitly situates your work vis-à-vis your audiences and other offerings in the marketplace. The final statement may be brief (one or two sentences), but it results from substantial research and reflection.
In order to write the positioning statement, you need to understand four things about your work: 1) what you do, 2) who your target audience is, 3) who your competition is, and 4) how audiences benefit from your work.
What you do. First, revisit what it is exactly that you offer to the world. What is your core essence? It's not just "dance." There are plenty of other companies and venues—from clubs to MTV—that deliver dance. So you need to ask: what kind of dance? What kind of experience will your audiences have? Specify the defining features of your work. Think about what you believe in, and what you stand for. Consider the visionary qualities of your enterprise.
As Roan pointed out at the Roundtable, McDonald's is not selling food. It's selling "a break today." You may be charging for tickets to a dance concert, but what value are you really offering the ticket-buyer? An opportunity for friends to spend a fun evening out together? Something educational? A sublime experience? A celebration of cultural heritage? Social commentary? Social prestige? A space of dialogue? A community-building event?
Given all the things that someone could be doing at the same time—other dance concerts, other arts activities, sports events, movies, adult education classes, a spa weekend, the mall, dining out, a backyard barbecue, a DVD at home—what unique value does your performance offer? What differentiates the experience you offer from all the others?
Try this: think of your brand as a personality. Brainstorm a list of adjectives that describe that personality. The adjectives can be descriptive, metaphorical, or evocative. Make sure to avoid the clichés, like "innovative," "spellbinding," and "high-energy." After generating as many words as possible, whittle down the list to 10, and then to one or two words. That word captures the core essence of your brand—what it stands for, what you're really offering. This is your unique value, and your main strength in the marketplace. There may be many dance companies in your community, and dozens of other ways to spend a Friday evening, but you're the only one who delivers this core essence.
Target audience. But the positioning statement isn't just about you. Your mission statement—that one is all about you. A positioning statement focuses more on your audiences. If you expect them to spend time and money to attend your performances, then you've got to be able to articulate why they would want to—from their points of view. In other words, how is your work relevant to their lives? So your second step is to ask yourself: who are your intended audiences? Which are core, which occasional, and which peripheral? Why are you aiming to sell each of them on your work? And how will you go about doing so?
Competition. Third, take a long, cold look at all your competition. Who directly competes with you for your customers' time and money? And, as important, who are your in direct competitors? As much as we want it to be so, the majority of potential audiences do not set out to "see dance." (They should, and building the category as a whole needs to be high on our agenda, but right now we're focusing on how to differentiate your particular dance company.) Dance is but one of dozens of leisure activity options on a weekend evening. Compile a profile of each competitors' offerings: what are they offering, and to whom? How are their offerings similar to yours, and how are they unique? Only by understanding your competition can you recognize and capitalize on the unique value of your own work. And then you can position your company where it is most effectively appealing to your potential audiences.
Benefits. Finally, make a list of the benefits of your work to your audiences—from their perspectives. And be careful not to confuse features with benefits. Features are the defining elements of your work—world-class dancers, for example, or postmodern choreography. Benefits are the tangible or intangible ways that audiences gain from experiencing those features.
In other words, how will audiences benefit from attending your dance concert? Will they be uplifted? Will they learn about a certain culture? Will they enjoy an evening of wholesome entertainment with their children? Will they be able to forget their workaday troubles? Will they be thrilled by feats of physical prowess? Will they feed their soul?
Try making a two-column list: features on the left, and the corresponding benefits on the right. And then prioritize the list with your audiences in mind.
The Three C's
As you undertake this brand identity inventory, remember the three C's. Clarity is what you are aiming for: it's the quality of your thinking, of your identity, and of your communications. Context reminds us that we can only define ourselves within a larger frame, whether that is our competitors, our partners, or our audiences. Conversation may be a lost art, but it remains essential to obtaining the information you need from your stakeholders.
Clarity. Most people think of clarity as an outcome. I think of it as a practice.
Clarity is a habit of mind that consists of two reflexive processes. First, vigorously question your assumptions. "Why" is as important a question for adults as for kids. Second, strive to connect the dots. How do the parts comprise the whole?
Clarity is also a strategy: to make yourself known, understood, and validated. At the same time, clarity is a generous posture that leans forward to include others in your ideas and vision.
There is great power in clarity, too. If you know who you are, what you want, and why you want it, you bring focus to your action. Clarity leads to commitment.
Try the "five why's" exercise. When you find yourself making a statement, ask "why." Then ask "why" again, four more times. This helps you drill down to your deepest assumptions and most closely-held values. They are usually the ones that can reach across the divide between you and your audiences.
Context. Context is everything. Choreographers know this to be true. A single gesture can take on many meanings, depending upon where and when it is placed in a dance, how it is supported (or not) by the mise-en-scene, and who performs it. Similarly, terms as broad or narrow as "dance," "ballet," or "classical ballet" don't mean the same thing in every community. For some, dance exists in the art world. For others, it's aligned with sports or exercise. Yet others see it as a social event. Or a part of the fashion world. What are the ideas, practices, and values that drive the social life around you? How do you fit in? Or not? These are ongoing questions to be posed, crucial to keep asking, because the world is moving fast. If we want to move along with it, we need to continually ask ourselves how we are—or can be—connected with the bigger picture. How does the meaning of your work shift as time goes by, and as you develop new audiences?
Conversation. To practice clarity or understand context, you need information about all your stakeholders. But before rushing to design surveys and questionnaires, take your lead from former New York City mayor Ed Koch. He was famous for asking everyone he encountered, "How am I doing?" That's a great way to begin a conversation.
Consider the kinds of conversations we engage in. Conversations for relationship are about introductions. Conversations for friendship are about trust. Conversations for partnership are about need. Conversations for leadership are about service.
Yours will probably fall into the third category. You are developing partnerships with various audiences (whether they be patrons, board members, or subscribers), and you are investigating what they need and want from your dance.
The better you know your intended audiences, the better you'll be able to speak to them in their own languages and the more effectively you can communicate your message.
What is important to them? What do they think about? Care about? What holds meaning for them? What do they thinkâ€“and feel—about your work? What are their favorite leisure activities? Why? What does your image currently represent to them?
Most importantly: after you ask the questions, be sure to listen actively.
Finalizing the Statement
At its most fundamental, a positioning statement tells the world: who you are, what you are/do, the benefits provided, and to whom.
Example: The Ann Daly Dance Company is a site-specific dance theatre that collaborates with rural towns to inspire community renewal. Combining storytelling and mime, ADDC provides its partners with a creative experience in which to reexamine the past and reinvent the future.
Example: The Ann Daly Dance Company is a freewheeling ballet ensemble that fuses ballet with cutting edge dance forms for young, urban audiences. By commissioning new works by emerging choreographers outside of ballet, ADDC delivers to the MTV generation a fresh experience in the live theatre.
As you compose your statement, consider how accurate it is. How complete, how engaging. Is it aimed directly at your audiences? Does it read as distinctive, or sound familiar? Consult your short list of adjectives to add punch and specificity to the statement.
Example: The Ann Daly Dance Company presents explosive, athletic movement that stretches the boundaries of dance.
Too vague. What kind of dance is this? It could be anything from ballet to breakdancing. The choreographer may care about stretching the boundaries of dance, but most spectators don't.
Example: The Ann Daly Dance Company is an award-winning, 12-member troupe that tours nationally.
Long on facts that you may need in a grant application, but short on meaning for audiences. And where's the personality?
Example: The Ann Daly Dance Company is dedicated to the creation of human harmony through the arts.
Lots of heart, too little head. How does the company create harmony? For which humans? Through which arts?
Example: The Ann Daly Dance Company presents ballet-lovers with the beauty of poetry-in-motion.
An actionable cliché. But at least the audience is targeted.
Make your positioning statement concise enough to explain in a short elevator ride if you were lucky enough to step into an elevator car with the patron of your dreams. This "elevator pitch" should be comprehensible to anyone who's never seen your company. So delete from the positioning statement any dance-world jargon or studio shorthand.
Once you have written a branding identity, you can proceed to designing an image and campaign that will telegraph your uniqueness to your target audiences. Name, logo, color, typography—all those elements, and more, can project your core essence to the people who most matter to you. A strong brand image, if delivered consistently, will give your message high visibility and staying power. All that's left, then, is to deliver on the promise.
Based in Austin, Texas, Ann Daly Arts Consulting LLC provides strategic advising to individuals and organizations that make, fund, or serve the arts. Together we share a commitment to shaping a meaningful future for the cultural sector.A longtime thought leader in arts and culture, Dr. Daly is a frequent author and speakerbooks on the performing and visual arts and has served as cultural commentator for the New York Times, Village Voice, Chronicle of Higher Education, and NPR's “Marketplace.” She has contributed articles to Dance/USA Journal, Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Inside Arts (Association of Performing Arts Presenters), and International Arts Manager. nationally and internationally.
Article used by Permission of the Author
© 2002-2006 Ann Daly
previously published in the Dance/USA Journal
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