We All Got Together and Put On a … Brand

The New York Times

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July 2, 2006

We All Got Together and Put On a … Brand

IT worked for milk, it worked for Las Vegas, it worked for beef, but does it work for Broadway?

That’s the question the New York theater has been arguing over for 11 years, since the League of American Theaters and Producers, the industry’s trade association, embraced the idea of trying to establish Broadway as a brand, advertising the city’s famous stages as a whole instead of a particular show.

The departure last week of Jed Bernstein, the driving force behind the campaign and the president of the league, offers an opportunity to evaluate that strategy’s effectiveness and the sharp divisions that still surround it.

While the logo — a blue and white rectangle with the words “Live Broadway” and a star in a spotlight — may not be as familiar as a milk mustache, supporters credit the unified sales pitch with helping to revive the industry. Over a turbulent decade when the road business changed, uncertainty after 9/11 shrunk ticket sales, and musicians went on strike, attendance on Broadway increased by almost 27 percent and grosses nearly doubled, to $862 million from $436 million. Some of the shifts were unpredictable. But many were foreseen, and in light of them, said Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, a “uniform approach” makes sense.

But skeptics — particularly producers of individual shows — don’t think the promotional campaign should get the credit for Broadway’s resurgence. “Do people think ‘I want to drink some soda’ or do they say ‘I really feel like a Sprite’?,” asked David Stone, a producer of “Wicked,” one of the most successful shows in Broadway history. “While the term Broadway certainly generates good will, I think it has to be a desire to see a particular show that causes people to spend a good deal of money.”

Mr. Stone and others argue that Broadway’s growth is due mainly to particular productions — like “Rent,” “The Color Purple,” “Spamalot” and “The Lion King” — that have drawn people who don’t regularly attend Broadway into their audiences. Rather than wasting money branding Broadway, critics say, the league should be focusing its energy on labor negotiations or press coverage.

But the most powerful voices in the league still think “Live Broadway” was the right way to go. “We didn’t know from sponsorship,” said Rocco Landesman, the owner of Jujamcyn Theaters and a member of the search committee that selected Mr. Bernstein in 1995. “I think we saw other industries doing it, and we weren’t, and we were really behind the curve.”

After some small-scale experiments with slogans like “Destination Broadway,” the league hired Mr. Bernstein, who was an executive vice president of the advertising firm Wells Rich Greene, to develop a campaign. One of the first things he did was enlist Landor Associates, a firm that specializes in branding, to develop a Broadway logo. Then he had to figure out where and how to promote “Live Broadway” and who was going to pay for it.

“The scale of what you needed in terms of getting the message out was beyond what the membership could be taxed into doing,” Mr. Bernstein said. “That was one of the immediate problems I had to confront.”

So he looked to corporations, taking as his model the professional sports leagues with their official sports drinks and official airlines. Continental was the first to the table, signing a five-year deal in 1997 to call itself the official airline of Broadway in return for paying $3.75 million in cash and services to the league over the life of the contract. Multi-year deals with Visa, J. P. Morgan Chase and Anheuser-Busch followed.

But what exactly were these companies going to sponsor? After all, the league, as a trade group, does not control the events, the tickets, the titles of the shows or the copyrights to the songs. So in many cases it had to come up with programs, like “Broadway Under the Stars” (the Central Park concert produced with NYC & Company), in order to give the sponsors something to sponsor.

Corporations have spent over $130 million in cash and services to sponsor “Broadway on Broadway,” the annual outdoor concert; “Kids’ Night on Broadway,” which allows parents to bring along a child free; a toll-free Broadway information hot line; and the annual Tony Awards, which the league presents along with the American Theater Wing, a charity group.

Rebecca Saeger, who now works for Charles Schwab, was the chief marketing officer for Visa when the first sponsorship deal was made. She said the league was an ideal way for companies like Visa to begin marketing in an industry they knew little about. “I don’t know how much value supporting the league is from a consumer standpoint,” she said, “but it’s an entry point into the business.”

That sentiment was echoed by Tony Ponturo, vice president for global media and sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch. While the league courted the credit card companies, Anheuser-Busch, looking to expand its promotions beyond sports, approached the league, and in 2001 a marketing agreement was reached.

“We started with the league to build a foundation and to learn a little bit about the business,” Mr. Ponturo said. “We then subsequently realized there was also an opportunity to get involved with a Broadway show.” Since then Anheuser-Busch made promotional deals with shows like “Spamalot” and “The Wedding Singer.”

Likewise, while maintaining its relationship with the league, Visa has increasingly been making other sponsorship deals with individual productions like “Movin’ Out” and “The Color Purple.” American Express, which did work with the league in the 1990’s, has dropped that deal in favor of sponsoring individual shows like the Tony-winning “Producers,” “Jersey Boys” and “Three Days of Rain,” starring Julia Roberts. Such an arrangement might include early access to tickets for certain American Express card members.

Nancy Coyne, a founder of the Broadway advertising and marketing agency Serino Coyne, would like to see more companies move away from the league’s campaign. She argues that the league’s branding effort has been ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

“I don’t think you can find a show to say that the association with Continental has helped their bottom line,” said Ms. Coyne, whose firm is one of the advertising powerhouses on Broadway.

But Drew Hodges, the creative director of SpotCo, a Broadway advertising agency and Serino Coyne’s main competitor, calls the campaign a success, which makes visitors to New York want to see a Broadway show, even if they don’t know which one.

And some along Broadway say the league’s strategy has actually helped individual productions in their searches for marketing dollars. Todd Haimes, the artistic director of the Roundabout Theater Company, credits Mr. Bernstein with creating a thriving market for corporate sponsorship for specific shows and theaters, something that had popped up only sporadically before.

“Certainly corporations seem much more open to sponsoring Broadway theaters than they were before the league did this, when it didn’t exist at all,” he said.

In 2000 the Selwyn Theater on 42nd Street, owned by Roundabout, was renamed the American Airlines Theater; in return the airline agreed to pay $850,000 annually in cash and services to Roundabout over 10 years.

Outside sponsorship has been only one part of the marketing strategy. In 2004 the league commissioned a study from Gerald Zaltman, a marketing professor at the Harvard Business School, which examined, among other things, why certain people go to the same show more than once and what might persuade occasional customers to attend more regularly.

Using the study as a guidepost, the league planned to raise money directly from its members — as opposed to getting corporate sponsors — to pay for a national Broadway campaign, much as the “Got milk?” campaign was paid for by the country’s dairy producers. How aggressively the league continues to push the member-sponsored campaign will be partly up to the new president (who was not announced by the time this article went to press). But so far officials have had little luck convincing a loosely-knit band of competitive producers to pay for an expensive, Broadway-as-a-whole campaign instead of using that money to promote their own individual investments.

The producer Jeffrey Seller, who was on the marketing committee at the time of the study, said, “The ultimate problem is, all the members get wrapped up in their own shows.”

Which is the challenge. A brand, in marketing terms, is supposed to encompass the associations people may have with a certain product or service, a difficult thing to achieve if the service providers are constantly bickering with one another.



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