Dance clubs wake up to power of branding

Dance music has come a long way from illegal raves and pirate radio, and is now embracing mainstream marketing.

News that London dance club Ministry of Sound is to supply over 20 commercial radio stations with Ministry branded programming is the strongest indication yet of the emergence of clubs as fully-fledged brands (MW July 26).

The clubs are employing conventional marketing techniques and developing database marketing to create loyalty in the same way that retailers do. And they are also expanding their brands into other related sectors.

The current phase of dance music culture in the UK began in the late Eighties as an underground movement centred on illegal parties held in warehouses and fields.

It swiftly moved from the illegal parties and pirate radio to mainstream night clubs and licensed stations. But it was thought that the transition to the mainstream and the fickle nature of youth trends would eventually kill the scene and it would be replaced by the next big thing.

However, thanks to the adaptability of dance music – leading to a blinding complexity of styles – clubbing is going strong. According to ROAR, the youth research compiled by a consortium of media owners, 38 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds claim to go clubbing at least once a week, and among 18 to 21-year-olds this rises to 50 per cent.

ROAR uses an example to illustrate the value of the nightclub industry. It says there were 104 ads in London listings magazine Time Out for club nights on New Year’s Eve 1995, where roughly 1,000 people per club were paying an average of 25 each. This amounts to 2.6m in entrance fees alone on one night in London. In 1990 there were only 46 such ads and in 1985 only 20.

While the style of music that has created this clubbing industry has adapted, it has stayed consistent in one area – it is made by the faceless. This is the key to the power of the brands that have emerged from dance culture.

The place of pop star brand names has been taken by a number of so-called superclubs; the Ministry of Sound, which was opened in 1991, and Club UK in London; Cream in Liverpool, which has been open for four years; Manchester’s Hacienda; Renaissance in Birmingham; and the Kiss FM radio stations in London and Manchester.

They have attached their names to the things that pop stars put their names to, such as albums and DJ tours.”Dance music is the Bic razor of music,” says Mark Rodol, managing director of the Ministry of Sound. “It moves so quickly the names are disposable. On our compilation CDs the track listing is irrelevant. It’s the Ministry of Sound’s name that is the important bit.”

The compilation CDs grew out of requests by clubbers for tapes of the music being played by the clubs’ DJs. The tours – including overseas trips to Europe and the Far East – were prompted by other clubs wanting DJs from the superclubs to do sessions that were again linked by name to the big-name clubs.

The clubs are also signing sponsorship and merchandising deals with beer companies, and brands such as Sony PlayStation.

Clubs and radio stations have been able to extend their brand names into areas unknown to the guitar band – hence the Ministry deal with radio stations.

The Ministry and Cream have created so much branded merchandise that they have their own shops to sell everything from bags to jackets and they have large direct mailing businesses.

Kiss FM links up with Thomas Cook to take clubbers to Ibiza, and clubs also arrange trips that combine holidays with their DJs and music.

As well as brand extensions, dance brands use sophisticated marketing techniques to give an inclusive, membership feel to clubbers.

The original underground nature of dance culture – the use of mailing lists and secret mobile phone numbers for meeting points – has led to the clubs and radio stations staying close to their customer base. It has put them at the forefront of relationship marketing.

Using its massive throughput of people, the Ministry has a mailing list of 76,000 people. Crucially the majority will be aged under 30 with relatively high levels of disposable income. Kiss FM launched its own customer magazine, The Lick, which it mailed out to 255,000 listeners two months ago.

“People at Cream are buying into a lifestyle,” says James Barton, director and part owner of Cream. “They feel like they own a part of it.”

Dance music is big business, but there must be the fear that, as with all youth trends, the bubble may burst. “Dance music has always been with us,” says Gordon McNamee, founder and managing director of Kiss 100FM. “It was just called something else, like Motown or soul. Nightclubs have always played it. It’s just that now they are getting their act together and know how to market themselves.”

Barton believes that the key to longevity is maintaining creditability with customers. “It is about doing the right thing at the right time, not looking like you’ve sold out.” He cites the US record label Def Jam that first promoted rap and hip hop in the mid-Eighties as the model to follow. It has moved into fashion, merchandising and TV, but has retained credibility in the fast-moving black American music scene.

“We will not go into vodka or airlines,” says McNamee. But he believes Kiss can be extended further as a media brand – it already has a branded daily dance music slot on cable channel Live TV – but looks very carefully at any other extension away from its core business.

“You have to remember that it’s about music,” says Barton. “It’s about quality entertainment, not trying to be a supermarket.”

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