What Does “Relevant” Even Mean?

And Why the Customer Defines it, Not Us

Aubrey Bergauer
May 20 · 14 min read
Top relevant brands of 2018 according to Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index®. Image credit: Prophet

Arts organizations talk a lot of about “being relevant,” but I’ve yet to hear any arts leader* define what they think that means. Funders ask about it in grant applications, we have sessions on it at conferences, we say it in both our marketing meetings and our community engagement meetings, and our programming meetings too. It’s not an overused buzzword—it matters a lot if we get it right, so much so that one company, global consultancy Prophet, goes so far as to say that relevance is the most reliable indicator of a brand’s long term success.

Long term success is pretty important to the life of an orchestra.

Every year, Prophet releases their annual Brand Relevance Index®, a ranking of the top most-relevant brands according to a data set of thousands of customers’ opinions on 299 brands across 37 industries. What’s important to note is that customers are who decide what’s relevant, not the agency publishing the report, and not any other third party “expert.” Customers decide what’s relevant, period.

At the top of the list are the usual suspects: Apple (I typed this on a MacBook), Amazon (it seems half my life is ordered this way nowadays), Pinterest (the number one tool I used when I remodeled my bathroom last year…and the number one app I bring to the salon every time I get a haircut), Netflix (my latest binge was Russian Doll), and Android (Google’s operating system is on ~80% of all smartphones worldwide). And onwards it goes with a lot of brands that are probably pretty relevant to you, too: Google, Spotify, Disney, Bose, Keurig, Costco…see the full list here.

So how do we articulate what these brands have that orchestras can and should have, too? What is “relevant” and how do orchestras become it? Prophet says that relevant brands generally have four common principles. These brands are:

Relevant companies meet the needs of consumers. This makes sense when consumers are the ones who decide what’s relevant. Whether that’s our KitchenAid mixer, our favorite Pixar film, or the can’t-get-it-anywhere-else Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken, these brands understand what their customers want. Arts organizations are collectively terrible at this.

We often think we understand what our customers want: like when the donors love the wine at the intermission reception, or don’t love the change in how the box office is handling subscription renewals. And for this group, we probably do correctly know how they’re feeling and what they want. Why? Because we talk to them. A lot. We talk to our top donors more than any other constituency and generally have a good sense of how they feel. Well, guess what, if we look at our databases, what percentage of active accounts are the top donors? At my organization it’s under 4% of all active accounts (meaning accounts with any ticket purchase, donation, or special event attendance in recent years). This group is a very small piece of a much larger population, and this type of listening work needs to be done for every constituency, particularly for the 68% of our active accounts who have come only once or twice in the last three years. Because that’s a lot of people not being loyal, and high percentages of patrons not being loyal is the market telling us we are not relevant. Orchestras are not in a position to question this.

For any organization reading this thinking that the survey outreach you do is sufficient to be customer obsessed, consider that 1) survey response bias means only the most engaged people are completing the survey so you’re not getting good intel from that massive un-loyal group from whom we need it most, and 2) sending out a survey is hardly being customer obsessed…it’s more like customer lukewarm or customer lazy. I’ll be the first to admit that when making decisions at any level of seniority in any department, it is very hard to put the customer first…it’s usually the answer that requires more work, or doing things in a different way that may cross departmental lines, or changing how I approach solving the problem. But to make excuses and approach our work in any other way is to not be customer obsessed. Of all four pillars of brand relevance, this is the one where arts organizations are the farthest behind. It’s generally completely counterintuitive to our largely insular mode of operation, and any orchestra who truly seeks relevance must create the company culture change to push past this.

Prophet says that pragmatic brands constantly experiment, fail fast when an experiment doesn’t pan out, and use that data to make smart bets and take bold steps going forward. Those things are pragmatic because they are the model of learning and innovation. They also constitute iterative design: when we test an idea on a small scale, analyze the results, and then refine the idea before launching it in a bigger way. That model has propelled the California Symphony forward, from A/B testing our ads, to switching the header photo on a concert landing page because the bounce rate for that page was too high, to trying different content in emails, to getting our front of house lobby activities (yes, including catering) down to a data-driven science because we’ve experimented so much.

As orchestras, we must develop a company culture that allows for testing ideas, failing fast and quickly moving on when an idea doesn’t work, and doubling down when small ideas prove they may work on a larger scale. Brands that do this well are Chick-fil-A, with their menu innovations and top notch customer service, TurboTax (or parent company Intuit), who iterated their way to becoming the #1 best-selling tax software, and formerly Chipotle, when they put a stake in the ground in terms of how they source their ingredients (more about Chipotle’s fall from relevance later).

This is where it gets so good for orchestras: brands that form emotional connections and fulfill a larger purpose are inspired. Pinterest, Lego, and Nike are category leaders here; they help us dream, and they help us think about what could be — that future bathroom or fetching haircut in my case with Pinterest, or an equal world where NFL players don’t lose their careers over taking a knee in response to police brutality in Nike’s case. These brands inspire.

Professional orchestras do this too. It’s in our product’s DNA to reach beyond and fulfill a larger purpose. Our product is a vehicle to social change (think El Sistema type education programs), a pioneer in gender equality (think blind auditions), and our product is enormously powerful and moving and exquisitely beautiful all at the same time (the number one emotion expressed by participants in our Orchestra X research was awe). Brands everywhere are dying to figure out to how to deliver what our institutions do day in and day out. Of the four pillars of relevance, inspiring others is the one we do best.

To innovate is to push the status quo. In other words, these brands — brands like Dyson, Google, and Marvel — regularly engage in new ways to address unmet needs. This is often difficult for older and bigger arts organizations; we admittedly have a lot riding on our past. But just as heralded executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says to leaders that “what got you here won’t get you there,” the same is true for our longstanding orchestras: Prophet says that “free-thinking companies don’t allow their legacy to squash new ideas.”

Also, let’s be real: even the biggest orchestras are small businesses compared to other leading innovative brands like Southwest Airlines and 3M. Innovation is not a matter of budget size; it’s a matter of company culture, which in turn leads to big revenue (Black Panther and Avengers, anyone?).

So how do we innovate? When we test and learn and then make big bets based on those learnings, or put a stake in the ground for something we stand for, we are pushing the status quo. For example, Nike didn’t take a chance on a whim with that Kaepernick campaign; they knew from being customer obsessed what would effectively drive a mega jackpot response from their patron base.

Another way to approach innovation is to look at what’s not going to change. Marketing guru and bestselling author Mark Schaefer says that companies like Amazon innovate around what’s constant, such as low prices, good selection, and fast and easy delivery. In other words, customers aren’t going to stop wanting those things in the future, and therefore most of Amazon’s innovations are in service to those needs. This methodology holds true for arts organizations, too: we can be optimizing a lot around basic customer needs, making it much faster to buy a ticket, easier to get information about upcoming performances, and helpful for patrons to get the concerts they want in their subscription instead of being forced into a fixed seat package, to give a few examples. These are areas where innovation will not be wasted as these patron needs are never going to change, and we only stand to gain from addressing them. Thus we circle right back to the top about why it’s so important to be customer obsessed if we care about being relevant. Innovation helps us get there.

If this work was easy and straightforward, all brands across all industries, including arts organizations, would be doing it. But it’s not easy, and therefore some brands climb to the top of relevance rankings, which in actuality means they climb to the top of our own personal can’t-live-without places in our lives. Besides being hard work, there are two big reasons orchestras generally don’t pursue relevance in the ways described herein:

1. Fear based resistance. The product is what we know best, so we tend to focus on that at the expense of looking outward. Thinking about programming more movie concerts, or geeking out over the latest up-and-coming artist, or debating whether concert start times should be earlier is much more comfortable. Going to customers opens the door to the unknown, and that is scary. What if customers want something we can’t deliver? Or what if what they want is in opposition to something I want, or my board members want? How can we serve different people with different needs and expectations? To face these questions is hard and brave. To not face them is leading (or a lack thereof) out of fear.

To put a finer point on this, here’s an example outside the arts industry of what happens when decisions are made without customer input and out of fear or reaction. Chipotle once soared to the top of fast-casual brand relevance with their commitment to sustainably sourcing food. Then, in recent years they dropped significantly in the relevance rankings after food safety issues and subsequent negative media. Instead of staying true to what customers wanted, they decided to combat the bad press by rolling out new products (a distraction from their brand promise), and by responding with “more rhetoric than substance” according to food safety expert Dr. Ben Chapman (talk is cheap and it didn’t hold up). These changes did bring in some new customers, and for a brief period of time, same-store sales did see some growth, but these changes failed to build loyal customers, which ultimately failed to turn sales around over the long term. Swap out “new products” with “movie concerts” and “rhetoric” with “community talk back events and grant application language” and Chipotle’s story is a cautionary tale for arts organizations…there is some sort of audience uptick from these efforts, but nothing that leads to loyalty. At the end of the day, no matter what we’re saying or doing, falling sales = falling from relevance. This is a case study for all of us in the pitfalls of tinkering with the product—what’s inward-facing and comfortable—while fearfully resisting focusing on the customer.

2. Misinformation. Every time people ask me about designing an awesome customer experience, they always ask about push back from the core audience, and/or push back internally. On the former, let’s be clear: our “core audience” is a very small percentage of users (remember the stats above where only 4% of the California Symphony’s active accounts are the most loyal?). Recently I wrote about this phenomenon (called the law of small numbers), where human tendency is to give more weight or attention to the story or opinion of a few over looking at the aggregate information available. I’m not suggesting radically altering anything to specifically alienate the important, lucrative segments. Instead, my recommendation, always, is to just look at the data not the anecdotes.

Regarding the later question on dealing with internal pushback, the answer is the same: look at the data. Website data, patron data, case studies, and benchmark reports in our industry. It’s all there and available to us. Additionally, I can’t understand internal reluctance to trying something differently that has proved successful in other industries when we know that the current way is not working well for us (that’s the opposite of being ruthlessly pragmatic). So whether we’re up against that one story, or that one thing that one donor or board member said, or the way it’s always been done, we have got to get past the misinformation we so often incorrectly lean on.

For example, when we were working over the last year to design a website experience that meets the needs of customers, we had to constantly remind ourselves that we weren’t designing for Mr. and Mrs. Longtime Loyal Patron because the data shows that traffic to the California Symphony’s website is from 80% new people. Not 80% new ticket buyers — that’s 80% brand new people visiting the website for the first time ever. Think about that…if 80% of website visitors are brand spanking new, that means only 20% have visited a mere two times, and some smaller subset of that group has visited more often. Suddenly things like asking for a donation or learning about our education programs become way less of a priority in that context because that stuff is relevant to literally almost nobody visiting the site. In fact, it’s because they are so loyal that the people in that small-but-committed segment aren’t going to the website as much; they have their tickets already, so they don’t need the website to find information or to purchase.

It’s not that donations and education programs aren’t important to the organization; it’s that they’re not as important — or relevant — to the vast majority of users. One more time, they decide what’s relevant, not us. To pursue any other approach is to be misinformed.

In a world where customers determine what’s relevant — not grantmakers, not executive directors, not board members, not staff members, and not artists — there is good news. Entertainment is relevant.

Out of the hundreds of brands rated on Prophet’s index, Netflix, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, Disney, Marvel, PlayStation, Pixar, Bose, Lego and Fisher-Price all took top relevant spots. Those companies know how to entertain, and they do it while obsessing over their customers, being ruthlessly pragmatic, inspiring us, and consistently innovating. Simultaneously and interestingly, HBO is falling per this index, proving that a quality entertainment product alone isn’t enough, and that those four areas of focus all must be constantly addressed.

Again, orchestras do some of this exceptionally well already. Orchestras are a part of why those movies have drama, why video games offer an adrenaline rush, and why a virtuosic soloist gives us goosebumps on a good set of speakers — and brings the house down in person. There is a human need to be inspired, to learn, to desire culture. One last stat: in a recent Google study on consumer behavior (Digital Path to Ticket Purchase Study), they found that 93% of people in the U.S. say entertainment is vital to their happiness, and 3 of the top 5 sources of entertainment are performance art and culture (the other two are sports and movies). Orchestra friends, entertainment is relevant, we are a big part of that, and the customer decides where we stand. We absolutely can carve and claim our relevant place.

*Update: the amazing Nina Simon has written about relevance as well, so I now know of at least one other arts leader who tackled this topic. Nina says it this way in The Art of Relevance, “People choose for themselves what is relevant….Our work is only relevant when people tell us it is.” Love it.

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own In a time when many arts organizations are finding it more and more difficult to meet rising ticket, subscription, and fundraising goals, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple the donor base.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through proving and sharing what works in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of execution and impact at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, in the community, and is changing the narrative for the classical music industry. aubreybergauer.com

Prophet is a consultancy that helps clients find uncommon growth through marketing, brand, experience, innovation and organization & culture capabilities. We operate differently than other consultancies, blending insight, strategy and creativity with an optimistic yet pragmatic approach. Visit us at prophet.com.

Aubrey Bergauer

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Working to change the narrative for orchestras. Executive Director of the California Symphony.