There’s no denying that events are a large component of downtown life. Whether your organization is dependent on events for fundraising, or you are holding them to increase attendance and build atmosphere, events are a critical aspect of nearly every downtown. While these events are frequently essential for the health of an organization and the community, how often are we evaluating these events to ensure that they match our organization’s brand?
Most downtown events start out filling a need and being fairly in line with your organization’s brand. Let’s face it, you aren’t going to start something that doesn’t align with your brand. Even if you haven’t done a brand overview, it would be pretty obvious that an event contrary to your brand wouldn’t be successful. However, as your brand has evolved over time, have your events followed suit?
We’ve been fortunate to work with organizations across the country. For most of the organizations, their “premiere events”, the big crowds and big fundraisers were established long before the current team was in place. Those legacy events tend to function well, draw a sizeable crowd, generate revenue, and continue on without much of a second though. Sure, we evaluate the event to see how we can improve from year to year, but are we evaluating whether the event still fits within what we want our downtown to be?
Don’t get me wrong, there are too many scenarios to count of organizations who have these legacy events that don’t really match their brand but they rely on those funds for so many things that they don’t have the option to find something new. No one, especially me, is advocating that you not do those events. They are critical for your bottom line and you can’t do any good for your community if you aren’t able to sustain your organization. In those situations ask yourself if there are things that you can do to bring your event more in line with your brand. There may be some new changes that would freshen up the event and add new life.
Determining whether an event is on brand is not always easy. It starts with understanding what your brand is. Who is your target demographic, who’s your typical customer, what’s the impression of downtown? These are just some of the questions you have to ask yourself. Even then, finding events that fit your brand can be a challenge.
When I was an Executive Director one of our businesses approached the organization with an idea about bringing back a successful event from our organization’s past. The organization was founded in the late 1970s and up until the mid-80s our retailers and businesses would run a yearly promotion called “Peanut Days”. The concept was simple, you would buy a bag of peanuts at one of the stores for $1. In that bag of peanuts you would find a prize, kind of like a local Cracker Jack box. The prizes were everything from coupons to savings bonds from the bank. This promotion was one of the biggest retail weekends of the year and people from all over would be sure to be downtown. People would race from store to store buying bags and redeeming coupons, and at the end of the day you’d see people with armfulls of shopping bags.
When the business approached our retail committee there was some instant nostalgia and we all agreed that this would be a great promotion. A little planning and before we knew it we were bagging peanuts and stuffing prizes. When the weekend finally came the weather was perfect, everything was set. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. Unfortunately, no one really cared. We extended the sale into the next week, still nothing.
How could this have gone so wrong? What did we miss? Was it the prizes? Did we not promote it enough? Ultimately, the event failed because it no longer fit our brand. When the organization originally did the promotion in the 70s and 80s, there were still big box stores downtown. People would park their cars and walk from store to store and they would make a day of shopping. Most of the community still came downtown to shop, and it was the primary source for things such as clothes and other services.
When we tried to refresh this event, we never stopped to see that things had changed. Our retail was almost exclusively boutique shops. Our customer went from being nearly everyone, to predominantly women ages 50+. They didn’t care about the Peanut Days. Even if it was nostalgic, they didn’t care about the prize in the bag, so they didn’t get engage with the promotion the way we thought they would. This event failed because it no longer matched our brand. Luckily, we didn’t lose money on the event and we were able to donate the remaining peanuts and not do this event again. It wasn’t a lack of effort or enthusiasm from our businesses that caused this to suffer. We didn’t take a hard enough look at our customers and make sure we had them at the center of things. Had we done that, this is an event that we probably wouldn’t have tried again.
That’s okay though. Sometimes we learn best (often times) by failing. This taught us a valuable lesson about our retail promotions and it actually strengthened what we did going forward. Sure, there were some people that really wanted to do the promotion again and they were disappointed when we didn’t (but that’s a story for another time), but as an organization we were able to make the changes we needed to get more on-brand with our events. It’s not easy, and it’s not immediate. You’re going to have some trial and error, and that’s alright.
The more we can do to ensure that our events evolve with our brand, the more successful both the events and the downtown will be.