Sunday, December 6, 2009

Branding an improv troupe: Part 1

Here's an experiment: See if the techniques major brands use to differentiate themselves—even when they've become commodities or there aren't extreme differences between competitors—can work for a local improv troupe.

I started thinking about it after this exchange in the comments on a blog post this summer. As our community grows, there's less and less to tell the average audience member what to expect when they see a show. Unless you've seen some of all of the players, read a review or hear about it from a friend, what would compel you to seek out a specific improv troupe?

I'm working on an actual workshop—part "how to," part hands-on application—for this sort of thing, so I figured I'd try it out here. Play along if you want. And tell me, if you feel like it, if any of this stuff is helpful—too simple? too complicated? too irrelevant? That sort of thing. So here we go.

Or, to borrow a line from Joe Bill and the Annoyance: How you do what you do is who you are.

First, some quick definitions:
  • To get to your brand personality, describe your troupe as if it's a person—and think of your relationship to your audience like a relationship between two people.
  • Your brand identity is the way you present your troupe—your shows, your posters, your website, your logo. It's what you put out there—the experience you create.
  • Your brand image is your audience's perception of you.
In a dream world, your brand identity would be based on your brand personality. And together, they would create your brand image—and the relationship you have with your consumers.

Question #1: What is your troupe's personality?
Think about the improv troupes you've seen that make the biggest impression—and how you'd describe them to a friend. What 3-5 words would you use to describe your group?

Choose descriptors that get at the essence of who you are as a troupe. Some examples and approaches:
  • Comedic style: Playful. Whimsical. Mean-spirited. Intellectual. Aggressive.
  • Relationship with the audience: Friendly. Approachable. Seductive. Dangerous.
  • The players and their attitudes: Irreverent. Sexy. Adorable. Goofy. Ballsy. Cocky.
  • The vibe of the shows: Fast & furious. Patient. Accessible. Innovative.
Try to make them as specific as possible—no need to waste space with words like "funny." And you can skip words like "professional" and "experienced" and "premier" unless you're The Second City. (Or unless cultivating that vibe is essential to differentiating your group, which might be true if you're a private-show company targeting primarily corporate types, for example.)

As a case study, I'll use the Annoyance, because they have one of the strongest personalities of any around. If I were guessing at their personality, I'd use these:
  • subversive (which feels stronger than "irreverent")
  • uncensored (more open than "inappropriate" or "dirty")
  • fearless (beyond "powerful" and implies a certain recklessness)
And as a personal example, I'll use Spite (and hope Nikki and Megan will jump in to add, correct and argue if I misrepresent anything). Some with potential:
  • ballsy (because the masculine take on "brave" applies to our unladylike behavior)
  • bodacious (a mix of bold and audacious—and there's that "bodacious ta-tas" line)
  • mischievous (because there's a twist on "playful" that implies we're going to fuck with each other and the audience—and we actually promise each other that before shows)
  • ???? (we're not a "women's issues" group, but we offer a unique point of view—unladylike ladies? ungirly girls?—and it'd be nice to incorporate that)

Coming up next:
Question #2: Does your identity match your personality?


  1. Several good points, the best for me being the most simple: no need to waste space with words like "funny." I so hope that those reading this take away the nugget that appears to be "duh," and actually apply it...because we all see (and have promoted more than we know) plenty of "duh" out there.

    Nice work. Looking forward to your addressing Question #2.

  2. Thanks, Dennis!

    Just to clarify—I think there ARE times when a message should include a mention that what we're doing is comedy. Even better, though, we can build it into our identities strongly enough that we don't need to.

  3. Yeah, I agree with Dennis. I always try to incorporate Comedy or Improv somewhere in our branding. I market Loaded Dice as "The Bad Boys of Comedy" simply to differentiate ourselves from the pack and to identify with "Comedy".
    So I am going to work through this right now and post what I come up with.
    Okay here goes...

    Clever - we play smart and like to find the game within the game. We do that to entertain ourselves and sometimes make the audience think a little.

    Engaging- I love the thought that the audience is on the journey with us.

    Cocky - Yeah, you said it. I am taking it. I remind the boys just before every show, "Hit the stage like rock stars." Personally I just assume that everyone in the audience wants to sleep with me :) And most of the time, one woman actually does!

    Amazing - often, after a show, an audience member (stranger) will come up to one of us and say something to that effect. They could not understand how quickly and easily we could construct a scene.

    Okay so for Loaded Dice, as I see it,
    Clever Engaging Cocky and Amazing.

    Now, I am going to use it.

    This is a GREAT POST!! Thanks, TB!

  4. Glad you like it! (And, uh...yeah. I was thinking about you guys when I put "cocky." You make it work.)

  5. Two points:

    1. I would say the way most improv troupes brand themselves is either: a) generic; or b) closer to how they visualize themselves than how they actually come across in a show.

    2. There is a lot of "forest for the trees" syndrome happening in KC improv right now. Everyone is trying to do a show with one of their 19 troupes and is so immersed in their own improv world that he/she forgets that these are, in descending order, Kansas Citians' most common thoughts when hearing the word "improv": What?; Whose Line; Comedy Sportz. No one reads the words "irreverent" or "cocky" or "(insert adjective here)" and thinks, oh, that sounds like MY type of improv comedy. They will come to a show because they know someone in the cast or because they know someone who knows someone in the cast. If they like the show they will come see you again.

  6. And now I read the exchange you link to above. Well, at least I'm consistent.

  7. And that's what we love about you.

    If I thought it was a foregone conclusion that there's no possibility of ever, ever, ever performing for anyone outside an extended circle of friends and family, I be completely happy just taking classes and putting on "shows" in my living room.

    I believe we do a shitty job of marketing ourselves. And that maybe if we get better at it, more people will come.

  8. To this:

    They will come to a show because they know someone in the cast or because they know someone who knows someone in the cast. If they like the show they will come see you again...

    I'll add this:

    ...and maybe bring some of their friends, perpetuating the word-of-mouth cycle and thus expanding the circle of people who might possibly see you.

    I guess what I'm saying is that all the time worrying about "branding" and "image" is probably better spent making sure--damn sure--everyone who sees the show knows how to see another one. Calling one's troupe experimental or brash is no match for simply showing someone a good time and making it easy for them to remember when to come back and bring friends. Word of mouth is not the quickest of processes, but it's the only remotely effective thing I've ever seen in building an improv crowd.

  9. I agree with Josh.

    The Trip Fives.
    30-something Mutant Ninja Improvisers.

  10. OK, then, what if we tried this: For the first three shows this year, we focus all of Tantrum's marketing efforts on our inner circles (and that of our guest monologist). No posters. No press releases. No calendar listings. Just facebook invites and emails to our friends, and a blog update with show info in case they end up there.

    It would sure make my life a lot easier. (And let me focus time on guerilla tactics on my other projects.)

  11. Not to dismiss what you or Clay (or anyone for that matter) believes about their troupe, but Josh has a valid point. Just because we think we are something doesn't make it so. Consider the Johari/Nohari window.

    The one thing that is necessary from the start is metrics. Without accurate tracking of any marketing endeavors, we're just grasping at straws. If we don't know how people are finding us, how can we, in good conscience, scrap anything? (We, in the royal sense) Certainly the shotgun method isn't the most practical, but until we know what method is, it seems our best option.

  12. Insightful, Pete. Although a lot of times, I like to be dick just so not everyone is rah-rahing over a post. This time... I agree with Pete. The best we do right now is throw it all on the wall and make a mess and now we don't know what stuck or what fell. So we do it again, each time. It is a lot of wasted effort at times. I can tell you, that the guys and I decided that Posters and postcards don't work that well. What works for sure, is what Josh said... word of mouth and letting people know how to see you next.

    How do we track that? We have to poll the audience in attendance at our shows... and then compile the polls over time.


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