Thursday, April 24, 2008

Creating The Met 2.0

Last week's premier performance of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment at the Metropolitan Opera proved that rock stars can be found in every genre of music, even opera.

Juan Diego Florez, a young, sexy, and devastatingly handsome Peruvian tenor, rocked the house and brought the audience to its feet with his brilliant delivery of an aria that has nine high C's. (For those of you who aren't opera fans, this is the basketball equivalent of Michael Jordan shooting his six 3-point field goals in first half of the first game of the 1992 Finals.) And he did it twice. That's right, when he finished the aria and the audience rose, applauding and screaming, Juan Diego did what very few artists have ever done in performance at the Met. He sang an encore. This show-stopping repeat, antithetical to the historically staid character of opera, was the idea of the Met's other rock star, its General Manager, Peter Gelb. Slight, balding, and bespectacled, Mr. Gelb appears more CPA than R&R. But anyone who wants to see a brilliant case study in brand rejuvenation, pay attention. This man can also rock the house.

It's been nearly two years since Gelb stepped into the GM role at the Met, where, from day one, he knew he was taking on some formidable challenges, namely declining ticket sales and membership, and a rapidly aging audience. But Gelb came prepared with a plan to rebrand not just the Met, but the entire opera category. He would make it modern, relevant, and accessible to younger, sophisticated, art-going audiences. He would turn the Met into a content distributor, opening up new channels of delivery. He would roll out a brash and daring brand makeover that would transformed a fusty, aging institution into a hip, technology savvy, arts marketing organization. He would create the Met 2.0.

Many people thought Gelb's plan was too audacious and risky. Clearly, those folk had never read Peter Drucker whose writing may as well have been the blueprint for it: "Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two, and only these two, basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs."

The marketing and innovation strategies that Gelb instituted were all designed to position the Met as a modern and hip component of the New York cultural scene, and to create a broader awareness of the entertainment value of the Met's operas among people outside of the metropolitan area. To do this, the Met focused on three main initiatives:

1. Rock the Brand.
Pre-Gelb, the Met's brand imagery was an iconography of opera house cliches: chandeliers, silhouetted 70's-era patrons, and a logo that evoked a proscenium arch were used on brochures, the Met's limited advertising, and communications. Gelb wanted to communicate a new Met brand - an organization that wasn't simply an opera venue, but one that was bringing its audiences innovative interpretations of classic operas envisioned by name film and theater directors, as well as new, avant-garde works by modern composers.

Thomas Michel, who had been the head of marketing for the Public Theater, was brought in as the Director of Marketing. Michel turned to Pentagram, a design firm he'd worked with at the Public. The results were a very simple and contemporary serifed-font logo that emphasizes the words "Met" and "Opera", and powerful, stylized photography that conveys the passion and drama of opera with a very modern and hip sensibility.

2. Advertise.
If this seems like a ridiculously obvious solution, up until 2006 it hadn't been so obvious to the Met. Advertising was anathema to the organization and the one other ad campaign they ran in their entire history wasn't meant to appeal to anyone who wasn't already an opera fan. The campaign that was launched in 2006 had a different target in mind - non-opera goers. To reach them, the campaign was spread throughout the city transit system with ads at subway entrances, station platforms, on the sides and backs of MTA buses, at bus shelters and on telephone kiosks.

3. Find New Channels and Distribute.
Bringing an audience to the opera is important, but Gelb understood that it was equally important to bring opera to an audience. If the Met was going to expand awareness and create new opera lovers it needed to find new distribution channels that could communicate the drama and excitement of a live opera.

In December 2006 they launched the Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD series that brought digital HD transmissions of six live operas to 100 specially equipped movie theaters around the world. The program has been wildly successful. In many theaters live performances sold out and encore showings were added. The 07/08 season expanded from six to eight opera transmissions and the number of participating venues worldwide increased to 600 and the 08/09 season has plans to feature eleven transmission in up t 800 theaters. By the end of this year the Met will have reached an audience of close to 900,000.

Other initiatives and channels include a subscription-based Metropolitan Opera station on SIRIUS Satellite Radio, selected open dress rehearsals, simulcasting opening night to the Jumbotron in Times Square, and streaming live operas to the Internet.

It may be a bit too early to evaluate the success of this program. While the HD transmissions are successful beyond anyone's anticipation, they're not yet making money, although are on track to do so. Met ticket sales are up more than 10% from a year ago and, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, revenue will probably be up by $10 million. Whether the momentum can be sustained and profits made remains to be seen. But what's certain is that not doing any of this would have doomed the Met to a slow and sad demise.

As a marketer I send Mr. Gelb a big Bravo. As an opera lover, I say, "Encore".

advertising, brand makeover,branding, innovation,marketing, Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb


elizabeth said...

Gelb is truly a turn-around genius. While the Met Opera is a monster in its category, Gelb has looked at it as if it were a challenger; a David in a world of pop-culture Goliaths.

Opening his first season with a monumental production, The First Emporer, Gelb set the wheels in motion. He stacked the decks with superstars - Tan Dun, Plácido Domingo, and revered filmmaker, Zhang Yimou. And Hollywood showed its support. The opening night Gala had a red carpet that rivaled the Oscars. The stars glittered in their gowns and the celebrity obsessed took note, exposing new audiences to the glamor of Opera.

Thanks, Linda, for another great post.

Beth's Blog said...


Excellent post! I noticed you worked with arts clients - so i added your blog to the socialmedia for arts people wiki

apologies for calling boomers old - I should know better I'm on the other side of the 50

Maryann Devine said...

Nice analysis, Linda! I was excited when Gelb took over and announced all kinds of visionary plans but skeptical about how quickly change could be accomplished -- turning around the Titanic is no small feat. From cultivating non-opera artists (Rufus Wainwright, etc.), to blogging to the HD simulcasts, Gelb seems to have done the impossible already. (The La Fille broadcast was sold out both days in my local theater, BTW!)

Pranayama mama said...

My girlfriend over at Left Coast Mom shared your blog with me. Loving it! Thanks for some great, thought-provoking posts.

Linda Ziskind said...

Thanks for the kind words, Pranayama Mama. Small world, turns out I know Left Coast Mom. Worked w/her husband at AOL - back in the last century when AOL was still in its megalomaniac years.