Unexpected Bear Traps In Philadelphia

In what is shaping up to be a classic example of good intentions run amuck, the embattled Philadelphia Orchestra became the target of Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist, Karen Heller. In her 2/7/2010 article, she takes the organization to task over their new slogan and branded marketing campaign “Unexpect yourself.” Although unabashedly frank in her analysis, Heller’s observations are spot-on and exactly the sort of scrutiny this business needs at this point in time…

One of Heller’s initial observations strikes at the heart of the problem.

“To stay relevant, you must embrace new ideas and new things,” reads the copy about the 110-year-old orchestra at unexpectyourself.com. “You need a spark – a new place to visit. There is one place that will always remain timeless. . . . One of the most unexpected experiences in Philadelphia is located in Center City just steps from Broad Street and a world away from the ordinary – The Philadelphia Orchestra.”

There’s little mention of music.

The initial sentence, “To stay relevant, you must embrace new ideas and new things,” is indicative of the sort of schizophrenia taking place in the business. Yes, discussions designed to identify and communicate how orchestras are relevant to their respective community are necessary and useful. In fact, I spent several days at a Summit a few weeks ago where that topic was of paramount significance. However, these discussions can become problematic when they detract from what organizations have refined for decades; that is, give concerts.

The orchestra's "unexpect yourself" campaign is being promoted through Pandora music phone applications. Ads have been placed on other Web sites. Billboards and bus shelters are coming soon, all that bad English to sell superior sound, the dumbing down of music that elevates the soul. - Karen Heller , Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist

Heller continues to paint a picture of an institution in crisis and if that weren’t enough, her sentiments are reinforced by additional reporting from Dan Wakin in the 2/9/2010 edition of the New York Times. Fortunately, crisis is a story where most of the critical action takes place in the second act so Philadelphia has ample opportunity to work itself free from the bear traps in act one.

In times of institutional crisis, dissuasion is an oft overlooked tool. Good crisis managers are experts at dissuasion, or the art of making things not happen. In Philadelphia’s case, the task at hand is to prevent additional negative attention and begin writing their story of redemption and reaffirmation as a world class orchestral institution.

Enough with the identity crisis and mixed messages. If you’ve sincerely identified a fringe audience out there waiting to be tapped, you should know where they are and how to reach them. Stop trying to bring them in through association laden copy at static microsites and communicate with them as directly as possible. Use no uncertain terms to define who you are and connect what you do to their core principles.

Next Monday’s post will examine this in a bit more detail via some useful material from Alex Ross, however, if all you want to do is persuade procrastinators to buy a ticket, work with psychologists and behavioral economists in lieu of marketing firms. You’ll get far more bang for your buck.

Update 2/12/2010: More conversation on this throughout the culture blogging community here, here, and here.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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13 thoughts on “Unexpected Bear Traps In Philadelphia

  1. Drew,

    I have been reading and enjoying your blog since you visited the Arizona State conducting studio a few years ago.

    Best quote of the day!

    “Enough with the identity crisis and mixed messages. If you’ve sincerely identified a fringe audience out there waiting to be tapped, you should know where they are and how to reach them. Stop trying to bring them in through association laden copy at static microsites and communicate with them as directly as possible. Use no uncertain terms to define who you are and connect what you do to their core principles.”

    Well stated.

  2. Hello Jacob, I do remember that session, it was particularly enjoyable. Thank you for the kind words and after reading my own words in excerpted form, I think it is fair to point out that there’s nothing wrong with microsites; in fact, they are valuable tools for any organization. But like any tool, they don’t guarantee success.

    I hope all is well, if you have the time, send in another comment and check your blog URL as I think the one above contains a typo.

  3. I just wrote something on it as well. Seeing the minor firestorm of criticism around the blogosphere, I wonder if they’re going to take an active approach to responding to these posts.

    Now THAT would be unexpected. 😉

  4. Reading the Inquirer piece, I had the same reaction initial reaction as some of the commenters regarding the tag line that you are likely to sit next to someone who was at Woodstock– It emphasizes just how old the audience is. Pretty much what you would expect.

  5. What do you expect of a campaign created by a firm whose own press release on the project contains such gems as: “Annodyne’s creative strategy focused on communicating the extrasensory experience of attending the Orchestra with a unique positioning aimed at competing against the growing entertainment market that now includes options both in and outside of the home.”? Confused thinking and unclear communication in one neat bundle. And for this they got paid.

  6. Drew,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and tend to agree with you. However, this one I think has been over analyzed. I recently read the article and don’t quite understand why all the commotion.

    I’ve been an avid follower of the orchestra for 20 years. This campaign is obviously not targeting me. Whether the execution is of high enough quality for the orchestra, I can’t say. As an engineer, these sorts of things tend to be lost on me. However, if the intention is to draw new audiences without the knowledge of Tchaikovsky or Brahms, then I’m in favor.

    You can bash them for simplifying the complexities of the music, but at the end isn’t it about keeping the orchestra alive? When I sit in the audience, I tend to think it’s a dying breed. If this campaign is targeting non classical fans, then I’m all for it.

    Best,

    John

  7. Hi John,

    Thank you for the note and kind words, those are all good points. In fact, I think you answered what you were asking about. It’s difficult to determine the target audience and that is at the heart of the problem. Is it targeting non classical music fans? It’s tough to tell. If you haven’t done so already, check out the other articles I linked to at the bottom of this post earlier today. They all do a good job at addressing the issues you brought up in more detail and from different perspectives than I did.

  8. “To stay relevant, you must embrace new ideas and new things.” What a terrible and patronizing insinuation of individual irrelevance!

    While not wishing to attribute the problem of selling tickets (or, as it were not selling them) to misguided marketing, I am amazed that the Philadelphia Orchestra, for one, seems unwilling to embrace its own greatness. In contrast, the Sixers, the Eagles, etc. are great even in the years their records very clearly demonstrate otherwise and, as a result, support for the home team never (well, almost never) wavers. The Philadelphia Orchestra is actually great. They’ve been winning for years. Where’s the loyalty?

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