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May 21, 2024

Broadway and Branding

Stacey Suarez

Broadway and Branding

It’s no secret among the Jackalopes that I am an unhinged lover of musicals. Un. Hinged. I mean I’m so obsessed that you probably shouldn’t mention Broadway in a meeting with me… not unless you have fifteen minutes to spare for me to ramble on about the lyrical analysis of a new musical’s cast recording because it’s all I’ve been listening to for the last 48 hours. Because I’ll do it. My passion knows no bounds and I will explain the entire plot of a musical based on the first seventy pages of War and Peace because the prologue is amazing and I don’t care that you didn’t ask. 

And if you think I don’t try to convert others to join my Broadway obsession, think again. I once saw two musicals in one day—bless you TKTS discount ticket booth and Wednesday matinees—then a few days later I made my friends come with me to see another one and I cried the entire time. 

I could go on, but you get the point.  

Another coworker and I recently took a quick trip to New York just to see as many musicals as possible. We saw four shows in four nights and it will forever be one of my proudest accomplishments. Being a fan of the musical genre, I listen to a lot of cast recordings so I knew pretty much exactly what I wanted to see before we got in line at the ticket booth every day. I did a lot of research on these shows and I had a strategy, but there are a lot of new musicals this season, so I was definitely open to seeing a different show if it caught my attention. 

There’s a bit of out-of-home advertising in Times Square. So obviously some of it caught my attention. 

Spoiler alert, the ads didn’t work on me and I stuck with the shows I had researched and knew I would enjoy. But looking back, this surprises me because I am usually a sucker for targeted ads and love trying new brands that I’ve never heard of. 

Broadway shows have a unique marketing challenge that I think any brand outside of the entertainment industry can relate to. They must hook their potential viewer with a teaser of the story and reel them in, but without giving away the entire plot. This might happen through a full-length trailer or a series of social media ads, but sometimes it’s just a billboard amongst the advertising wallpaper of Times Square. The beauty of a multi-channel advertising campaign is the ability to share a message with your audience in many ways. But in every piece of advertising, one thing remains consistent—the show or product’s visual branding. 

The Great Gatsby on Broadway

Now I’m not here trying to critique Broadway marketing or declare that any show is doing it wrong just because an ad didn’t work on me. One of my favorite things about design is its subjectivity, and that you could give fifty designers the same brief and still get fifty different outcomes that still solve the problem.

But since it took a few days for the targeted Broadway ads to hit my social feed, my only exposure to many of these new musicals were the billboards plastered around midtown and Times Square. The show’s visual identity—stripped down to its bare bones—needed to be compelling enough to convey the mood of the musical and bold enough to impact someone’s decision to actually buy a ticket. As a musical nerd graphic designer who loves branding and saves all her playbills, I started reflecting on the branding for many of the new shows this season, but especially the ones I got to see. 

Some lean into the visual mood of their set and story, whether it’s glamorous, dark and ominous, or gritty and rustic. Overarching themes are depicted with the use of color, texture, and typography, and important distinctions are made between musical genres. No one wants to go into a theater expecting a comedy and get a horror story… or maybe you do. (I’m looking at you Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a show that made the audience laugh so hard that lead actor broke character.) 

Sweeney Todd on Broadway

Certain strategies began to pop up again and again across the billboards in Times Square—many shows relying on images of their well-known lead performers to draw in crowds while others feature illustration or photography to evoke deeper feelings, even if the prospective audience can’t put a name to those feelings just yet. 

Some visuals are striking and bold, sparking intrigue and a desire to learn more about them. Others fall a bit flat and do little to make me wonder if they might end up on repeat in my headphones for weeks on end. One show’s branding I outright disliked when I saw it on a sign in New York, only for the cast album to drop days after our trip was over and completely blow me away. 

This show had me wondering if I made a mistake in my Broadway strategy. I missed out on a chance to experience it because I didn’t see the complexity and emotion of the story and music in the rather simple visual that I didn’t love. Obviously this show is not hurting and hundreds of people are watching it on Broadway every day. But I can’t help but wonder how the visuals might be better, just like any designer who catches sight of a logo they don’t like and imagine what they would do differently. 

As designers, we ultimately have no control over how people will perceive what we create. I can’t force anyone to like my logo and can’t help it if someone is violently offended by the color green I choose to use. It’s an unfortunate reality that some people just don’t have good taste—yeah, I said what I said. 

But what we can do is put as much thought into the branding process as possible. We can spend time learning anything and everything about a product, or exploring who a new brand might become right alongside the client that’s building it. We can choose what ideas to pursue, where to place focus, and how to best tell a story through a brand’s visual identity. It can be tempting to speed through this process, but when we do it right, we give the product (or the show 😉) a face and a voice upon which every other piece of marketing will be built. 

So my lesson here is two-fold: first, there can never be too much thought and energy put into creating a brand’s visual identity and making sure it tells the story it should. And second, I need to quit being so judgy of Broadway billboards and start planning another trip to see that musical I missed!