It’s been a tough few years for English National Opera. In 2014, Arts Council England announced plans to cut the company’s funding by £5 million – a reduction of almost a third. In a statement explaining its decision, ACE praised ENO’s “ambitious work” and “important role in developing talent” but said it had struggled to reach box office targets and achieve “long-term stability”.
ENO was one of dozens of organisations to have its funding cut by ACE but few received such a significant reduction in grants. The Royal Opera House – based nearby in London’s Covent Garden – received a cut of just £800,000. ENO chairman Martyn Rose stood down in early 2015 and long-standing artistic director John Berry left soon after.
The company has since appointed a new artistic director, Daniel Kramer, and a new CEO, Cressida Pollock, who has set out a plan to improve its finances while living up to its remit of delivering “artistically excellent” opera to “the broadest possible audience”. Her strategy includes cutting the number of productions, increasing box office and funding targets and reaching new audiences by making tickets more affordable.
In addition to making a series of management and business changes ahead of next year’s cuts, ENO recently carried out a review of its branding. Design studio Rose was then appointed to carry out its own review of the brand and for the past 18 months, has been working with ENO to create a new brand strategy, visual identity and brand assets, including a new logo.
The studio has devised a new approach to marketing productions and designed campaigns for 20 operas spanning three seasons. It has also worked with web designers Substrakt to create a responsive website for ENO and designed branding for Opera Undressed, an initiative aimed at introducing young people to opera. It is now working with ENO to create new staff uniforms, signage and wayfinding for the London Coliseum theatre (the home of the organisation since its founding in 1974) as part of a long-term initiative to encourage more visitors to the venue.
ENO commissioned a review of its branding after research revealed that consumers struggled to differentiate it from other opera companies. It was founded with the aim of making opera accessible for all and its productions are sung in English – but few people were aware of this, says Carolyn Sims, director of marketing and audience engagement at ENO.
“We did some research and found that people’s attitude to ENO had somehow got mixed up with opera in general,” says Sims. “We’d kind of lost our identity and what makes us us … and I think that’s where the review piece started, [with looking at] ‘Why are we different? What are we doing that’s different? And how do we make ourselves as relevant now as we were 10 or 15 years ago?'”
Simon Elliott, partner at Rose, says the studio set out to help ENO connect with new audiences and transform people’s perceptions of opera. “There’s an assumption that opera is very elitist. A lot of people think it isn’t for them,” he says. ENO was keen to target people with a keen interest in culture and the arts – people who go to galleries, museums, theatres and the cinema, but who might not have considered going to the opera – without alienating existing audiences.
The studio devised a new approach for marketing based around the idea of summing up operas in a single sentence. Previously, ENO led with the title of an opera and an image from the production – an approach that appeals largely to people who have heard of that opera or know what it’s about. “We had drifted towards more of a production-led, ‘you have to be in the know’ approach, rather than ‘come one, come all’,” says Sims.
The new marketing features a brief synopsis of each opera accompanied by a striking image, an approach that is designed to spark people’s interest in a similar way to the blurb on the back of a novel. “A book’s cover might engage you visually, but it’s the synopsis on the back that makes you want to buy it,” says Elliott.
This is a tried and tested formula in publishing, but it’s less common in other areas of cultural marketing – particularly opera and theatre. “[Most organisations] tend to lead with the title … but the title is no use if people don’t know what the story is,” says Elliott.
“We decided to lead with the story, the title, then the dates and ticket prices, so the messaging is really clear and consistent,” he adds. “I’m not aware of anyone in the cultural sector marketing this way … and if they do, I don’t think anyone leads with this principle as purposefully or consistently as we are doing with ENO.”
This approach helps differentiate ENO’s marketing from that of other opera and theatre companies. It also allows the organisation to be more creative with the imagery used to promote its productions. Rose has so far commissioned a diverse set of emerging and established creatives to produce imagery for campaigns, including papercut artists, photographers and sculptors.
Creatives are asked to create an image that reflect a particular aspect of a production – from its setting to key themes – without telling the whole story. The result is a bold and intriguing set of images that capture the mood of a piece: Toby Leigh’s colourful illustrations for the Pirates of Penzance (ENO’s most successful production to date) reflect its sense of humour and fun, while Mat Maitland’s surreal artwork for the Magic Flute hints at magic and fantasy. Rose also worked with FGreat to create an animated teaser for Madam Butterfly, based on an image by Paul Zak.
“A still image is never going to be able to convey the whole story, so we asked image-makers to interpret an aspect of each opera in an interesting way, to help support the written story,” says Toby Edwards, design director at Rose.
Instead of designing campaigns on an ad-hoc basis, Rose has been working with ENO to create each season’s marketing in advance. Working on campaigns for several productions at once can be challenging but Elliott says it allows the studio to look at each set of campaigns as a whole and ensure that no two feel too alike.
Sims says the new approach is already having an impact: ENO’s customer base has traditionally been made up largely of over 55s but the average age of attendees at the Magic Flute was around 30. The response to posters and marketing in focus groups has been positive, with many people saying imagery and descriptions made them want to find out more about that opera.
Mobile traffic to ENO’s website has increased by 400% and the company’s latest annual report reveals a significant increase in box office takings – up from £8,629,000 in 2015 to £11,406,000 in 2016.
This increase in sales is in part due to an initiative to make tickets more affordable. ENO has made 500 tickets available at £20 or less for each of this year’s productions, which Sims says has resulted in “a different type of audience” sitting in seats. More than 237,000 people attended an opera at ENO this year – up from 195,000 the year before – and 29,795 of them did so for the first time. “We’ve had responses on Twitter from people saying, ‘I didn’t think opera was that good’ … which is great,'” she adds.
ENO has also increased its audience by putting on cinema, TV and radio broadcasts of its work, and running Opera Undressed, an initiative aimed at young people and those who are new to opera. The initiative is promoted through social media and offers tickets for £20. The price includes a free drink, a briefing on the plot and key themes before the production and a chance to meet the cast afterwards.
“We’ve seen a really good uptake for that … and we’ve had a lot of people come away saying, ‘that was superb'” adds Sims. The branding makes use of ‘un’, ‘de’ and ‘dis’ prefixes, reflecting the initiative’s aim to challenge people’s perceptions of opera. “The idea [with the branding] was to inject a bit of fun – it’s something everything can enjoy, but it’s specifically targeting a younger demographic,” says Edwards.
In addition to its work on marketing initiatives, Rose has updated ENO’s visual identity. The organisation’s logo – created in 1991 by Mike Dempsey – has been subtly updated, with Edwards creating a lighter version of the brand’s famous mark using a bespoke version of Lineto typeface Brown (now used throughout its communications). The basic structure, however – an ‘E’ and ‘N’ above the letter ‘O’ – remains the same.
“We went through different options – one was to keep the logo the same but that made [ENO] a little nervous,” says Elliott. “The option they liked best was our idea to keep the integrity of the original design, but streamline it…. That logo was really cherished within the design community, and when you’re working with cultural clients – particularly brands that have been around for a long time – you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of something that has a lot of brand equity.”
Rose’s signage and wayfinding for the London Coliseum has still to be rolled out but form part of a plan to turn the venue into a destination in its own right. The building’s cafe was recently taken over by Benugo and Rose is in the process of designing crockery, bags and takeaway cups for it using artwork from marketing campaigns. There are also plans to launch a range of merchandise – depending on budgets – and Rose recently created a display for the box office area using props from previous productions to help tell the story of ENO.
“The intention is to open up the ground floor space and find new ways of making the Coliseum a place to come and visit, rather than just to see a production,” says Elliott. In turn, the hope is that this will generate some much-needed additional income for the company.
As ACE’s chief executive Darren Hendley recently pointed out, opera companies have been facing declining audience figures for years. If those companies want to survive – particularly in a climate of cuts to arts and cultural organisations – they must “adapt or die”.
ENO faces a difficult time as cuts come into force but with new management, a focus on innovation and reaching new audiences and a clear vision for the brand, the future is perhaps starting to look a little brighter. Sims sees the company’s new branding as integral to its progression, helping make audiences aware of what ENO stands for. The long-term aim is to create a consistent customer experience and an identity that feels fresh and contemporary, reflecting ENO’s focus on making innovative work that appeals to the masses.
“Things are looking up [for ENO],” says Sims. “We have a very clear vision, we have a great CEO and fantastic artistic director and we’re ready to move forward. I think the way we’re approaching the visual assets help us to have that focus and level of consistency. Most arts organisations tend to hate the word brand, because it’s a very corporate, commercial word … but we do need to rally around our brand because it’s merely a reflection of our personality, of who we are and why we are,” she adds.