Live shows bring brands to life

Having started life as a spin-off from kids’ TV, live shows have grown into a sophisticated industry. They offer brands a chance to interact with consumers on a physical level, and if executed correctly, they will generate healthy profits.

With many of today’s cash-strapped households looking to spend their entertainment budgets on family-centred experiences, a growing number of film, television and animated characters are being licensed and hitting the road with live shows.

The Ben Hur Live extravaganza, which galloped with its chariots out of London’s The O2 to tour Europe last week, highlighted the staggering scale to which live productions now extend (see below).

Once largely a pre-school children’s phenomenon, live shows are increasingly being based on properties aimed at broader audiences, with epic productions such as BBC Worldwide’s Walking with Dinosaurs and Top Gear Live, again from BBC Worldwide.

The live show industry may have started modestly with “skip and wave” shows featuring kids television characters such as purple dinosaur Barney and Sesame Street characters, but productions now form a strategic component of a sophisticated marketing mix as well as providing a new revenue model that extends brands beyond their original format.

Gary Pope, managing director of Kids Industries, who is talking about new licensing strategies at this year’s Brand Licensing Europe event, says: “One of the reasons live shows work  for licensed brands is that they provide a physical, cognitive experience which creates a memory.”

He continues: “There are a zillion “experiential” agencies and they do things like put products in people’s hands, but they don’t really uncover emotion, create a connection or tell a story in the way a live show can.”

Live shows, as with any kind of licensing, are not without risks to the licensor, however. Pope points out: “Where things can go wrong is when the brand people don’t get sufficiently involved and the brand can get diluted.” Furthermore, there is no one standard business model to apply which provides control over how a brand is interpreted in live form. 

BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, is one of the companies at the forefront of developing its properties into live productions for family and adult audiences. In the past financial year, the business has sold 1.9 million tickets to its live shows in the UK, US, Australia and India.

Ratings hit Strictly Come Dancing toured the UK in 2008, and will do so in 2009 with a further British tour planned for 2010. Top Gear Live! – a tour slotted into an already gruelling filming schedule for Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May – toured three cities in the UK and Ireland last year as well as Johannesburg, Sydney, Auckland and Hong Kong and was seen by more than 300,000 people (see below).

BBC Worldwide’s pièce de résistance, however, has been the technologically ambitious Walking With Dinosaurs, which opened in Australia in January 2007, moving later in the year to the US and it has since toured the UK. More than 3 million people have seen the show, which is now touring Europe until mid-2010.

Clearly, live shows are a major revenue stream in their own right, as well as having the capacity to be very beneficial to the original source of the property.

Craig Stanley, BBC Worldwide general manager of live entertainment, says that live shows offer many brands the chance to interact with consumers on a far closer basis than ever before.

“I think it enriches the brand experience – people have a very personal relationship with brands. And it’s one way for us as a national broadcaster to get round the country,” he notes.

He adds: “As far as BBC and BBC Worldwide is concerned, in producing our shows, we are only interested if we can add value to the television brand. People have to come and have something extra, a real ‘wow’ factor.”

As Stanley points out, the expectations of audiences are sophisticated and defined by their entertainment experiences on other media platforms. He says: “People are used to watching $50m movies with incredible effects or West End musicals with sets that move around. They are used to seeing Madonna touring with 100 people. If you’re going to play in that building the following week, you better be sure you are offering something special.”

Stanley cites getting across the quality of his productions to potential audiences as one of his biggest challenges. He adds “finding the right partners to work with” to the list of challenges related to live shows as well as “finding the right venues, in the right cities, for the right number of performances”. 

He says: “You want to fulfil demand, but you also don’t want to have the position where it’s not quite sold because when auditoriums are full you get the excitement and buzz… but that is the challenge of every theatre producer.”

Stanley says live shows are a vital part of the larger commercial mix for branded properties today. And marketers need to consider the potential to develop a live strand from the property’s very conception.

He elaborates: “If it is a brand that has some real longevity and substance, as a result of that, it can be exploited across several different formats. Live shows is one of the strongest because it allows you to talk in the press, raise the profile and touch the public directly. But it is one of several applications including books, toys and DVDs.”

Indeed, the strongest properties will operate many licences. Current pre-school children’s animation superstar Peppa Pig boasts 56 merchandise licences and is a major hit on the high street across numerous categories and embarked on a live tour in September (see below).

Rebecca Harvey, marketing manager at E1 Licensing, which represents Peppa Pig, says of live shows: “From a licensor point of view, it’s a great opportunity for fans of the show to interact with the brand.”

She adds: “Additionally, it provides excellent PR at both a regional and national level and offers great opportunities for the brand to use the show across varying aspects of the media for marketing purposes – retail promotions, newspaper and magazine promotions, product packaging promotions and so forth.”

From a trade marketing perspective too, Harvey says that a live show also heightens the value of a brand to potential industry partners because any property seen as strong enough to carry off a live event will generally be seen to perform exceptionally well in other areas, such as on TV or in high street retailers.

While the latest properties seeing live success might be those in the adult or broader family arena, there is no doubt that it is the pre-school market that has long dominated this area. This is where competition is stiffest and the greatest challenges exist. As a result, it is in this sector where some of the most sophisticated marketing is executed.

Differentiating your show in this overcrowded market is crucial. Mat Way, global head of live entertainment at Classic Media, which is set to launch a new Postman Pat live show in 2010, says: “ In our view it is vital that the shows don’t occur in isolation and we always build an extremely strong cross-platform marketing campaign.” 

He explains Postman Pat’s live show is “heavily tied into” the brand’s broader commercial strategy, which includes home entertainment and retail initiatives. “That way, you are able to create much more noise than the competition, which might be existing on a fairly simple regional level.”

Way argues that marketing a live show is not like marketing a DVD. “You have to make people want to book a ticket and want to get in a car and go and watch the show.” To create buzz, Classic Media is, for the first time, using a digital strategy to “extend the show beyond itself”.

A website will go live prior to the tour and will encourage children to develop a relationship with the show before it has happened. Way explains children will be able to look at Pat’s dressing room. Pat himself will keep a blog where “he” will send messages to people who have bought tickets and once the tour starts he will share what he is doing and how he is enjoying the tour. 

Children’s shows have further marketing challenges which have to be taken into consideration. While large scale, lavish productions aimed at older markets can charge higher prices for tickets, seat prices for pre-school live shows demand a far more modest ticket cost.

Yet audiences expect very high production values, making this a tough business model to sell. Way agrees: “You want to wow the audience but at the same time, it’s still got to be financially viable. Only the strong properties come through successfully.”

Merchandising at shows can be very lucrative but can often seem over-priced and there is a risk of that reflecting badly on the brand. Given the constraints on the ticket price in the children’s sector, however, it is often the sale of merchandise that makes the event viable.

While productions aimed at older audiences and larger scale epics like Ben Hur Live and Walking With Dinosaurs can justifiably charge higher ticket prices, the production costs also rise dramatically and involve a higher level of risk.

BBC Worldwide is uniquely fortunate in that it can segue its live productions into its business of selling programmes internationally. Some of its partner international broadcasters are very dominant in their national home markets and this can serve BBC Worldwide’s purpose very well in terms of scheduling.

Even without this kind of advantage, numerous properties are being licensed for stage shows. Earlier this year, CBS Consumer Products inked a deal to bring a stage version of its reality TV series Survivor to US audiences this summer, and CSI: Live has been developed into a stage show that tours the US. Star Wars is hitting the stage this autumn with a multi-media show featuring a full symphony orchestra.

America and the UK are leading the trend for exploitation in the live show area but other parts of Europe are beginning to embrace it too. Stanley predicts: “I see Europe as a huge growth area and then through South America and also into South-east Asia. These are the areas we are developing now, and this is where I can see the marketing going in the next five years.”

The signs seem clear that as the recession forces brands to reconsider their marketing, live shows are one area that can make an impact. Helping to literally bring brands to life, they also give companies a chance to take their properties to consumers on a local level.

And although live shows started as a business aimed at kids, it is now becoming a very grown up industry indeed, with shows that are very expensive to stage, involve huge numbers of people and are fraught with a variety of challenges for marketers.

BBC Worldwide’s Stanley advises anyone considering getting involved in live shows not to cut corners: “If you’re going to do it, then do it really convincingly.” He concludes: “Putting on live shows is a risky business – creatively, brand-wise and financially. But when they pay off, they pay off in spades.”

Case study: Top Gear Live!

BBC Worldwide’s Top Gear Live! is one of the new breed of live shows aimed at older audiences, although a version has existed in various formats for about six years. Originally the automotive magazine TV show’s events were branded as “MPH” in the UK, but last year they were rebranded as Top Gear Live!

The previous incarnations of the show all featured Top Gear frontman Jeremy Clarkson, sometimes along with his fellow presenters Richard Hammond and James May. But 2008 was the first time that the show was rolled out with all three presenters in situ and directly referenced elements of the TV show.

Last year was also the first time that the brand fulfilled its brand’s global reach by going on an extensive world tour, visiting cities including Johannesburg, Sydney, Auckland and Hong Kong.

Top Gear’s managing director Adam Waddell explains the background behind Top Gear Live! He says: “We did it because there is a huge waiting list to go and see Top Gear being filmed. The idea was to take the key elements and make them accessible to a wider audience.”

He adds: “Of course it is also a good business model as well. We don’t deny that side of things.”

Waddell explains how the live show interprets and builds on the television brand. “It’s an entirely different format, in the same way that a magazine is a different format to a television programme, so is a live show. To that end, you do stuff that works for a live audience.”

He reveals that for Top Gear Live! noise, smell and light are important factors in their relationships with cars. These can be used in a live setting in a way that is more memorable than on television. He explains: “You want to be able to smell the car doing a burn-out, you want to have a sense of the smoke wafting over you and the ear-shattering noise. It is very hard to convey that on television but you can convey it on a live stage.”

Though the live show references the television version, it builds on it to provide a broader experience. Waddell elaborates: “When you go and see the television show being filmed, what you get is the three presenters in the studio doing pieces to camera and video clips of things they have filmed previously. 

“We wanted to give the element of being able to watch, listen and almost reach out and touch the guys from the television programme but at the same time overlay it with some of the action and excitement that you don’t see in the studio.”

It is the challenge of touring with such a logistically complex production, involving a huge number of people, cars and equipment that provides the greatest difficulty for Waddell. In addition to this complexity, the difficulty is exacerbated by timing factors. Waddell says: “If you are the Rolling Stones, then you record an album, you finish recording the album. Then you take it out on tour and for that year, touring is what you do.

“For us, touring is what we do in a very condensed part of the year because we have to fit it into the filming schedule. The world tour element takes place in the spring and it is gruelling to say the least, with ten or 12 shows being staged over the space of four days.”

Waddell pays tribute to Top Gear’s linchpin Clarkson. The presenter is the element that ties the brand in all of its different media forms together. He jokes: “Some people say Bruce Springsteen is a hero because he performs for long periods but sometimes Jeremy is on stage for six hours a day – it is properly tough.”

Case study: Ben Hur

Live shows have come a long way from the days of being amateur performances at holiday camps and theme parks. Ben Hur Live is the latest in a production developed for major arenas, where scale is everything.

The epic production, which launched last month at The O2 arena in London was 15 years in development and its premiere was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the multi-Oscar winning film Ben Hur, which starred the late actor Charlton Heston. 

The Ben Hur story, originally a book by Lew Wallace published in 1880, has been interpreted in a variety of formats. A theatre version was seen in the early 1900s by an estimated 10 million people across the US and Europe.

Prior to MGM’s Oscar-laden 1959 film directed by William Wyler, Hollywood had already produced a silent version in 1925, which was then the most expensive film ever made. It has even been released in a cartoon version, in 2003, featuring Charlton Heston as narrator.

Successful films, across all genres, from dramas to musicals, have long been transferred to theatre formats, but transferring a film to major arenas is an ambitious undertaking and only possible as a result of recent advances in technology.

The Ben Hur Live project is the brainchild of German producer Franz Abraham, seen by some as something of an eccentric visionary. Its development was beset for many years with financial problems and scepticism that it could ever work. But finally, at a reported cost of £19m, the tour, which will visit 15 major European cities between now and Christmas, has got underway. The arena-based performance is described by Abraham as “monutainment” –  a new live blockbuster production for the modern age. Transporting the cast of hundreds of actors, 46 horses, 20 lorries loaded with sand, 140 doves, two eagles, two Roman galleons, numerous dune buggies and a selection of chariots takes complex logistics to a whole new level.

The show aims to dazzle the audience with  sound, water, wind and pyrotechnic effects and is performed in the round, as if in an ancient Roman arena. The spectacle climaxes with five teams of horses competing in a chariot race.

It seems that signing up highly experienced collaborators has been crucial for Abraham. Former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who has composed more than 60 scores for film and television, is responsible for the music and appears in the production as narrator.

Mark Fisher, stage designer for every Rolling Stones tour since 1989 and the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games last year, has also been working on Ben Hur.

Abraham, whose company ART Concerts has become more used to staging rock extravaganzas over 20 years, says that it is this experience in fostering a worldwide network of diverse partner companies that made staging the epic possible.

Abraham says the company is focusing on “assembling internationally flexible  applicable arena productions, which are innovative, artistically sophisticated  and audience attractive at the same time”.

Although some of the London theatrical intelligentsia have been less than gushing in their reviews of the premiere of Ben Hur Live, most concur that the production is destined to tour the world over the next few years.

Case history: Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig is currently one of pre-school kids’ top television favourites. Along with her family and chums Suzy Sheep, Danny Dog and Emily Elephant, the cartoon pig is poised to embark on her first live tour across seven UK venues this autumn and an extensive British tour in 2010, visiting 60 further venues.

Rebecca Harvey, marketing manager at Peppa Pig’s licensor, E1 Licensing explains: “To see their favourite character live on stage is a dream for small children; it adds a different dimension to the marketing mix.”

Harvey points out that as a cartoon, Peppa Pig might not initially have been seen as a brand that could transfer well to a stage show. With a distinctive look to its animation and short episode times, it does not naturally lend itself to a live action environment.

Harvey says the finished show “looks fantastic”, but admits this was one of her greatest challenges, explaining: “The challenge is ensuring that the standards of the original show are transferred across into a very different format. Peppa is a two-dimensional character with episodes lasting just five minutes and to bring her to life on the stage in three-dimensional format for an hour-plus show was a challenge.

The end result has involved the brand of Peppa Pig being adapted to puppet form. The target audience of children seems to have accepted this as a natural evolution of the character and Harvey says that the live environment “compliments” the TV cartoon.

The characters’ adventures also link back to the TV series without copying it. “The storyline has grown from a serious consideration of all Peppa Pig episodes,” Harvey explains.

Whilst there are other marketing opportunities that come with a live show, such as the sale of merchandise, Harvey says this aspect is deemed as generally incremental due to Peppa Pig’s already established success on the high street. She says: “The live show is far more a brand experience, profile and marketing generator for us in this instance.”

Arts and entertainment company Fiery Angel is E1 Licensing’s partner in developing Peppa Pig’s live show and has also produced film transfers such as The 39 Steps and other children’s productions including The Fimbles.

Edward Snape, executive producer says: “The wonderful attribute that pre-school productions have is that the stars are a brand.” He adds: “If you’re going to do theatre, you have to be a companion piece to the television or film version and in some ways move the brand forward.”

Snape says that, as a producer, the key to competing in this  highly competitive market is to, “make sure you have the right brand.” Furthermore, he points out that a crucial consideration when marketing these shows is to persuade the theatres to allocate tickets to a company like Ticketmaster, which is, as Snape says, a brand in itself. He explains that many theatres are not always easy to persuade into entering into a ticketing partnership, partly because they have to provide an allocation and the fee may eat into their own revenues.

Snape says: “Some theatres have yet to fully understand that their traditional core market – those who come to see drama and musicals – is different to that which we, as Peppa Pig’s producers, want to reach.”

Brands involved in live shows like Peppa Pig are international properties brought down to a local level. The target audience expects the ticketing to be as sophisticated as any other interaction with the brand.

Snape adds “Our task is to educate these theatres because we are much more likely to attract that audience through companies like Ticketmaster.”

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