How to Resolve the Battle Between the New and the Familiar

What do you call something, even if it’s good, that you’ve seen over and over again? Boring.

What do you call something so new and different that it doesn’t make any sense to you? Weird.

Most live entertainment content falls in between those poles, of course, but as a creator, curator or marketer of stuff in your venue, which is better? Which should you go for if what you’re trying to do is build your audience?

Here’s the formula that works best: one part familiar to two parts new.

The familiar grounds the audience (or potential audience) enabling them to reach out to the new. The new, on the other hand, drives the emotional connection, the excitement and the conversation-worthiness of the event.

Part of what makes the New York Yankees a vital live entertainment brand is the tradition (which in their case is long and very rich), but as we’ve seen on occasion, when the “new” doesn’t successfully replace the “familiar,” the selling power of the brand declines some. Contrast that challenge with that of a basketball team like the Los Angeles Clippers, who’ve been traditionally pretty unsuccessful, but are now very strong. They’ve got the “new” but not the “familiar.” They have not much of a tradition, so the selling success of the organization is more sensitive to today’s results. I think they’re smart and correct, by the way, to look for tradition, doing things like using a throwback jersey and talking about the light blue and its “rich history with the organization.”

"Rocky" opens this month on Broadway. Will the fact that it has a popular "brand" name lead the show to automatic success?

“Rocky” opens this month on Broadway. Will the musical’s popular “brand name” lead to automatic success? Photo courtesy of: Rocky Broadway

On Broadway, people talk about “having a brand name” and, in my opinion, mischaracterize it as a prerequisite to success. This is far too simplistic, and perhaps a little cynical. Lots of shows on Broadway that try to use a familiar brand fail because they don’t have a meaningful or interesting newness to them. Terry Teachout describes this in detail in his TEDxBroadway talk, where he shows that “playing it safe” is just as much of a risk as, well, “taking a risk.”

Of course, you can love the “new” too much. You can put it on a pedestal and worship it for its own sake, but the reality is that most new stuff is not that great, by definition. The familiar is likely to have something to recommend itself, or it probably wouldn’t have survived. Probably. There’s a reason Shakespeare is overdone.

But this applies to every genre. U2 keeps touring successfully because of their heavy investments in newness in the show. Lots of the classic rock acts that made a mint in the mid-2000s touring can’t do it anymore because they were only selling “familiar.” You can’t do that forever.

So that’s the formula: one part familiar to two parts new.

At two parts familiar, you can probably still be successful if the new stuff is really special.

At three parts familiar, you’re on your way out.

At three parts new, you’ll have a hard time getting people interested. You could just be ahead of your time, but probably you’ve just forgotten the audience.

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