Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Branding Vermont (no, it’s not a town!)

I had a burger at McDonald's the other day and it got me to thinking about the recent Branding exercise that State tourism and marketing professionals like to conduct once or twice a decade to make sure that Vermont’s tourism industry has the knowledge it needs to make sure visitors return again and again.

In the latest Branding study (which I learned about by participating in a really excellent webinar sponsored by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce), not only were traditional Vermont brand characteristics reviewed, but several nuances were explored.

It turns out, probably to no one’s surprise, that while people’s perception of Vermont as a natural, unspoiled, and friendly place to visit has remained virtually unchanged for well over a century, what people like to do when they are here varies quite a lot, depending where they are from.

There are understandable differences between summer and winter visitors, but the over-arching “take-away” from the webinar was that if we want to reach our Vermont market, we should focus on words and phrases (or images) that convey emotions associated with “Pure and Simple, Unhurried, and Unspoiled;” “Farmland and Forests, Mountains and Lakes, Fresh Air, Fresh Tracks, and Beautiful;” and “Down Home, Local Color, and Authenticity.”

Before I express my opinions about the study’s implications for the arts and cultural sector, let me make a few observations about Brands and what they are for.

First, a “Brand” is a snapshot or an articulation of people’s feelings and opinions about a product at a point in time and it can change over time. Vermont has a very powerful Brand because, as the study points out up front, it has remained almost unchanged since at least 1891. But at its most basic, a Brand is little more than a tool that guides marketing and promotional professionals who are trying to figure out what messages to send out about their product.

Brands can change. Remember the very popular product that told us its fans would rather fight than switch? Sure. Smoking cigarettes was once thought to project an aura of cool sophistication, of worldly knowledge. Now they project an aura of slow, wasting death by cancer or emphysema. The Philip Morris Brand became so associated with bad medical outcomes that the corporation had to change its name.

There is probably not a single Vermonter or Vermont vacationer alive who couldn’t put his or her finger on most of the key attributes of the Vermont Brand if asked. But one of the really useful aspects of a Brand study is that it allows you to not just consider and understand what your Brand is, but also to explore what your Brand could be. Where are the “gaps” between what we offer here in Vermont, and what our visitors know about what we offer?

I can tell you one. The Arts. But hold on for one more minute…

Rather than dwell on what I believe are some gaps and omissions in the study (which I hope future studies will address), let me share what I believe was good about the study.

It revealed a lot of really interesting information about the various markets we focus on (MA, NYC, and Canada Metro) and the behaviors of our visitors:

First, nearly half of all visitors to Vermont stay with family and friends! This is a startling statistic and tells me that a significantly larger effort must start IMMEDIATELY to inform Vermont residents about all the amazing cultural (and recreational and astisanal food) offerings that are easily accessible to our out-of-town guests. Right now, the State of Vermont barely advertises what it offers to its own citizens, which means we are missing an opportunity to reach nearly half our visitors from away.

Second, NYC visitors are more likely to stay longer, spend more money, and attend more cultural events than visitors from Vermont or Canada. This tells me that if you want to promote your cultural offerings you might want to focus your attention first on the NYC market.

Third, Canadians (actually they were Canadian Metro visitors—from Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto) like to shop. Well, okay, who doesn’t? But this is mentioned in the study as being a statistically significant difference from visitors from Massachusetts and NYC, which means that if you run a boutique selling fine arts and crafts (attention Frog Hollow, Artisan’s Hand, Vermont Artisan Designs!) , you might want to give some thought to the creating a Canadian campaign—maybe collaboratively?

Fourth, Massachusetts visitors are looking for quality, “good-value,” day-trip offerings. Again—aren’t we all? If you have a couple of packages (like dinner for two and a show, say, in Brattleboro for $150/couple), you might want to consider advertising this in the Boston, Springfield, Holyoke markets.

Fifth, two statistics opened up a whole new world of possibilities. It turns out that nearly a fifth of respondents from NYC and more than a third of Canadians respondents DON’T come to Vermont because it “doesn’t offer activities they prefer.” Really? We have lots of cultural offerings and lots of great places to shop—the two things that our survey reveals distinguishes those market segments from the others. Aren’t we telling them what the cultural offerings and shopping possibilities are? I guess not.

Also, more than a quarter of respondents from Canada and NYC have never even considered visiting Vermont before—a clear indicator that our attempts to reach NEW visitors (folks not already in Tourism and Ski Association databases) are falling on deaf ears half the time. Surely we can do better than this…?

Finally, In terms of “competitive positioning” against other vacation destinations, Vermont has some great opportunities to become a leader in offering a diversity of experiences at a reasonable price that complements our unspoiled landscape and warm, friendly natives.

So getting down to the take-away lesson for me wasn’t really all that hard. All I had to do was drive by the golden arches of McDonald's…

Vermont is known for its unhurried pace, unspoiled landscape, beautiful, natural vistas and warm, inviting people. It’s known for its outdoor recreation—particularly skiing; artisanal foods—particularly fine cheeses; and maple products—particularly syrup and bright leaves. This is what has been for years advertised by the Tourism Department, in collaboration with its two primary partners, the Vermont Ski Areas Association and Cabot Cheese. All good.

McDonalds is known for its hamburgers—in all their infinite variety. It’s what they have done well at, it’s what they have advertised, it’s what most people think of when they are asked, “McDonald sells _____?”

The difference between Vermont and McDonald's is that of late, McDonald's has spent more and more time advertising its chicken, salads, and shakes—products that, in fact, it is NOT well-known for. The result: McDonald's stock has doubled since 2006.

Meanwhile, Vermont is still marketing and advertising the same products and services to pretty much the same people who already know Vermont and are already inclined to visit.

Maybe it’s time to steal a play from the McDonald’s playbook.

Maybe it’s time to let the world know Vermont has a few other products that are high-quality, unspoiled, a good value, and easy to get to.

Let’s start with the Arts.

If we do, I’ll bet the Vermont Brand will be a bit different the next time it is studied.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How does Art support you?

I spent several hours on Pine Street at last weekend’s Burlington South End Art Hop (go SEABA!) encouraging people to step up to our video-camera and respond to this question on tape.

Some people acted suspicious, not because they found it odd that a stranger was asking them to speak about something so personal on camera, but because they couldn’t understand why was I bothering them about something that was so self-evident. After all, they were at the Art Hop, weren’t they?

Why indeed…

The purpose of this marketing campaign (ArtSupportsMe.org) is to get people to think differently about the role the arts play in their lives. The truth of the matter is that Art, in all its multidisciplinary glory, has never been, nor probably ever will be, given enough financial support. Foundations, philanthropists, businesses, public funding agencies have for years been faced with a nearly impossible task: to develop a set of clear and convincing reasons to increase the flow of dollars going into programs and services that nurture and sustain our various types of cultural expression. But, we asked ourselves, what if we turned that around? What if, instead of asking how we can all support the arts, we instead asked, how do the arts support us?

We are better now than we were in the 1990s at articulating the many “public value” reasons to support the arts,most of which address the Arts’ role in stimulating community economic development (just look at Church Street Market Place and the entire Pine Street Corridor if you don’t believe me).

But the good people at Place Creative helped us home in on the Arts more powerful and compelling effect—the emotional impact it has on each of us individually and on all of us collectively. For some of us whose careers are in the arts (either as artists or teachers or presenters, etc.) the Arts support us literally, with a paycheck, a commission fee, or some kind of remuneration that enables us to pay for food and shelter.

But for most of us, defining how Art supports us requires us to be articulate about subjective impressions and emotions—something we are not comfortable with very often and something at which language frequently fails miserably. For me, art has a way of inserting itself with great subtlety and meaning into even the most mundane activities.

For example, the style of clothing you wear; the make and model car you drive; the way you cut your hair, and adorn your skin and clothing with “accessories” ALL have their basis in a creative act—not just those made by the clothing designers and car-makers, etc., but by YOU, the person who selected that particular look (or automobile) at this particular time and place.

On a slightly less subtle level are the cultural expressions that appeal to you, from the art you hang on your walls, the books you read, and the music to which you listen and sometimes dance.

And there are the obvious, “big ticket items” like concerts, exhibitions, expositions, dramatic works, films, and a host of mixed media expressions that capture our collective attention in some way or other.

Those who create “popular” art tend not to need support from foundations and arts councils because their creative output is immediately attractive to their audiences who will pay for it. But the Mozarts, Van Goghs, and other artists who are now considered “classical,” “modern,” “post-modern,” “multi-cultural.” etc. tend not to connect with enough of an audience in their lifetimes to sustain themselves. They have always needed and will continue to need support from benefactors in order to pursue their craft.

And what do we get in return for their labor? Big moments like Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Berlin Wall on Christmas Day, 1989 or Picasso’s Guernica commemorating the atrocities inflicted there by Nazi-supported Fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War. We also get smaller moments by the hundreds: the shared joy of experiencing a play written by Shakespeare or Mamet; taking in a ballet choreographed by Balanchine or Morris; attending a concert composed by Brahms or Nielsen or performed by The Boston Symphony or the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble.

And finally we get the individual moments by the thousands: the experience of encountering Michelangelo’s Pieta for the first time; or something much simpler, like hearing your child rehearse her part in the school musical.

Art is part of everything that makes us human, makes us individual, and enables us to enjoy (or least tolerate) our brief journey through life.

So the simple question we start with, we hope, will create an outpouring of sharing and understanding about the value and importance of Art to all of us. Because, whether you like it or not, whether it’s to your particular taste or not, Art really matters, in all its magnificent forms. And in Vermont, we are blessed.

How does Art Support You?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Feeling Glee-ful

“…'Glee' is about the importance of arts education, so I would like to dedicate this to all my teachers who taught me to sing and finger-paint." --Ryan Murphy, “Glee” co-creator upon receiving a 2010 Emmy Award for Best Director of a Comedy

It will be National Arts in Education Week very soon. As one of the three “legs of the stool” on which our mission, vision, and goals rest, arts education figures quite prominently in the work we do at the Council. Like almost everyone I know, I am constantly impressed and amazed at the dedication and skill of the art, music, dance, and theater teachers at our schools. Although most have support networks (VATA, VMEA, and the VAAE), few believe their job is ever truly secure. Budget cuts tend to first focus on the arts and almost never on math, science, or physical education (hint to dance teachers…if you’re not already doing so, get your dance classes classified as Physical Education. You will sleep better at night!)

Into this mix comes the Arts Council with its particular focus on the teaching artist: the professional artist who either has or wants to become proficient at handling the various rules and regulations that are required for “serving it up” in a classroom setting.

We believe in the transcendent (or transformational) power of the arts to heal or empower or inspire students to achieve—not just in the arts but in life. We are convinced that creating art and bearing witness to art created/performed by others is among the most important things a young person experiences. And anyone who has gone through the agony/ecstasy of a recital, an opening night, a showcase, or any other public display where one’s “art” is featured, can tell you of the profound life lessons such events provide. Although occasionally these experiences are miserable and even destructive, for the most part, kids who survive tend to thrive, though not always as artists.

In a recent post I excoriated our Vermont education system for pretending it will succeed in the face of 20% cuts to personnel, eliminating specialists in the arts, sports, etc. In today’s post I want to draw attention to some of the positive things that are happening in Vermont's schools and arts-training programs--some of which are as professional and entertaining as anything you might see on television.

The New England Consortium of Artist-Educator Professionals (NECAP) will hold its annual conference in Brattleboro, VT on Thursday, September 23rd. Featuring world-renowned “new vaudevillian” artist Michael Moschen, the day is packed with workshops, lectures, and demonstrations. It is a great opportunity for teaching artists in all disciplines to network and share their varied experiences across New England.

The Arts Council has launched its new “Cultural Routes” initiative—a rapid-response grant program to help offset transportation costs related to delivering school children to performances at cultural institutions. These performances are frequently cited as the only professional performing arts experiences a child will have during the year. Helping schools in this cash-strapped economy will, we hope, keep this vital opportunity available to a broad cross-section of Vermonters.

More and more, our local arts presenters are taking leadership roles in delivering high quality arts-education experiences to their communities. Leading the way in Vermont is the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts whose programs and services include student matinees, camps, workshops, student passes, study guides, and curricula. But there are many others (and forgive me for presenting an incomplete list) such as Burlington City Arts (also in Burlington), River Arts (Morrisville), Catamount Arts (St. Johnsbury), Studio Place Arts (Barre), Chandler Center (Randolph), Weston Playhouse (Weston), Vermont Arts Exchange (No. Bennington), and Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center (Brattleboro), throughout the length and breadth of our small state that year after year deliver the goods.

There are the compelling programs for high school age artists of all types from the year-long Vermont Youth Orchestra and New England Youth Theatre in Colchester and Brattleboro, respectively, to more focused and discipline-specific projects like Vermont Stage Company’s Young Playwrights Project, to the well-known, two-week long “retreat” at Castleton State College known as the Governor’s Institute in the Arts. These programs focus much more on the budding creative artist and help prepare them for post-secondary and professional success as artists.

And finally, I would be remiss in not drawing special attention to G.R.A.C.E. in Hardwick—a program founded in 1975 to provide lifelong learning opportunities to elders and underserved populations throughout Vermont, and to showcase the best “outsider” art Vermont has to offer.

These institutions and many others [feel free to send me links to others I haven’t mentioned!] do so much to educate and enlighten all of us. They are the vanguard of the new arts education movement. And they all deserve our support.

Sometime in the next 20 years there will surely be another talented artist or producer or director who will pause while receiving her Emmy, Grammy, or Oscar and say “You know, the only reason I am here tonight is…I’m from Vermont.”