Is It the Product or the Package?

May 7, 2014

A friend of mine who works in advertising told me once about a brewing company who came to his firm looking to rebrand their beer. The client was convinced that their poor performance in the market was due to the lame packaging, the unappealing name, and the crummy commercials they’d been running. My friend said that that was all undoubtedly true. Then he took a sip of the beer and realized they had a bigger problem.

Many arts organizations struggle to be financially sustainable and while making a living in the arts is, on balance, a tougher deal than selling beer (I’m assuming, I’ve never sold beer), the core reasons for that struggle are generally not more complicated.

A struggling artist or an arts organization has to conclude that either:

Our artistic work and programming isn’t very good so people are not buying what we’re selling or funding what we’re providing. Or Our work is great, but not enough people (or not enough of the right people) really know about it.

Even though rejection is part and parcel of life in the arts (just ask anyone who has ever auditioned for anything, submitted a manuscript, applied to a film festival or a grant!) admitting the former is a tough pill to swallow.

To be sure to do something as unconventional as pursue a career as an artist or dedicate oneself to an arts organization takes a strong dose of self-confidence and faith and taken together with encouragement from those one respects and positive responses from external audiences (whatever the size) there is a compelling reason to believe that your work is good!

So, unlike, the case of the misguided brewer, I’m inclined to believe that for most people in the arts the root cause of their financial woes traces back to that one other explanation: we’re not reaching enough people, or we’re not reaching enough of the right people.

These two points are related, but different and have different implications for the responsive strategies one might take to address them.

Some art forms have a potential to reach larger audiences than others and so scale is critical to growth. And if this the case investing in audience development and mass marketing is likely a good strategic direction in which to head.

But some work is esoteric or artistically ill-suited to the consumer behavior patterns of life in 21st to a handbell ensemble. The music was beautiful; the audience for lengthy handbell concerts was limited.) In this case focused cultivation of individuals or foundations that really get what you do, or targeting presenters or partners who have done the audience development work in your discipline or genre or the communities with whom your would resonate, will be key.

Whether one seeks to attract the resources required to be sustainable by expanding the base of supporters, or by engaging a narrow set of game-changing benefactors it’s crucial to articulate what makes you so special.

And simply saying your work is good, isn’t enough.