What’s in a name? At Charlotte Ballet, big bucks

Charlotte Ballet’s marketing for “The Nutcracker” remained more traditional, to let people know just what to expect.
Charlotte Ballet’s marketing for “The Nutcracker” remained more traditional, to let people know just what to expect. Jeff Cravotta

Shakespeare may have been right that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t be worth an extra half-million dollars. A dance company, now – that’s a different matter.

Charlotte Ballet attempted the region’s first major cultural rebranding in decades in spring 2014. That meant abandoning the name N.C. Dance Theatre after 44 years, adopting a new logo and kicking off a fresh promotional campaign.

What happened? The company sold 5,706 more tickets last season and saw ticket revenue rise from $1.39 million to $1.65 million.

Its “Dancing With the Stars” fundraiser exceeded its goal by nearly $100,000, earning $310,000 for the company and $250,000 for area charities. And 21 new corporate sponsors of performances, programming and special events gave an extra $161,500.

“Most brands do a fabulous job of packaging an average product,” says Mythic president and CCO Lee James, whose design company shaped the campaign. “Charlotte Ballet had the opposite problem: The brand did not reflect the quality I saw onstage.”

The troupe had marketed itself more shrewdly in recent years. For instance, it often included a ballet with a famous title (“Othello,” “Dangerous Liaisons”) in mixed-repertory programs with lesser-known works, carefully building audience trust. But executive director Doug Singleton attributes much of the leap in fiscal year 2014-15 to the rebranding.

“Before we changed the name, even people in the industry thought we were still associated with School of the Arts,” he says.

“‘Nutcracker’ and the family shows did well, but last year we saw a huge jump in sales for mixed repertory. We think that comes from community pride: Saying ‘Charlotte Ballet’ meant the city had a sense of ownership.”

If you’ve seen that pink-orange-purple logo, you may have wondered exactly what it is. The colors signify passion. The three points reaching to the sky represent the three aspects of the company – performance, education and outreach – and take their shape from points of the McBride-Bonnefoux Center at 701 N. Tryon St.

The new name and logo inspired a complete makeover: bus placards, art on the building, brochures, advertisements. Mythic aimed for a startling reinvention.

James felt Charlotte Ballet was competing for attention not with the opera and symphony but with other brands of popular entertainment, such as movies and TV. Accordingly, Mythic designed a campaign featuring principal dancers in large, sexy photos that didn’t immediately say “ballet.”

“We consume entertainment up close and personal,” James says. “There’s a celebrity factor: We wanted (audiences) to ask, ‘Who are these people?’ And as dancers leave the company” – which the four in the original photos have done – “we can promote the new stars.”

He hired photographers from Charlotte and New York, a retouching artist who works with Rolling Stone’s Annie Leibovitz, the designer who came up with the poster for the Oscar-nominated “The Imitation Game.”

Singleton considers Charlotte Ballet a family of brands. Fans expect traditional tutus in art for “The Nutcracker” or something that immediately reveals a “Little Mermaid” to be family friendly. Audiences will accept more daring designs for more challenging shows; they’ll get it next season, with photos of dancers’ faces superimposed strikingly on their bodies.

Singleton says the company had considered this step since he joined in 2005. It moved forward after a name-recognition study conducted with patrons of Blumenthal Performing Arts, which showed that 52 percent of the people surveyed said they were aware of Charlotte Ballet – even though it didn’t yet exist.

The company has begun to trademark the name, which Singleton says will take five years. It could put the brand on caps, mugs or T-shirts, though that requires too large an initial investment at the moment. And it has adopted the slogan of president and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux: “Our home is Charlotte, and everything we do is ballet.”

Says James, “They’re not just putting a new name on what they do; they are redefining it. They own ballet. Ballet doesn’t own them.”

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