A consistent visual brand identity can have a massive influence on whether audiences or industry decision makers take you seriously. As theatre creatives we consider everything to be about the art but that's not how the world works and while we fight this truth, we waste time and brain space that could be invested in improving what is known as our 'visual identity'.
How you present your brand really does matter.
We all do it. We make snap decisions based on what we see when we go to a theatre company's website or social media profiles. If the website is poorly designed or outdated, or their social media is uninspiring, inconsistent or confusing, we subconsciously judge the credibility of their show. Editors do it when they look at the dinky, unbranded press release we send them, placing us instantly in the 'no' pile.
Over the years, I have changed audience perceptions of large and tiny theatre companies purely through changing their visual brand identity (what they look like online). I've found that once I removed the barrier of poor visual presentation, audiences and industry decision makers start to take more notice. It's not everything but it's a huge, positive start and relatively simple to implement.
Part of branding is removing barriers. You can take a few simple steps to create a professional image that removes the things that were masking your creativity from the world. Isn't that what you want? People to see the art; just the art? Good, simple visual brand design should do just that. It's about creating a visual brand that supports your community theatre organisation rather than overpowering it for the wrong reasons. So, where do we begin?
Let's assume we're working with limited resources (time, volunteers and finances). Most community theatre organisations do not have the budget to contract a graphic designer, but if you do have budget, I highly recommend going with a professional. If you can't do that, read on.
1. Use the right tools
Subscribe to canva.com. I have used Canva since it began (2012) because it is the graphic design platform for marketers. It has saved me thousands of hours, is simple to use, and cost effective. If you can, get the Pro version for the extra options it offers (N.B. This isn't a paid promo for Canva. I simply share what I have found to be highly effective). I could not work without it.
I can create gifs, print-ready documents, remove the backgrounds of photos, create videos/reels for social media, animated posts, all my social media content in the right sizes and formats, even write captions with AI support and, with the PRO version, organise every brand I work with for easy workflow.
I can set up default brand kits for each of my clients, house everything in an organised folder system and it has saved me thousands and thousands of hours in design time; especially valuable when I'm working within theatre deadlines and with teams.
If you use any other platform to design, consider the organisational side of your assets (images, fonts, colours, etc) and build something that leverages your valuable time.
2. Build your visual identity
Create a simple brand style guide; and I mean SIMPLE. You don't need a 54 page document you'll never read. You just need a page to record your choices of how you will consistently present your visual brand (colours, fonts, and graphics). Without this guide you will find it difficult to maintain a consistent visual identity or delegate marketing tasks to others.
Choose a font. I would recommend something simple, clear and easy to read. You can use it in variations, for example in BOLD for headings. You want a font that translates easily on the web, and one that can be read clearly on a small phone screen. Remember that 70% of your posts are read on a phone. Tiny screens are not the friend of overly fancy fonts.
You will need a colour palette to represent your theatre company or creative brand. Choose your base colour, an accent colour and a neutral colour. Brand colour schemes can have between one and four colours but even monochrome schemes will require some variation in hues for different purposes. If you need help creating a colour palette, you can begin with this free, online palette generator.
Now, here's where things can get bogged down - your logo. Understand that your logo is NOT your brand. It is part of brand's visual identity. It's the 'mark' of your brand. It's how people quickly recognise that it's you. I've seen theatre companies go into battle over logos. Think of the apple of Apple Computers. You see the apple and you instantly know who it represents but apples have nothing to do with computers. It's how you consistently use the logo that matters.
You will need a light and a dark version of your logo (PNG files with a transparent background. You can also go with the common lettered logo; your theatre company's name in a simple font. If you outgrow what you have and want to change it in the future, use the change (rebrand) to your advantage. Build a campaign to release the new look and celebrate what has grown for your organisation to get you to this point.
3. Stay organised
Create folders everywhere you go. In Canva, Dropbox, Google Drive. When you sort marketing material and content as you go, you'll save yourself time. Keep things in the cloud so you can access them anywhere and on any device.
Build brand kits for each show; folders containing the consistent imaging and graphic elements you want to use to help people recognise your show over time. I recommend removing the background of your promo shots as well. This will save you so much time as you build the various elements of your content strategy during the promotional phase.
Organisation is a major key to saving you time and allowing you to more easily delegate to others. As a volunteer, you might only have a couple of hours a week to dedicate to your theatre organisation's marketing. Don't use it all up searching for the same things every single time you want to create content.
4. It's all about consistency
Make sure your brand identity is consistent across everything your audience comes into contact with. This includes print materials, your EPK (Electronic Press Kit), proposals, ticketing platforms, website, all social media - absolutely everything your audience sees online and offline. This builds brand recognition and confidence in the minds of patrons. I've used this simple process over and over again with all sorts of projects with consistent success.
There's a rule in marketing that says your audience will need to see your visual identity at least seven times to recognise it. Make the most of this by creating visual consistency for your theatre organisation and for each show. Although this is a more in depth conversation than I will spend here in this post, a theatre organisation always has two brands running - the company brand and the show brand. You must have both.
I always cringe when I see a community theatre organisation create social media accounts for their shows instead of building show content on their company accounts and here's why. You could have a super successful show that gathers a lot of followers on social accounts specific to that show, but our seasons are short; they end within weeks. At that point, you've lost contact with all the people who followed your show account. Most of them will not migrate to your company accounts. This strategy was built for global touring productions that last for years. It isn't a successful strategy for community theatre productions with short seasons.
When you have set up a consistent visual brand for your show, with a couple of graphic elements, set colours and fonts and use them in everything you design to promote that show, you help your audience to recognise your content when it pops up in their feed, on a billboard, and in print.
I have always worked within the principal of KEEP THINGS SUPER SIMPLE. I do not have time to spend ages creating fabulously detailed graphic designs. That simply strokes my creative ego rather than serves the purpose of marketing. I have too many other things to do to be effectively promoting the show and building the brand of the theatre organisation. Simple always works and allows your volunteers to contribute regardless of their graphic design skills.
Now, here's the most important lesson I have learned in over a dozen years of theatre promotion - begin! Don't wait until everything is perfect. Perfect doesn't exist. What works is getting the word out and improving your skills through consistent practice. I look back at some of my work in my early days and I can tell you that, it was VERY basic but it did the job. Don't overthink. Learn always. You're ok. You're going to get better. You won't break anything but if you don't begin, no one will know your show exists.
The best you can do is all you need to do!
Sherryl-Lee Secomb writes her blog, An Idiot On Stage, specifically to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Sher has been building brands for performing creatives in Australia since 2011 and now advises theatre organisations and performing artists in marketing their work and building awareness of their brand.
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