A colleague and I have been talking to arts leaders across the country as part of our research on current marketing practices within the not-for-profit performing arts industry.  I was surprised to discover a significant minority of marketing professionals who still cling to the idea that the not-for-profit arts sector is different than the private sector when it comes to reaching out to our potential audiences.

The following excerpt from Marketing Planning for Culture and the Arts, which I co-authored with Francois Colbert, kept bouncing around in my head as I talked to some of these marketers:

In the 1970s in the United States, as the number of not-for-profit arts institutions multiplied at an enormous rate and funding for them increased at reasonable similar pace, the generally impression among those of us jumping into the industry at the time was that we were doing “God’s work.” We believed – and many of us still believe – that the arts are not a commodity, a product to be purchased and consumed, but a precious part of our lives like good health or religious faith – something vital to our very human existence. And, as such, it is not an “industry” but a “cause.” That was and probably still is true for the three to five percent of our population (the “culture vultures”) and possibly for the other ten percent or so who believe it contributes to their quality of life. Like it not, however, for the much larger arts audience, cultural events are a commodity, a good that they decide to “purchase” and experience (rather than consume). In this way, however, the arts are not a consumer good (e.g., bread, eggs, milk, etc.) but a specialty good. Furthermore, the arts and culture fall into the larger leisure market, alongside other entertainment options such as restaurants, the movies, sporting events and vacations. Lenwood Sloan, who danced for Martha Graham and served as a program officer at the NEA, once said “No one sits at home after work, opens the paper, and says ‘Gee, honey, let’s have a not-for-profit arts experience tonight.’ No, instead it’s ‘let’s go out.’” His point was clear: we compete in the larger marketplace of leisure, relaxation and diversion. Whereas marketers of consumer goods simply need to establish brand dominance among other similar goods that the consumer needs to sustain life, the arts marketers must first influence people to embrace leisure activities as a similarly vital, life-sustaining “good,” and then to choose the arts as one of those experiences. It is a far more complex process than marketing bread or paper towels.*

Our work is, by and large, meaningful and important.  It does matter.  In my own heart, I believe that we, in the not-for-profit arts industry, are “doing God’s work” much the same as our colleagues in social services and health/welfare agencies are contributing to the betterment of our society.  But I also believe that if we’re going to market our work effectively, we must understand that many of our potential audience members have a different point of view.

*excerpted from Marketing Planning for Culture and the Arts, Francois Colbert and Dan J. Martin, co-authors and co-editors.  HEC Montreal 2008.