Why you might have a harder time marketing your musical today than yesterday.

I read an interesting blog and an even more interesting book recently about how to introduce a new product to the marketplace.  Now, granted, these publications were talking about the traditional business world, so their definitions of “products” were things like new cell phones, women’s sportswear, and soft drinks.

Me being me, I couldn’t help but wonder if their arguments could be extrapolated to musicals.

The conclusion of the blog/book was that it takes a lot longer than you think for a product to achieve “market penetration” in today’s world . . . on average more than five years.

Why does it take so long?

Check out this quote:

The consultant Jack Trout has found that American families, on average, repeatedly buy the same 150 items, which constitute as much as 85 percent of their household needs; it’s hard to get something new on the radar.

Of course it’s harder to get something new on the radar!  First of all, Cialdini will tell you that “consistency” is one the prime motivators of human behaviors.  And the longer a consumer retains that brand consistency, the harder it is to get them away from it.

But I glean a little something different from their conclusions that has a direct correlation to producing a new musical in the 21st century.

Let’s use Coca-Cola as an example.

Coke gets on the market way back in the day.  And it achieves “smash hit” success.  As it grows, it becomes more and more synonymous with the soft drink brand as a whole (In fact, some areas of our country refer to any soft drink as a “coke”).  And the longer it’s run, the more and more marketing it puts out, and the stronger its brand becomes.

In other words, the Coca-Cola brand is bigger and better today than it was ten years ago.

Enter a new soft drink in the market . . . let’s call it Schmoka-Schmola.

Schmoka-Schmola doesn’t just have to be good. It has to be fantastic (or more unique).  And, it has to be even better if it was introduced today rather than if it was introduced ten years ago, because it’s going up against a competitor whose brand is stronger today.

In the last twenty years, we’ve birthed some Coca-Colas.

Phantom is one of them.  The Lion King is one of them.  Wicked is another.

If you’re a new musical coming into the market, you’re staring at several monster brands that pull a huge percentage of audiences looking for a Broadway musical when they come to town.  How can you compete with those brands?

These long runner super-sized soft-drink-style brands make it without a doubt much harder to introduce a new show to today’s theatrical market.

Need some proof?

I dug into the Broadway archives over the weekend and calculated the average run of new musicals that opened in the years 1994-2003 and compared it to the average run of shows that opened from 2004-2013. If the average run in the earlier decade was longer than the latter decade, then that would prove some more challenging marketing terrain, right?

Here are the results*:

  • The average run of new musicals that opened from 1994 – 2003:  449 performances
  • The average run of new musicals that opened from 2004 – 20013:  376 performances

The conclusion:

  • New musicals that opened in 1994-2003 ran 19% longer than new musicals that opened in the following decade.

Pretty significant, don’t you think?

The Wickeds of our world are musical theater brand superpowers.  And we’ve never, ever, seen anything like it on Broadway before.

So how do you compete with them?

You can’t.

You don’t break into the soft drink market trying to duplicate Coke.  And you don’t break into the musical market trying to be Phantom.

So don’t even bother trying.

Just produce/write/create the most unique theatrically thrilling experience you can, with an economic model that can exist knowing that the above brands eat up a lot of ticket buyers.

Being different and being smart is what will allow your show to survive.

* One note about the stats.  Obviously shows that opened in the first decade have an “average length of run” advantage since there are more years after it than shows that opened in the second decade.  So to even the playing field for the two decades, we only counted the # of performances that occurred within that decade.  While the numbers may be slightly skewed by shows that opened earlier/later in the decades, using this form of analysis made for the closest decade-to-decade comparison possible.

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  • Sean Cercone says:

    Ken – interesting blog. I was wondering in your analysis, if you accounted for the capitalization or run cost of new musicals (adjusting for inflation.) Obviously, if shows are vastly more expensive than they were 10 years ago to capitalize and run, then the rate of failure would increase. I do understand that part of the run cost is advertising, which to get the same “bang” for your buck has drastically increased, but I wonder if the increase in cost per impression has risen at the same rate as the cost of production/run?

    In other words, is there a segment of the budget on a Broadway show, that has disproportionately grown from one decade to the next, in comparison to the other budget line items? If that segment is advertising, then it stands that “Brand” is the major threat. If that segment is, let’s say “Labor”, then “Brand” isn’t the biggest threat to introduce a product.

  • senorvoce says:

    Jumping to the wrong conclusion.

    Premium tickets are the real reason. Nowadays, the premiums just burn out shows faster.

    No big surprise.

  • Marshall says:

    God bless you Ken Davenport! I’ve been on this kick for over four years now with my colleagues. And since you guys did an excellent job with script coverage of our show “BAM!” (unsolicited plug) I’ve pushed even harder to develop something that’s unique, fresh and memorable.

    Guess the really big question for you guys who toss millions into new shows on the Great White Way: Other than the Disney franchise, can even the biggest musical adaption of the most humungous blockbuster movie guarantee extended performances? Conversely, might a quiet/small show like “The Fantastics” emerge and capture theatre goers fancy and have a run like “Wicked?”

    Gotta go. Coke with my name on it waiting in the fridge!

  • Doug Hicton says:

    We have rapidly mounting costs, partly due to the perceived necessity of casting high-priced movie and TV stars, leading to humongous advertising costs (though that may change for the better with the stagnation of traditional media and the growth of marketing on the internet), leading to obscene ticket prices and the audiences’ expectation of seeing Hollywood faces in revival after revival after revival because people don’t want to pay premium prices for stuff they don’t know. It’s probably why Bridges of Madison County closed, good as it was, and why Gentleman’s Guide isn’t doing as well as it should. Steven Pasquale? Kelli O’Hara? Jefferson Mays? Bryce Pinkham? Tourists from Chillicothe and Paducah have never heard of them, but they have seen Barney/Doogie Howser”, so “hey, let’s go see him in Hedwig”… which is not to say that Neil Patrick Harris isn’t excellent, just that his casting is so, well, SAFE.

    It’s a vicious cycle. Broadway has become an ouroboros—a snake eating its own tail. It can only do that for so long before it eats itself up altogether and there is no more Broadway. Eventually Wicked and Phantom and Lion King and Mamma Mia will close, and there will be nothing on the street to take their place except the occasional tumbleweed. All the writers and composers will have moved elsewhere to do regional theatre.

    Also, there is no “more unique” or “most unique”. There’s “unique”, period.

  • But Ken, PHANTOM except for 1 song is a schnoozer, very thin by comparison to a real opera, yet running on tourism dollars en masse for decades. Like cell phones, it is marketing triumph, and not much else. Sorry.

  • Rich says:

    I don’t buy the Coca-Cola comparison to Broadway. Cola is a largely undifferentiated product; as you correctly point out Coke has a phenomenal brand, built up over decades and hundreds of millions in advertising dollars. Schmoca-Schmola cannot possibly compete at this level without expending a comparable amount of time/money. However, Broadway musicals are highly differentiated; while it takes the proper capitalization and initial advertising spend to get the motor running, stellar content will invariably win the race (to recoupment.)

    Looking at this another way, original b-Way productions of Phantom (1980’s) preceded Lion King (1994) which in turn preceded Wicked (2003). Both later musicals were able to triumph splendidly, following their much heralded predecessors. I have every confidence new musicals possessing winning content will follow suit.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    So let’s look at it from the perspective of someone working from the ground up.

    And let me begin with, this was totally an out of pocket experience and yes I have lost money on this first venture, knowing up front this would happen.

    But what I have gained is so much greater at this time. So I will begin with that.

    I had an idea 3 years ago… to elevate musicians to a new level of performance and not have this talent expressed as “background music” in a bar or winery etc.. So I began creating a new musical, working with original music, a cool blues style of music, then came the storyboard, a conceptual show where it showcases, the actors and the musicians on stage equally. I watched this grow into reality as the show premiered in Pittsburgh a week ago.

    What did I learn from this early experience? If you create it… they will come. Who are they? New theatre audiences such as people who follow the bands, fellow musicians, even the Pittsburgh blues society attended.

    And if I didn’t gain financially, what did I gain? The satisfaction of knowing I can do it. You can create new audience with your passion and they become filled with passion as I watch them each night, dancing in their seats, filling the room up with positive energy. How efficient word of mouth marketing is. And now a line-up of bands, singers, musicians who want shows written around their band, willing to create original music for these shows. So now on my plate a future, gospel show, swing show and also a rock show. It seems I have created a demand for a new product. This is growing faster than anticipated and of course my biggest worry right now is time and money. But I also smile knowing, what I have started.

    Sometimes I think it is important to look beyond the great, big complicated world of Broadway and get back to the mentality of why we create this art form to begin with. It all started with a dream…..

  • Zanne says:

    20013? And we’ve still got actual theatre happening?

  • The Producer has to adjust and course correct to the new normal of marketing.

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