Hooters, billboards, and blogs — arts groups revamp marketing 

A (Re)brand You Can Trust

It was sure to raise a few eyebrows.

The idea went like this: Instead of having theater patrons greeted by regular volunteer ushers, what if they were welcomed by Hooters girls?

It'd be edgy and something of a risk, said those privy to the plan, but the positive response was worth it. A slew of ticket sales came from first-time theatergoers — exactly what they were after.

For the launch of this season's LateNight at the Footlight series — starting with Dog Sees God, a Charlie Brown parody — the trappings of the legit theater were out, and tight T-shirts and bright orange hotpants were in.

"It's vitally important that we find ways to create a buzz," says Jocelyn Edwards, executive director for the Footlight Players Theatre. "The Hooters girls appealed to a younger audience. I can't tell you how many people came up to me afterwards and said, 'I never realized theater was this much fun.'"

Everyone knows arts organizations, like the 77-year-old Footlight Players, are struggling in this crumbling economy. It's officially a recession, and this is likely the worst fund-raising year any of the city's cultural leaders have faced in their careers.

What's largely been overlooked, however, are the ways in which they have been striving to rethink and revamp marketing strategies in order to connect with audiences new and old. The strategies differ — some high-tech, some low-tech — but the goal is the same: to rebrand and refocus. Such is the life of an arts nonprofit. While financial cycles come and go, getting butts in seats is a challenge that lasts forever.

Prior to the start of this season, Charleston Stage faced a dual challenge.

Recently moved into the Sottile Theater and Memminger Auditorium while the Dock Street Theatre is being renovated (until 2010), the stage company needed to connect with theater novices while retaining long-time patrons.

The company's solution? A backstage blog (www.charlestonstage.com/blog) that's quickly become the most popular location on its website.

"We've always tried to tell our story, and we've traditionally done that through newsletters and direct mail," says Beth Curley, communications manager. "This season, with a nod to the importance of technology, we've created a blog to give people a backstage look at what's involved in our productions."

Actors, crew, and staff have all been featured, and they will continue to share their experiences until the season ends in April.

"It's gotten a tremendous number of hits," Curley says. "It has helped save on the cost of marketing at a time when funds are increasingly difficult to come by. And it enriches our public image in ways that weren't possible before. People experience so much more online about Charleston Stage before seeing a show."

If Charleston Stage has learned to stop worrying and love the blog, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra is taking a decidely low-tech approach. It's using consecutive eye-catching billboards along I-26 on the way to the airport.

Sure, billboards are an old idea. It's the method that's new.

The CSO has used billboards in the past to promote individual shows. Once the concert is over, though, the billboard loses its utility. This time, thanks to Adams Outdoor Advertising, which donated the billboards, the orchestra is marketing not programs but the idea of itself as a colorful, exciting, and dynamic presence.

"The idea here is simplicity," says Emily Rybinski, CSO director of marketing and public relations. "Readers don't get overwhelmed with too much information. It's a streamlined and simple message that we're trying to get across about the orchestra."

Each billboard features the symphony's revamped logo — a simple, sophisticated color scheme, an arresting picture of musicians and, in one case, of music director David Stahl. More significant is that the billboards are consecutive, one after the other. That's not a new idea, Rybinski says, but it's new to the CSO.

"One could say this is marketing as it should be done," she says. "With three billboards in a series, you can't help noticing them. It's more effective. We want people to connect the CSO with movement and excitement. And we can build on that image in our print ads and other promotional material."

So far, what's unclear as arts groups continue their revamp is effectiveness in the long run. The short-term, however, is already yielding results.

The Footlight Players' Jocelyn Edwards says audiences for its late-night series have doubled over two years — and audiences are on track to nearly double again this year. That might be because shows are always at 9 p.m., always a comedy, and always reasonably priced ($10-$15).

But it also might be because of the Hooters girls and the power of word-of-mouth.

"After the last LateNight show, one of the Hooters girls said she couldn't believe how much fun she'd had," Edwards says. "She'd thought she'd be bored but absolutely loved it. Our hope is she'll tell her friends and tell people while she's waiting on tables, spreading our message to people we might not otherwise reach."


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