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The Greatest Showman: Marketing Communications "Come Alive"


I recently had the pleasure of flexing some marketing muscles and overseeing the marketing campaign for a client’s annual gala. The event had a theme akin to the recent movie musical, The Greatest Showman.

(As an important first aside, The Greatest Showman is the best modern movie musical. If you disagree with that statement, you might as well stop reading now as clearly our arts administration philosophies are simply incompatible. Ha!)

The sales response to the campaign was quite strong: over three times the sales of the prior year, solid intermediate metrics, and many reports of how the feeling in the house (composed of donors to the full gala experience, staff/artist stakeholders, and the general public purchasing tickets to the performance portion of the evening) was exciting and invigorating; the house had, “come alive,” as it were.

But we have all run campaigns like this before: solid sales, good houses, etc. Why did I enjoy this one in particular? I realized (upon my one hundredth time listening to the song “Come Alive”) that I liked that campaign for the same reason I so love that particular song: it speaks to multiple audiences from multiple voices using a shared vocabulary and medium.

(As an important and final side, the Years and Years cover of “Come Alive” is the best track on The Greatest Showman Reimagined album. If you disagree with that statement, you might as well stop reading now as clearly our arts administration philosophies are simply incompatible.)

So a little background for those unfamiliar with the song: the P.T. Barnum character (played by Hugh Jackman) begins by singing with the intention of attracting, retaining, and encouraging his new employees--a group of self-described misfits-turned-performers with names like “The Bearded Lady,” “Dog Boy,” “The Irish Giant,” “Tom Thumb,” etc.

As the song progresses, those characters--finding their own voices--begin to sing for themselves. It also becomes clear (in visuals that the film might make a little too obvious for my taste) that in addition to Barnum encouraging his performers to “leave behind [their] narrow minds [and] never be the same,” he is also enticing his newly created circus ticket buyers to do the same. This is not the first song by any means to accomplish such multi-layered messaging but it may be the first to do so with such lyrics that resonate so clearly to arts administrators!

So what does this have to do with a marketing campaign? I take a few lessons from this that can be more broadly applied to communications in our field. Similar to the song, this won’t be the first time you read takeaways like this, but hopefully they are presented in a way that makes you remember and come back to them more regularly:

1. “No more living in the shadows/You and me we know how that goes:” This lyric, sung by the extraordinarily gifted Keala Settle as “The Bearded Lady” is the first moment where another character begins to sing the song. So who is the best person to be seen as the messenger of your communication? It may be helpful to think of your advertising--regardless of its actual form--as a letter; if it were, who would sign it? In many instances, “the brand” signs the advertising with a logo. But in the case of this recent gala, we had gala committee members that were “signing” their invites to donors alongside a more broadcast marketing campaign branded with the organization logo. In some instances (mostly on social media) we had the gala performers themselves communicating. These distinctions are important and can be quite effective.

2. "Come one/Come all/Come in/Come on:” Very simple changes in messaging can dramatically change responses. For example, this particular client very much wanted to have an accessible price point in the orchestra level so that the broader public understood that they were welcome at this performance. The donor audience would have rightly assumed that their seats where in the orchestra, but we made a point to message a broadly affordable price-point as available in the orchestra to redefine this “gala event” as open to a broad audience--not exclusively to high level donors. So while all communications on an event might urge all to come, you may add or tweak a few words to ensure specific recipients feel welcome.

3. “You can prove there’s more to you:” Good campaigns always have multiple and varied touch points. You must serve lots of impressions to just draw attention to your event; the efficacy of those impressions are increased when the are diverse or otherwise varied--they complement each other. First you emailed about it, then sent a postcard, then you served various banner and video impressions through social and other digital media channels, then traditional PR hits, then “word of mouth,” etc. And of course different ads on these different touch points all “hung together” but may have changed slightly right?

4. “Sun is up and the color’s blinding:” Certain campaigns have enough title or artist or other brand recognition that it would overpower any other messaging you might consider putting into the advertising. Popular Broadway titles or musicals named and adapted from major motion pictures, classics, popular music or comedy acts, and other events frequently enjoy the ability to simply put “a name” in an ad and with that name serves as a heuristic for the prospective ticket buyer to readily make a purchase decision. In other words, the potential audience is blinded to any nuance or subtlety in the campaign because the title overpowers it; it’s like putting a full blurb/plot summary on an ad for Hamilton. There are, conversely, campaigns that lack sufficient funds to really satisfy such multi-layered messaging. But there is a wide middle area where putting a campaign on auto-pilot and not considering the timing, layers, differing audiences, differing messengers, etc. will result in sub-optimal performance.

4. “Afraid to step outside/So you lock the door/But don’t you stay that way:” I often rant on this topic so I will be as brief as possible. Artists and their representatives can and should play an important role in marketing materials: fact checking, ensuring their work or own likeness are shown in an appropriate and positive context, etc. But in terms of impression count, the artists, agents,friends, colleagues, and others in their circle consume only a very small fraction of the impressions an ad campaign serves. So while--as most of this article implies--the best campaigns speak to varied audiences using shared vocabulary, if one must choose different words to speak to an audience, those should be engineered towards the approval of or resonance with the audience as a higher priority than that of the artists.

“You’re asleep inside, but you can shake awake:” This is more a gentle urging and parting thought than final inspirational tip. Throughout our industry (not just theatre or even arts marketing but marketing in general, it is tempting to “do what you you did last time.” I have written about that inertia before. So just remember that your campaigns can and should aspire to be works of art every time. Not all will be that--some may even be a “zombie in a maze” (one of very few lyrics I dislike in that song)--but, “you can prove there’s more to you. You cannot be afraid.” Okay, I promise, that's it. I'm off to listen to the album on repeat again...

NOTE: This may be the last article I post for some time. I recently accepted a full time position and anticipate having less time to write about matters. But always feel free to email me.

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