Mixing business with ballet – A case study on the unusual ideas that worked

| December 6, 2013 | 0 Comments
Business ideas to make ballet take off.

Using good business ideas to make ballet take off. Photo by Mish Sukharev via Flickr.

They may be a non-profit organisation on paper, but in action Joburg Ballet look more like a young, caffeine-spiked business startup with big dreams rather than any tired arts institution with old ideas.

While they’re not the most web- or social-savvy kids on the ballet block (that title goes to Diablo Ballet with their world first Web Ballet), when it comes to offline initiatives Joburg Ballet are increasingly the mavericks of marketing. Here’s a look at the big ideas behind a big year for the company:

From touchdown to game changer

When faced with the challenge of getting more bums on seats for their classical ballet productions, they looked for fresh ideas in unlikely places, far removed from the world of ballet, the theatre and even beyond the arts. They looked to the big business of sport.

Golden opportunities can be found waiting in unusual places.

Golden opportunities can be found waiting in unusual places. Photo by Jenni C via Flickr.

Taking advice from Harvard MBA students – who visited Joburg Ballet in January 2013 as part of their FIELD programme, of which Joburg Ballet is now a FIELD global partner – they looked to the best tactics used by major sport events to fill stadium seats.

Aiming to attract younger audiences to the games, some American pro football teams invited kiddies teams to play a short game during halftime. This clever idea effectively created low-cost halftime entertainment with the big bucks benefit of attracting the kids, their parents and all the supporting aunties, uncles and screaming fan club to watch their little darlings play on the professional field.

Applying this idea to ballet meant inviting the local dance schools and studios to give short performances during the interval of the company’s Don Quixote production in March 2013. And Bam! Seats sold like (American) hot cakes.

Seeing the opportunity not only to sell more seats, but to play a more active role in the professional development of young local dancers, Joburg Ballet upped the game for their next season of Cinderella in September 2013, when they turned the interval initiative into a dance competition with sponsored prizes. And again, their seats were sold.

And now for something completely different…

But while Joburg Ballet looked to sport ideas for filling their first two productions, it was the cinema that inspired a novel idea for their recent Nutcracker production. This time, the idea wasn’t around how to fill the seats, but rather how to market to those already sitting in them. Experimenting with new ways to give value and exposure to their business partners, Joburg Ballet stole an old idea from cinema advertising, and then gave it a ballet twist.

Cinema-goers expect to see adverts before a movie, but how would theatre-goers respond to a live on-stage advert before the opening night show?

Making brands fly with Joburg Ballet.

Making brands fly with ballet. Photo by Mariola Biela

After the initial confusion of the very non-Nutcracker music and the clearly non-classical neon orange outfits, the audience settled in to enjoy what appeared to be a bonus performance of some swirling and high-flying modern ballet.

As the dancers came to the end of their two minute piece, they lined up and opened the little suitcases they’d been dancing with to reveal a completely unexpected message from Joburg Ballet’s business partner, Mango Airlines. The audience erupted into a surprised applause, sharing comments such as “oh, how clever!” as the realisation hit that it was a commissioned ad-performance.

Ballet's first ever pre-show live advert

Ballet’s first live pre-show advert. Photo by Mariola Biela

The two Joburg Ballet leaders (CEO Dirk Badenhorst and artistic director Iain MacDonald) would later explain that this was the first ever branded ballet advert preceding a ballet performance, which gave the airline tremendous exposure to their captive ballet audience.

It was another experimental initiative that worked, so much so that the ballet company may have inadvertently pioneered a whole new industry of theatre advertising.

Soccer star Lucas Radebe tries his hand at ballet with Burnise Silvius during Joburg Ballet's airport flashmob with Mango Airlines.

Soccer star Lucas Radebe tries his hand at ballet with Burnise Silvius during Joburg Ballet’s airport flashmob.

A busy, boundary-pushing year

As with any young business striving for success, Joburg Ballet couldn’t settle for a few brilliant moments and put their feet up for the rest of the time. No, this company looked like they were willing to try anything, everything, grabbing any opportunity to take ballet to the people.

This included several flashmobs at airports, on trains and Gautrain stations and two banks (watch the two video clips below for more on those events).

Certain flashmobs were accompanied by pop-up ticket booths to link their marketing efforts to on-the-spot ticket sales.

The company also took ballet performances to unusual outdoor venues like the Pretoria Zoo; the Swartkops Air Show for their ballet with a Boeing; and even took centre pitch at a soccer stadium for the closing ceremony of the 2013 Orange Africa Cup of Nations, where the entire company performed with Yvonne Chaka Chaka in support of United Against Malaria to a televised audience of around 700 million viewers.

Clever collaborations and envy-making funding

Marie Claire and Joburg Ballet's fashion design competition

Marie Claire and Joburg Ballet’s fashion design competition to design Cinderella’s ball gown.

Talking of television, the Joburg Ballet dancers also performed with Mafikizolo at the 2013 Big Brother Africa opening night.

Other media collaborations earned the company advertising coverage on CNBC Africa and MNet, with a valuable little clip on SABC’s popular Top Billing show as a result of the design a dress for Cinderella competition featured in Marie Claire magazine.

Of course, not every experiment works, and certain Joburg Ballet initiatives were possibly not leveraged as well as they could be, particularly when time was tight and resources were scattered. Working at this extended pace, injuries and burnout were a very real risk too.

But it was their fearless, fresh thinking that earned them a great deal of interest, brand new audiences and business potential.

Add all this interest to the R8-million funding from the City of Joburg (which prompted the name change from South African Mzansi Ballet to Joburg Ballet) and the R2.4-million raised at their annual fundraiser event, Joburg Ballet’s 2013 run could just possibly make even the brightest Silicon Valley startups green with envy.

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Category: Performance

About the Author ()

Hi, I'm Robynn, and I'm a student of the potential of the body, the marvels of the mind, and the beauty of it all combined in ballet. As the editor, BodyMindBallet is where I get to learn, to share and to enjoy this wide world of dance - and with every day I gain an ever richer respect for the athleticism of dance and the skill of performance artistry.

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