THE WORD Without a new art brand the city is dead

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Businesses in arts and entertainment need tough, commercially driven brand strategies if they are to survive says Stephen Izatt, managing director of brand strategy at the creative agency Thinkfarm

“What is a city without social, cultural and creative synergies?” asked the governor of New York City, Andrew Cuomo, recently. Mr Cuomo was talking about the importance of bringing culture back to NYC, not only to help struggling artists and performers but to resuscitate the place itself.

The same sentiment surely applies the world over, because without arts and entertainment our cities and towns will struggle to survive.

There can be few sectors that have been as devastated by the pandemic, but perhaps what we’re seeing isn’t a freak event, merely an acceleration of the slow demise of an industry that has, in some cases, lost sight of the “business of entertainment”.

Stephen Izatt

Because if you’re in the “business of entertainment” you need to “mean business”. For too many years there’s been a survivalist mentality among some organisations, as they lurch from near-death experience to near-death experience, crossing their fingers for the next grant or generous patron. Covid-19 has revealed the enormous fragility of the sector and just how unsustainable such an approach is. Government grants have provided a much-needed lifeline, but they will dry up. Before that happens, businesses need to look within and ask themselves what needs to shift.

It’s not about “getting back to business” – the business model needs to change. When the doors open and the curtains are pulled back, the operators most likely to succeed will be those that have thought about their proposition, about new ways to engage a beleaguered and potentially fearful audience, and about what they need to do to withstand future knocks.

There are examples of organisations doing well in the face of adversity. Curzon’s Home Cinema offshoot, a pay-on-demand streaming service, has provided salvation. And the reason it has been so successful is because its underpinning brand strategy had strong flex and appeal. Lovers of independent world cinema have a solid relationship with Curzon, and they want to experience that at home as well as in its theatres. The same can’t be said of Cineworld and Odeon, despite the fact that they have home-streaming ventures too.

It’s not a catch-all panacea, but the pandemic has witnessed a digital acceleration across multiple sectors. It’s a sticky issue for some in the arts and entertainment world, though. Digital versions of shows are often regarded as stopgaps and second best; for when you can’t get to the “real thing”. To survive, this thinking needs to change. Done right, digital approaches offer something new and engaging. Dare we say it, sometimes they can provide a better experience. What would you prefer, a live screening of your favourite opera in a comfortable arts club close to home, or a trip to London and a seat in the gods at vast expense? It has the potential to make everything more accessible and inclusive – no bad thing when you’re trying to inject some life back into things.

Of course, quality content is crucial, but to get back in the game on a surer footing consumer experience has to be top of the agenda. When we worked with AEG to transform the Millennium Dome into The O2 we placed huge billboards around the site to give an idea of the kind of experience you might have - not of the acts, but of the crowds watching them. The consumer experience was what we were selling.

Commercial businesses need to find a mix that makes people want to pay money to use them, and that requires resourcefulness. Are you just an entertainment venture or do you have something else to offer? The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, North London, has long been an iconic music venue. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The former railway engine shed has a warren of inspection pits, tunnels and storage rooms below stage, now used as affordable spaces for upcoming talent (pictured). We rebranded the Roundhouse as “a space to create”, and visitors saw the Roundhouse as a place in which to be entertained and support young talent. To this day the messaging centres on how “creativity transforms lives”.    

And it’s not just about bums on seats. Any brand strategy in this sector needs to work hard to appeal to investors, sponsors, broadcasters, artists and support staff too. The brand strategy should act as an adhesive and bring everyone together. When we worked on the launch of Bauer’s Scala Radio we hit upon the messaging “classical music for modern life”. Not only did that reach out to listeners who might not have regarded themselves as aficionados of that genre, but it attracted presenters including Simon Mayo, Angellica Bell, Mark Kermode, Chris Rogers and William Orbit, who were more commonly known for working in pop music and movies. 

What’s certain is that this beleaguered industry needs new zeal and energy. It needs to be more accessible and inclusive – and more appropriate for today’s society. People have missed arts and entertainment from their lives and will want to know when and how to come back. With the right brand support structure, there’s no reason why it can’t be better than ever.

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