I am branding myself. No, I am not applying a hot iron to my buttocks as cowboys do with steers. But I am doing something that, at least among some of my colleagues, is equally as controversial. I am attempting to make myself into a ballet product.
As Daniel H. McQuiston, marketing scholar at Butler University, defines the term:
Branding is more than simply putting the company’s name on a product and broadcasting that name to its target audiences. For industrial products, branding is a multidimensional construct that includes not only how the customers view the physical product, but also the logistics, customer support, and corporate image and policy that accompany this product (1).
Though “branding” is more commonly thought to apply to products like Cheerios and iPhones, I maintain that the principles of branding can be used in the ballet world. I have always used the internet in the development of my career through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and a website. But now I am developing a new website that I hope will firmly establish me as a particular type of "ballet brand."
Branding educates consumers by creating defined sets of expectations associated with specific products. By educating consumers, branding helps consumers make informed buying decisions. In the arts world, marketing in general and branding in particular are in their infancy. At present, “arts marketing can be seen as being too narrowly focused on the marketing of arts and heritage offerings rather than of wider issues of business and culture” (O’Reilly 574).
Some of my colleagues have advised that marketing and branding will make me less of an artist and more of a commodity; they fear that mixing business with art will somehow dilute the purity of my art. But has ballet ever been "pure art?" If we look at the origins of classical ballet, I think we will see that ballet has always served a multitude of functions, including in a very early and important instance, the function of branding.
One of the most prominent and very first examples for the use of ballet as an image-making tool happened during the 17th century in the royal courts in France. The fact that we still call Louis XIV the “Sun King” shows that his branding strategy has been successful and long-lasting. Louis XIV’s predecessor was Phillip IV, known as the “Planet King.” Louis sought to top his predecessor by using the imagery of the sun as his mark of identification (Burke 30). Louis XIV also used ballet consciously as a brand to impress both his own court and other monarchs.
Louis XIV scholar Peter Burke writes in the “Fabrication of Louis XIV” for History Today:
The visual image of the king was a stereotyped image, a kind of identikit Louis, and an image which was enhanced in the traditional manner. Louis was not a tall man, and the contrast between his physical height and what might be called his ‘social height’ was carefully camouflaged (Burke 26).
The King and his close advisor, Jean-Babtiste Colbert, were aware of the fact that he had “to surround himself with an aura of splendor and majesty, to project an image of kingly grace, refinement, and culture” (Swift 361). He saw himself (and wanted to be seen) “as a protector of the arts and letters, the extinguisher of heresy […] and the most powerful monarch of the universe” (Burke 26).
The court spent vast amounts of funds on propaganda, including the use of court ballets as large spectacles, which were intended to make both the court and their participants seem more glamorous. The “fundamental theme of [these] gigantic [festivities] was the intimate relationship between Louis XIV and the arts” (Burke 27). These spectacles seemed to embrace all the attributes with which the King wanted to be associated:
Ballets were similar to the traditional ceremonies of the coronation […] entry and funeral, in being public representations of the king’s might, majesty, and right to rule. The court was a stage on which the king displayed the monarchy’s power and magnificence in order to awe, impress, and intimidate those whose corporation he needed to govern successfully… (Kettering 400)
Louis was an eager dancer and performed eighty roles in forty major ballets during his lifetime. This achievement “constitutes something approaching the career of a professional ballet dancer” (Prest 285). His choice of roles was strategic. Fitting to his megalomaniac and narcissistic self-perception, “Louis XIV figured as the leading dancer in entrees of suitably royal or godlike subjects,” (Prest 285) performing the roles of Neptune, Apollo and, of course, the sun itself (Burke 25). The king played a variety of roles. However, “[whether] Louis XIV was playing a mere Egyptian fortune-teller or the great Apollo, he was inevitably the star of the show as [...] his majesty shone through any adopted role or theatrical illusion” (Prest 295). Even when he “sometimes played distinctively unglamorous roles,” he would shine (Prest 295). The king sometimes would appear in several mundane roles before appearing as the glorious Apollo at the end of the ballet.
The sheer number of performances and the diversity in roles he chose to perform indicates a deeper understanding and interest in the art form than a mere manipulative act in his propaganda machinery. It was not all about business or packaging a message and image. It seems he genuinely cared for the art and its progress. Louis XIV combined business and art in a way that was mutually beneficial to each endeavor. He possessed substance as an artist and, through both substance and a fitting presentation of that artistic substance, the Sun King developed the original concepts of balletic “grandeur” that we continue to see today.
Like the court ballet in 17th century France, “the cultural institution that the art institution [nowadays] represents, enjoys, at best, grandeur” (Gielen 281). However, compared to the 17th century, when ballet companies were associated with a particular court, today’s ballet companies exist in a cultural business environment alongside “art galleries and museums, educational institutions, performing venues, symphony orchestras, chamber music ensembles, as well as opera and theater,” (Weinstein and Cook 4). All of these participants in the market strive to attain a certain value in order to vie for the favor of the consumer and attain sufficient funding (Gielen 282). Most arts institutions are arts organizations in their core, but institutions are much bigger and wider in their scopes than mere organizations. Institutions possess historical significance, and therefore they bear a responsibility to continue their legacy. Compared to organizations, institutions are usually active in the international market.
[Major institutions] are expected to navigate between preferably well-oiled organizations that ensure high artistic quality while at the same time fulfilling the function of “guardian” and facilitator of the associated cultural values. Recognition of these institutions by (generally national) government authorities also sends the message that “I find ballet or opera to be relevant cultural expressions that are so important that I will promote their values on an ongoing basis as a social ideal” (Gielen 281).
The fact that art institutions not only have to deal with facilitating the final product of great value, but also have to “worry” about being self-sustaining creates a complicated situation. In this regard, art institution seems to have an easier time of it in Europe, where government support is substantial, as opposed to the situation in America, where arts funding is mostly coming from the private and corporate sector. On a national level, competition is strong among local arts organizations, but on an international level, competition is even stronger. The art institution is compelled to market itself, just like any other corporation in a market (Gielen 283).
When it comes to very “fine” arts, it is especially important for arts institutions to market themselves on a basic level. Only if marketing communication is sufficiently basic will new or untrained audiences gain the type of access that deepens their understanding of the art form. To give a potent example, I suspect that only very few members of the audience of a ballet know that some casting decisions depend on the hereditary shape of a dancer’s legs. Though audience members might intuitively grasp, to a certain degree, that the aesthetic is better in a way, they are unable to explain the minute details. The audience needs help and education through marketing to grasp the art form from the outside in order to have the possibility to proceed to a deeper understanding of the art.
This necessary education of the audience brings us to the fact that marketing is an inevitable process for arts institutions to broaden the public’s understanding and support the communication of meaning. Unfortunately, a discomfort exists in the art world, since from the points of view of most artists, business and art are polar opposites. This polarity has dampened the progress of branding in the arts. As Jonathan E. Schroeder in his paper “The artist and the brand” writes:
[…] the intellectual, disciplinary, and semiotic separation of art and business has obscured the potential of studying the art market as an exemplar of image-based branding. An art-centered approach suggests augmenting the branding research tradition to acknowledge both the commercial mechanisms inherent in the art market and brands prominent place in visual culture (1293).
So far, arts marketing has not considered the matter of branding that much at all (O’Reilly 573). In my view, marketing in the arts world is stuck in the old doctrine of “just” providing a cultural product to an audience.
Most importantly, branding involves the understanding that there is an active dialogue happening between the elements of production and consumption. In the art world, the consumer is the audience. Recent studies prompt “an important and illuminating reconsideration of branding processes and shifting attention from brand producers toward consumer response to understand how branding creates meaning” (Schroeder 1291).
Is it not the aim of an arts institution to create a product and art work of substantial meaning? Therefore, the next step as a marketing strategy in the arts world is for institutions to brand themselves.
Now, obviously, there are also advocates who argue that ballet as an art form has been exclusive for a reason; ballet was always considered to a certain degree “royal.” But are not even the “fine” arts still basic human interaction? Is ballet, and therefore dance in itself, not simply sophisticated movement? Is not classical music basic sounds? Though the communication of the arts happens with basic “ingredients,” the message is more than the sum of its basic parts.
For example, feelings are the sum of various combinations of emotions experienced at the same time, and in a sense it sometimes is hard to define what one feels. In the same vain, an art work is able to evoke heightened feelings through specific combinations of elements and resulting experiences.
The experiences provided by the arts can be supremely enriching for an audience. If we approach the marketing of the arts in a way that widens the audience and deepens understanding of the arts themselves, we can make the lives of more people richer and more meaningful.
But why stop with branding only arts institutions? The constantly progressing globalization and the democratized flow of information puts ever-increasing pressure on arts institutions to distinguish themselves beyond the institution level. What I suggest is to encourage the use of “micro-branding” to distinguish separate elements within the institution, namely the artists.
Encouraging artists to brand themselves allows them to give a personalized touch to an often abstract and initially hard to grasp art form. Ideally, branding should diminish the exclusivity of the “elitist” art form. Ideally, created brands would provide transparency, where before opaque mystique existed.
In an earlier era when branding was a less conscious process, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov possessed in marketing terms some sort of branded “images.” Even then, through their brands, they attracted completely new audiences and broadened the horizons of many minds regarding the art of ballet.
Many other art forms have seen successful strategies of branding. To name a few, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger created personal brands by actually “commenting on, critiquing and creatively interrogating the branding concept and its role in consumer culture” (Schroeder 1293). Most of the performers in the limelight of pop culture are necessarily branded in order to cater to the largest possible audiences. As examples, both Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson are clearly created and defined personae standing for particular “feelings” and expectations. In a way, the branding process becomes an art in itself.
With the advent of the internet, branding became available for mere mortals and was no longer exclusive to corporations or pop stars that have a conglomerate of PR consultants behind their back. Social media opened the channels of distribution of information and a democratization of information took place. One does not have to be on TV or radio to broadcast a message to a wide range of people. In a way, Andy Warhol’s prophecy that “everyone will be famous for 15-minutes” became true (Schroeder 1294). Except, in the beginning, YouTube clips were limited to 10 minutes instead of 15.
Nowadays, the separation between the public person and the “persona” is fading. In a world in which social media is gaining increasing significance, when does a professor become more than just the human being teaching in college? Where does the branding begin? Is a status update on Facebook already broadcasting a message with meaning? The answers to all of these questions are unclear so far. I think only time will tell.
Valuable questions of privacy arise. In order to share your life online you have to make your life publicly available, but to what degree is clearly up to the individual. Everyone has to clearly decide for him- or herself where the boundaries in his or her life are. I feel comfortable with sharing various aspects of my life, but I clearly have boundaries.
Personally, I consider myself lucky and privileged to live the life I have. I feel the urge to share many of my experiences with whoever is interested in my life. By doing so, I hope to open up not only my life but also my art form to a wide audience. Hopefully, in the process of sharing myself and my art form, I can enrich people’s experiences. To me, transparency is key. Transparency is not only the means by which I am establishing my brand; it is also part of my brand definition.
For obvious reasons, people will call me narcissistic and self-centered. For purposes of full disclosure, I have to agree that my reasons for transparency are not purely altruistic. Daragh O’Reilly, marketing scholar from the Leeds University Business School, discusses the term “cultrepreneur” in his writings (582). In his definition, cultrepreneurs “have adopted strategies of intensive media management in order to promote themselves as cultural or art brands and thereby their own commercial success” (583). I hope to become a “cultrepreneur.”
Through branding myself and defining my public persona, I gain recognition as a valuable “product” in the ballet world. But is becoming a product really that bad? If I widen my audience and gain economically, does that make the substance of my art less valuable? To me, business and art can co-exist. Though I would not be so presumptuous as to liken myself to Louis XIV, if the Sun King can combine art and business through ballet, why can’t I?
One of my intentions in this piece of writing is to encourage other artists to open up and share their lives. I am planning to use this paper as one of the first blog posts on my new website, and by doing so, I hope to underline the elements of transparency of my “brand.” At the same time, I hope to inspire other dancers to brand themselves, since I believe that competition is for the greater good and will make all of our lives more interesting and exciting. Competition hopefully will also help to sharpen the brands of individual dancers so that the audience can be better informed when they make buying decisions.
If you would ask me to define my brand as a ballet dancer, I would say that I try to “transcend boundaries.” In performance, I try to transcend the boundary between acting and dancing and make that boundary seamless. In a larger sense, I try to transcend whatever boundary exists between ballet and my life. I include in my brand aspects of my life to which members of my audience can relate to perhaps even more closely than to my job as a ballet dancer, such as my love of technology, photography, science, film, and literature. Dancing is a big part of my life, but it is not the only thing that defines me. I try to transcend the boundaries of the new media and make ballet in itself more approachable.
When people come to the theater to see me dance, hopefully the audience will themselves transcend the traditional boundary of audience and dancer. Hopefully the audience will feel an emotionally closer relationship to my dancing as a result of my openness of interaction with them.
Kristin Sloan, who together with her fiancé Doug Jaeger, works on my branding strategy and website, compares the experience of watching sports on the screen with similar experiences in the performing arts:
The more quality access people have to the art form, the better. The multiple points of access for sports games contribute heavily towards making the live experience the ultimate experience, whether it's going to see the Yankees play, or going to your local high school's football game. Each media experience is unique in its format and in the information that is presented. It is designed for who, how, when and why it will be viewed and is part of a larger ecosystem of experiences dedicated to the sport. (Sloan)
In grand tradition of King Louis XIV, I am mixing business and art as I attempt to brand myself as a ballet dancer. However, the Sun King and I part ways when it comes to the types of brands to which we attach ourselves. Dancing the role of Apollo, Louis XIV tried to attach himself to the image of ballet dancers as “gods.” His strategy was to elevate himself above his audience. His aim was to control his subjects. “The King’s grandeur and majesty derive from the fact that in his presence his subjects are unequal. […] Without gradation, inequality, and difference, order is impossible” (Homans 44).
I take an opposite view of the relationship between the dancer and his audience. My “brand” is based on the belief that the connection between the dancer and his audience is egalitarian and derived from shared humanity. I firmly believe in Aristotle’s take on dance, which is powerful in its truthful simplicity. He believed that dance simply and importantly “expresses the actions of men, their customs and their passions” (Homans 44).
Louis XIV scholar Peter Burke describes how Louis XIV and his advisors used propaganda and the arts to develop a particular image for their regime. He then used this image to manipulate and influence both of his state and how he was perceived by other monarchs. Ballet as an art form played a crucial role in this particular “branding”.
Jennifer Homans is a historian and critic, who was also a professional dancer. She describes the development of dance into ballet and its cultural background throughout. Louis XIV is being described in great detail.
Kristin Sloan argues that New York City Ballet misses opportunities to market themselves properly. She has been the initial force behind the Media Suite installed in the Richard Koch Theatre and sees it unfortunate that it is not being used due to lack of vision.