Artistic Risk and Branding

Creating a strategic framework to achieve value innovation  means we need to ask basic questions as if they were brand new. For example, what does “taking artistic risks” mean from an audience perspective?

The answer is that “it depends”: Each audience member determines “risk” using a slew of criteria to figure out under what circumstances it might be worthwhile to not actually enjoy a performance that one paid for and made time to attend.

Personally, I attend several performing arts on subscription – the ultimate commitment much of the performing arts still relies on. I have different expectations from different art forms. In terms of classical music voluntary risk taking is limited to listenable music (I have little tolerance in the orchestral setting for dissonance). In contemporary dance, I look for the new and unexpected, as long as the dancers are top notch and indeed are dancing. In theatre, I like intellectual, thought-provoking work and I like a great deal of variety, too, including some great brassy entertainment that tells a great story. I also really like mash-ups that blur the boundaries of art forms by taking the best from each and creating something even greater. (Fela!, which I saw at Toronto’s Canon Theatre, is an extraordinary example of that.)

I have just established, in my singular experience at least, that it is possible within the same person to evaluate risks quite differently depending on the context.

The very idea of “artistic risk” is highly subjective. For instance, not all risky programming is innovative, and what’s perceived as a risk in one city may not be so risky in another. Risk is contextual not absolute.

Performing arts audiences are diverse in tastes, expectations, culture and background. Those who can afford tickets easily will evaluate risks differently from those who have to give up something else in their life in order to save up for tickets.

Effective branding is critical to success 

I propose that developing and living a strong, singular brand is the best way for creators and presenters of artistic experiences to help their audiences decide to give all manner of experiences a try and to invest their time and money.

The brand becomes the touch point, the guarantee of a thoughtful and respectful arts experience, whether or not it’s “entertaining”, “provoking”, “escape” or “stimulating”.

Robert LePage when receiving the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award recognizing his body of work was quoted about not wanting to be merely “international” but “universal.” (Watch the short NFB film here.)That is a quintessential brand statement, captured in a single word. It is awesome! It is a strong brand statement within which he can explore all manner of ideas in myriad ways; it’s not limiting but rather gives a meaningful contour to his work and aspiration.

He talked about his visual language of theatre evolving beyond the spoken word and to borrow from other forms of storytelling that are familiar for contemporary audiences – most important being film. From a brand point of view, that means he’s breaking free of the “traditional” bounds of one art form in order to bring his vision to life and to stay relevant. It’s an act of reinvention, which is requisite to maintaining brand relevance in the long-term.

Societies, communities, people, technology have been changing rapidly – socially, politically, environmentally, economically, (multi-)culturally. Every industry, every sector in society must change in relation to these external challenges. Those that will succeed are those that will bring audiences, customers, consumers along on the journey.

I propose that to define and embrace a comprehensive brand (not a logo, but a way of being), one relevant to audiences and stakeholders in your community, is the most efficient and effective way to connect the arts, artists and audiences to create success.

4 thoughts on “Artistic Risk and Branding

  1. Tara Lapointe

    I agree wholeheartedly. Risk is less risky when it is preceeded by trust, and ultimately, that’s what a brand is – a relationship of trust.

    Also interesting is the reference to Robert Lepage, who has broken ground in theatre, opera, film and now graphic novels!

  2. Inga Petri

    Robert Lepage is a bright spot in my view. His company, Ex Machina at – wish it was easy to find via Google – is an excellent example of reshaping the old boundaries and creating experiences that don’t hold to any prescribed form anymore. It’s not even a theatre in name, which is brilliant for opening up the creative possibilities. As far as I can tell, that kind of brand exists more readily on the creation and production side and less so on the presenting side of the performing arts. I wonder what it’d take for more presenters to embrace contemporary brand management, rather than the ill-defined default brands they let live in audiences’ minds. Somehow standing for something seems still confined to a fuzzy view of reputation, rather than seeing it as part of the end-to-end audience experience and community presence and thus ensuring a holistic, contemporary Marketing view is brought to bear.

    I am looking for contemporary branding and marketing examples among presenters in particular these days; so please forward along anything that comes to mind.

  3. richardjenkins

    So true Inga. I think the arts have historically been slow to seize the idea that your brand is the promise you make to the audience; a promise that sets expectations and establishes the basis of trust. Artists have been the first to grasp it but the broader organizations have been slower.

  4. Rick Robinson

    An artist is their own brand and can shoot from the hip, whereas organizations are cumbersome to change. That’s one reason I as an artist left an organization to experiment with New Classical presentations and pioneer techniques of engagement. I kept finding that the hardest part was just showing up! Letting things happen naturally invites risk, humor and consequently great spirit… which is one thing the NEW audience is expecting IN DROVES.

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