Marketing the Steppenwolf Brand

The first big task facing David Hawkanson after he stepped into his new job as executive director at Steppenwolf Theatre this August was to find a replacement for marketing director Jennifer Bielstein, who’d just jumped ship to become managing director at Writers’ Theatre. Rather than using a headhunter, Hawkanson and Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey decided to conduct the search themselves, and Hawkanson placed a few ads in nonprofit trade journals. He was surprised by a flood of responses–not only from the nonprofit world but from people with corporate backgrounds. “We considered 60 candidates,” he says. “The strongest came from commercial and corporate fields.”

Hawkanson, a consultant to Steppenwolf before joining the company and managing director of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater prior to that, says they took a look at their strengths and weaknesses and realized they needed someone with serious marketing chops. They settled on Bradford Matson, who knows all about databases, focus groups, and conjoint analysis but had been using them to sell silk shirts and sofas to the working woman. Matson has no theater or nonprofit experience, but in 22 years at catalog giant Spiegel, he worked his way up the ladder from copywriter to senior vice president for advertising and brand communications.

“We did 52 catalogs a year, 5,000 pages,” Matson says. But suffering from its acquisition of Eddie Bauer, problems with its credit card operation, Internet competition, and, according to some, an unclear brand identity, the venerable retailer entered bankruptcy last March and moved its advertising department to New York. Matson, who wanted to stay in Chicago, left in October in what he says was an amicable separation. His exit gave him the sudden opportunity to listen to a voice he’d been squelching–an inner voice saying, “Our society has gotten crazy with consuming things, and here I was, contributing to it.”

The job at Steppenwolf, where he’d been a subscriber for years, was, he says, a chance to “market something I believe in, something important,” but would entail a huge pay cut–something on the order of 50 percent or more. While Matson was debating the wisdom of this, someone gave him the name of Tom Yorton, president and managing director at Second City Communications, who’d also left corporate marketing for the theater. Says Matson, “I called him, we discussed the pros and cons, and he said, ‘It sounds like you want to do it. Why don’t you just go ahead?'” Now Matson, who will start at Steppenwolf January 5, sees himself as part of a boomer midlife trend: trading a generous income for more meaningful work.

Matson expects his direct-marketing experience to help him identify potential Steppenwolf subscribers and ticket buyers. The Internet will be a major focus. He’ll also be looking for the “triggers” of patrons who fail to resubscribe. Change your ticket dates two or three times in a season, for example, and you might get a “proactive” call from the marketing department, looking for ways to keep you happy. Matson says the issues Hawkanson’s discussed with him so far are issues for theater in general: how to grow subscriptions, build the brand, and–chalk this one up to the rosy glow of a new beginning–“make sure there’s never an empty seat in the house.” He says he admires Steppenwolf’s ensemble-based structure and the fact that it’s an actors’ theater: “Actors training actors–almost like a guild–that’s my personal perception of what the heart of Steppenwolf is.” He thinks it has “a great brand essence,” communicated through those “grainy black-and-white photos of the actors.”

Hawkanson says the market in Chicago is getting more competitive, while buyers are less predictable. Steppenwolf, like most theaters, has found that subscription numbers are “down marginally,” while single-ticket revenues are up. Subscribers still account for a hefty 73 percent of the Steppenwolf audience, and subscription sales for next season are expected to total 21,500–down from a pre-9/11 high of 23,862. “Your least expensive revenue is a subscription sale,” Hawkanson says. “The most expensive is the last-minute ticket purchase–because you spend more on advertising.”

Steppenwolf’s already engaged in some marketing magic aimed at increasing its income. Last summer it announced that its main-stage theater would henceforth be known as the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, while its studio theater would be officially renamed the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre. That cleared the way for staging one of its five subscription productions in the studio–um, upstairs space–opening enough slots downstairs to run each of the other four plays there for another week or two.

Theater Matters

he League of Chicago Theatres is touting a new study done with the Illinois Arts Alliance that finds that “Chicago’s live theater industry generated $347 million in total economic impact in 2002–more than twice its impact on the region’s economy just seven years ago.” They’ve got our attention; details to follow at a City Club of Chicago luncheon panel on “the business of the arts” January 26.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.