Theatreland: Picture credit: SOPA Images/Contributor/Getty Images
Theatreland: Picture credit: SOPA Images/Contributor/Getty Images
A view from James Charrington

What Theatreland can teach adland about the battle for applause

Emotion, creativity, telling a story... with theatres getting back to business across the UK, brands could learn a thing or two from this industry.

Consistency isn’t something we’ve seen a lot of in the past 18 months. It has been a time of strange and frightening flux; new ways of living, working, communicating, and even being entertained have had to come to the fore. But there’s nothing quite like that feeling of the house lights going down, and the curtains coming up. The familiarity of theatres’ hushed aisles has consistently comforted and delighted tourists and locals alike for decades.

In March 2020 as theatres closed up and down the UK, all of our audiences went home. Ours is an industry that sells 34 million tickets a year and is worth more than £1.4bn – and that’s before you count the interval drinks, ice creams, merchandise, pre-show dinners and hotel stays.

Now that theatres are reopening, only two-thirds of audiences can come back – the remaining third live abroad so won’t be back in force until 2023 (fingers crossed). As a result, the spotlight is shining brightly on us marketers, as we fight to reunite new and old audiences with the arts and ensure that the show does indeed go on for Theatreland’s famous brands.

So, what have we learned in the battle for audience attention? 

Emotion sells

Theatre trades in emotion and creativity; witness the use of performers in big brand marketing through the pandemic by Amazon, Argos and more. Now the rush of tears and pure joy in every open theatre, every night of the week throughout the summer of 2021 has proved how much people have missed sharing live, real experiences with each other.

So we have decided to let our guard down. We’re not afraid to tell Mamma Mia! fans how we feel: "my, my just how much we’ve missed you!" – and sales are showing us that those fans are rushing back. If we’re going to appeal to a London-centric audience who have walked past our shows’ visuals every day for years, we need to dial up the emotion and leave the hard sell at the door.

Telling the same story in new ways

Brand comes first when it comes to selling – no amount of conversion-focused performance media buys can bring a product back to audiences’ attention without strong, eye-catching brand-building. So it’s even more important that you have a defined brand that people recognise before hitting them with a sale.

So we’ve had to channel the power of storytelling that we see work every night on stage in captivating and engaging audiences – and really raise our game. We used to build a brand with one piece of hero content and one iconic image at a time. Post-pandemic, we can write and produce seven short-form pieces per client per week and the number is growing as we are accessing audiences primarily online.

Spreading the word

This works differently now. It used to be the case that ad campaigns were only half the battle; what audiences tell their friends was always way more effective at selling tickets than any ad or marketing effort was.

Now, the conversation has changed, focusing on the whole theatre experience, in more visible spaces, like social media, and these comments have huge reach and impact – theatregoers will note how they were welcomed, mask etiquette, cleanliness of the venue. Which makes our colleagues on the front line the real marketers of 2021: ushers, bar and box-office staff. This principle extends to any number of other industries: retail, hospitality, festivals – the main event is no longer the main event. Our job is to give that word of mouth the oxygen of publicity and use that to supercharge sales.

Timing… is everything

With international tourists a thing of the future but not the present, there has been a dramatic shift of focus onto domestic audiences. This presents a whole new challenge, made more difficult by the added layer of hybrid working, which has culled our available midweek audiences even further to those who venture into the office a couple of times a week.

So, knowing when to activate your ad push is more critical than ever. Younger audiences may have seen their disposable income drop to the extent that they will only spend on "fun" after payday; older audiences may love the idea of going out midweek when they finally return to their offices.

If we can understand our audience’s intentions and be quick to match adspend to the ever changing news cycle, the sky’s the limit for capturing imaginations.

Tired and tested

Lastly, marketers are humans too. And tired ones at that.

We are all exhausted after 18 months of planning, then cancelling campaigns – and un-selling shows. Fractious teams won’t be able to build great campaigns that work, without a little encouragement, a little understanding, a little TLC. If you’re a client, a planner, a creative or a chief executive, remind yourself of this, just like I try to most days.

James Charrington is chief executive of specialist live entertainment agency Dewynters

Picture credit: SOPA Images/Contributor/Getty Images