Businesses Look to Arts for New Marketing Strategies / by R. Sheth

November 25, 2005
BY MARK PAUL

Once upon a time, corporate sponsorship of the arts meant the CEO (or his wife) wrote a big check to a mainline cultural organization like the symphony or the opera. If the check was big enough, he took a seat on the board, mainly for the social prestige but also to make sure no one ran off to Monte Carlo with that big check.

That was also a time when corporate marketing revolved around the mass media: there were three commercial TV networks, plus PBS, and nearly all car radios were tuned to a handful of Top 40 stations, or one "fine arts" station that might exist in the largest metropolitan areas.

This is not our world. The mass media have dissolved before our eyes, splitting TV into innumerable cable outlets. Radio can be accessed through satellite and the Internet. Content once delivered only in print now comes in blogs and podcasts. What was once a unified mass market is now an aggregation of niches. Corporate marketers, at least the savvy ones, who once thought in terms of audiences measured in millions now are interested in audiences measured in the thousands.

They want to sponsor arts programs, a few still acting from a sense of noblesse oblige, but far more because it fits their marketing program.

E. & J. Gallo Winery once spent millions every year on TV advertising, but has left the medium entirely in favor of promotions, many built around the arts.

Reebok will sponsor a traveling exhibition devoted to Jean-Michel Basquiat (a Brooklyn-born painter and Warhol protégé whose work drew inspiration from graffiti and other street forms and who was only 28 when he died in 1988) because it discovered that an important segment of its youth target audience has begun to regard sports as too professionalized and inaccessible, while the arts are more participatory and approachable.

"Only 30 percent of the population doesn't attend cultural events, yet we've somehow convinced ourselves they represent the mass market," notes Patricia Martin, who brokers sponsorships and marketing alliances between corporations and arts organizations through her off-Michigan Ave. firm, LitLamp.

"Something's happening when David Sedaris can sell out a 5,000-seat theatre in less than 24 hours and he's doing nothing more than reading from his book," she says. "Absolut's marketing embraced the arts and it has had a significant impact in vodka taking lots of market share from beer among men 30 and older-as much as 50 percent by some measurements."

Martin is in the process of assembling a meta-study of leisure activities that will demonstrate that, led by a youth culture built around on-line art, graffiti, poetry slams and other small-scaled performance genres, we are entering a second Renaissance of intense arts activity. The first time around, the nobility had the money and provided the funding. Now corporations have the deep pockets.

The smart marketers who understand the value of cultural sponsorships are willing, even eager, to partner with arts organizations that can reach their markets and help further their objectives. But arts organizations must understand that these are partnerships.

"I've been on arts panels with corporate marketers where the only questions from the arts people in the audience were about how big a check the arts organizations should ask for," says Martin. "Corporate sponsorships shouldn't be confused with MacArthur grants. An arts organization that doesn't know its own demographics and doesn't understand the marketer's goals rarely gets a check."

The demand for cultural connections is now so great that marketers will create one for themselves if they can't find one. If a corporation simply wants to build brand recognition, they can just as easily create their own poster rather than pay for the privilege of slapping their logo on some arts organization's poster. Ilia Coffee is spending hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million, to open a temporary "gallery" in SoHo. That money might have been used to sponsor a real gallery show. The imagery and copy points remain the same.

"Theatre companies need to get very creative about what's in their show," says Jennifer Harris, senior director at the Chaffee Group, a River North PR and advertising agency that frequently connects its clients with arts organizations. "Are you delivering an audience that a potential sponsor wants to reach? Does the show in some way reflect or extend what that company's brand is about?"

One example she cites is Barney's annual sponsorship of the INTUIT outsider art show. The Gold Coast clothing emporium's edgier sensibility (at least compared to Saks or Neiman-Marcus, for instance) matches the unstudied art produced by naifs, recluses, and even a few schizophrenics.

The most direct sponsorships come from beverage marketers like Starbucks and E. & J. Gallo, who can extend a sampling opportunity into a real profit center for both the marketer and the theatre before the show and during intermission.

Starbucks worked with The League of Chicago Theatres to launch the Theatre Thursday program, which enables them to offer new product samples in theatre lobbies and even the Hot Tix booth, all while reinforcing the idea that Starbucks' new, extended hours mean that a nearby coffee house is probably still open after the show. It also has an ongoing relationship with Lookingglass Theatre and continues to explore sponsorships with individual arts organizations that "have cultures and missions that are similar to Starbucks," explains Suzanne DeChant, group marketing manager for the chain.

The connection between wine and theatre is so strong that even if a theatre can't or won't sell wine, Paul Sorrentino, Gallo's manager of on-premise sales in Illinois, is eager to use his connections to help theatres build relationships with restaurants. "I'll get the sales at the restaurant," he reasons, "or maybe I can help arrange an opening night party at a restaurant that hasn't stocked my wines."

Marketers and arts organizations that have formed successful partnerships stress that many sponsorships aren't reproducible, but flow from the specific goals of the partners. Some deals are more oblique and formed over time as the partners better understood each other's needs.

When Phil Santora, now executive director at Northlight Theatre, managed a Shakespearean repertory company in Atlanta, he developed a co-promotion with Barnes & Noble that offered subscribers a free copy of the script for each production one season. The catch, if it could be called one, was that subscribers had to pick up the books one at a time at a B&N store in advance of that particular production's opening. "Barnes & Noble saw it as a way to build store traffic," recalls Santora. "Subscribers put a retail value on the books, but the chain made its contribution at the wholesale price, and they gave us end-aisle displays promoting our company."

Another way to think about sponsorships is to check out an audience's clothing. Where do they shop? Start a conversation with those retailers. Even better: if a character's costumes or the set's furniture are distinctive, build a relationship beyond just a credit line in the program with someone who markets that stuff. Coordinate advertising schedules; offer a discount with a ticket stub on the stylish sweater worn by a natty character, or free tickets with the sweater purchase. Abt Electronics supplied merchandise as props for this year's Goodman production of The Dollhouse.

Especially when a high percentage of women are involved, companies are looking for memorable alternatives to a golf outing or a ballgame for employee-recognition events and client entertainment. The Ravinia Festival has been exploiting these corporate budgets for decades with its brightly striped tents.

"I've had clients who said, "Please, no golf outings.'" says Harris. "A smaller organization might never attract the attention of a Starbucks or Sprint, but they can use these kinds of deals to initiate long-term relationships with companies operating at a similar scale."

Harris encourages theatres to walk their neighborhoods and speak directly with local businesspeople, whether it's restaurants and bars or even auto repair garages. (Keep in mind, of course, to stay away from restaurants during the lunch and dinner rushes.) And given that arts participation-especially theatre attendance-skews heavily female, Harris recommends beauty salons, for example, as a potential source for sponsorships, or at least group sales. Maybe a salon's Friday afternoon regulars would be interested in a night out together, especially if a local theatre offers a group discount. The important thing is to keep the initial conversation open-ended. Perhaps the term "corporate sponsorship" itself is misleading; it may be more useful to think of businesses as organizations around which people congregate, just like an audience milling about in the lobby before a show.

Silk Road Theatre Project executive director Malik Gillani initially approached the senior pastor at The First United Methodist Church with nothing more in mind than exploring the church's interest in putting together a group to attend a Silk Road production. That conversation, however, eventually led to the church committing to building Silk Road a 99-seat, $1.3 million theatre in the Loop, set to open before year's end. Silk Road kicked in about $100,000.

Silk Road, which mounted its first production in 2003 at the Cultural Center, is devoted to telling stories about people from Central and South Asia and the Middle East. Not many Christians there, much less Methodists.

But the church is proud of its Chicago Temple building and a theatre gives it another opportunity to draw visitors to their landmark. Moreover, the Methodist brand stands for good works, and the church saw sponsoring Silk Road as a tangible example of those values, an extension of its brand. The church is certainly not looking for conversion opportunities, nor will it review scripts or have any other creative control.

Gillani has also gained more conventional sponsorship discounts with restaurant owner-operators Taste America (Catch-35) and System Parking. Catch-35 also sponsors Silk Road's opening night parties.

"Theatre and food go together like popcorn and movies," says Ken Karlson, director of marketing and promotions for Taste America. "A true Loop theatre district should be a mix of small and large houses. People who can afford theatre tickets can also afford to eat at Catch-35, and promoting my restaurant through Loop theatres is more efficient than an ad in the Tribune. Most restaurants are dead at 5 o'clock, but Catch-35 is packed then with people heading off to Wicked or the Goodman."

Out in the neighborhoods, Soprano's Restaurant general manager Georgia Demacopoulos notes that the very first issue addressed on her Web site's FAQs is the restaurant's proximity to the Apollo and Briar Street theatres. "Restaurants typically offer discounted parking, which can draw theatregoers," she says. "And then I have a chance to bring them back afterwards for dessert and drinks."

Whether an arts organization meets with a neighborhood bistro or Starbucks, the goal is a mutually beneficial partnership between two brands. Business schools tend to mystify the branding process, but theatre company brands begin with the same decisions that inspire artistic directors-such as script choices, performing style and set designs-that establish an organization's identity. Then the process moves outward to connect with its market's identity, the people who buy tickets. When an arts group has a strong brand, it can better identify corporate marketers with complementary brands and it can take the lead in devising promotional campaigns that will further both brands. A strongly branded arts organization never participates in a corporate program that compromises its esthetic principles. And it doesn't have to.

"Strong brands attract strong brands," says Martin. "Nobody wants a desperate partner.