Two Strategies for the Impossible: Marketing Theatre


You're Asking Me To Do What?

The marketing of intangible products and services is exceptionally challenging and is subject to high levels of perceived risk from customers. Theatre in particular is not a straightforward transfer of value in exchange for money. Two people can see the same show on the same night and have entirely different experiences. The only constant factor is that every customer is left with nothing more but their memory of the experience. Not that there is anything wrong with that and in fact the idea of an experience is one of the most powerful tools that a marketer has at their disposal. What radically separates the marketing of theatre from other intangible goods and services is the fact that the product being sold usually does not exist until well after the marketing campaign is designed and implemented.

A Theatrical Metaphor

Let us imagine that you are a brave knight traversing the bazaar when a potion seller approaches you:

Grumpy-Cat-As-A-Knight-Wallpaper2“Brave sir knight! Wouldst thou care to purchase any of my wares?” 

You take a look at his stall and notice that his potion bottles are all empty. Disgusted, you reply:

“Potion seller! What is the meaning of your inquiry? Your vials are all empty!”

The potion seller is taken aback. You have deeply offended him.

“My potions are not yet ready for use, sir knight! They need time to be conjured and crafted into their final forms. Your hard earned gold purchases you the empty vial, which will be filled with my completed potion three moon cycles from now! What the effect of the elixir will be, I cannot say, but rest assured that I am one of finest potion makers in all the lands!”

You now have a choice and while this value proposition isn’t exactly like asking someone to buy a theatre ticket, it’s eerily similar. When a theatre company announces their production or season, it is a given that the large majority of shows will not have begun rehearsals. In fact a lot of the time they will not be completely cast or have a full creative team on board. Furthermore, if it is a new or devised work then there may not even be a complete script, assuming it uses one at all. To complicate things further, theatre is product limited in availability of both time and capacity. It requires the large majority of customers to plan ahead and reserve a date. By the time any tangible cues of quality emerge (Such as reviews and word of mouth), it is often too late to make a meaningful difference for smaller companies. Therefore it is essential that an early marketing push be made to raise awareness and generate anticipation.

Two Strategies 

This practice of advance marketing comes with some very real dangers. For example, there is always the chance that the production sold to customers bears little resemblance to the show that is delivered. Discoveries are made throughout the rehearsal and design process that create an identity which did not exist at the time of constructing and implementing a marketing campaign. This is particularly true of new works. For this reason, many companies develop a blank canvas marketing approach. Take Belvoir’s 2015 season for example:

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 10.19.31 pm

Each promotional shot is almost literally a blank canvas. It is a simple aesthetic that promises absolutely nothing to the audience but piques curiosity of the final product. Variations of this strategy can be found quite commonly:

505season      The Old 505 Theatre uses it’s own space as the blank canvas with We, The Lost Company and Dot Dot Dot.

EnsembleSeason                          The Ensemble Theatre’s 2016 blank canvas season offers only a title and the actors involved. 

And_Now_To_Bed_2The promotional image for And Now To Bed (Subtlenuance) presents a blank canvas with a clear theme.

Is this strategic offering enough though? In any other industry it would be a very difficult task to sell a product still in development, let alone one that has yet to even begin development. In fact it’s still a very difficult proposition within the theatre industry. This sector certainly has a strong base of customers who enjoy the element of risk and a journey into the uncertain. However, that perceived risk may very well diminish any potential that a blank canvas strategy has with a wider audience, particularly those who are very conscious of their time and money. For that reason, many companies try to give potential customers a very clear image of their product, taking the risk that the marketing communications may turn out to be quite different from show presented. In contrast to the blank canvas strategy, we’ll call this the complete work method. Two productions that I was personally involved in went down this route through some more modern forms of theatrical promotion:

The trailer for Jennifer Forever (Two Peas) captures the intended subject matter, tone and atmosphere of the production. 

Dreamingful Productions released an entire track of their new musical, Atomic, providing the audience with tangible cues of music and performance quality.

Both of these productions provided the potential audience base with a clear idea of what to expect and reduced the perceived risk of stepping into the unknown. In doing so they both ran a very real risk of disconnect between marketing and the final product. After I saw the Jennifer Forever video I recall thinking that it was easily the best trailer for a theatrical production I had ever seen and was legitimately worried that the visual aesthetic presented in it would surpass the design of the actual show. As for Atomic, the show and it’s songs were being rewritten on a daily basis. One crucial eight minute scene and music number near the end was only added in during tech week. The show was very much still in development and finding it’s identity. The choice to release that song ran the risk of selling the show through an incorrect or immature identity. However, in the mind of the customer, what the complete work method succeeds at is to reduce the gamble associated with attending theatre.

A Third Option?

Most independent producers do not actively choose a blank canvas or complete work strategy and can end up in a very awkward spot in between the two. The marketing effect of these productions is very similar to being a teenager, simultaneously insisting that they know who they are while still recognising that there is a lot of growth to happen. The marketing ends up disjointed and inconsistent. Nobody wants to see a production while it is a teenager. People are more inclined to spend their time and money on a production that is well past high school, graduated university and knows what it wants out of life.

The Conclusion

Make a choice. Choose to market your production as a blank canvas, a completed work or, if you insist, a mixture of both. Independent theatre producers often wear many hats and marketing can become an afterthought where “good enough” will have to do. Take the time to make this simple core decision. It doesn’t matter what strategy you land on as long you actively chose it. Of course you can also completely ignore my proposed framework and think for yourself!

Until Next Time

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. Please feel free to join the discussion through the comments below and check us out on facebook. I’ll be back soon with another article promoting the art of marketing for the arts. 



3 thoughts on “Two Strategies for the Impossible: Marketing Theatre

  1. Keith

    I’m curious – Why can’t you start your pre-production marketing with the blank canvas and then as the production grows and finds it’s identity, transition to the finished work method, this enables the “risk takers” to buy early and then gives piece of mind to those purchasing later that the production really is going to be great?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sirspicious

      I kind of like the idea of an evolving campaign, but I think the biggest issue that will arise is brand solidity. Using two vastly different methods may make the product look somewhat disjointed. It might confuse customers who see both forms and think “Wait-what? I thought that show was this?”. It’s like selling two completely different shows. Once you’ve transitioned out of the blank canvas stage you may risk losing customer awareness. For example, let’s say that I like a Facebook group with a blank canvas as it’s image. A couple of months down the track, the group changes their image and I lose awareness of them because it’s an unfamiliar image and I continue to scroll down my feed to a cat video. They’ve essentially lost everything they built with me and the show may even completely disappear in my mind.

      With that said, creatively, I’m sure it can be done. It just needs to be done very carefully and very loudly. The practicality is going to be the more likely reason not to because instead of spending time and/or money on one image, you’re now spending time and/or money on two. I can’t imagine an independent company willing to print two sets of postcards/posters or for the people involved to actually have the time to do it. Producers in indie theatre are often also actors, directors or writers in addition to holding their own day job. Practically, it’s a complicated process and you would need someone on board purely for marketing to give it a shot.


  2. Pingback: Seasonal Branding: The Benefits and Risks of Building a Company Identity | Let's Talk Marketing

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