“We like to approach people where they are.” - Marissa Gonzales, WICKED on Broadway

Marissa Gonzales started her journey with WICKED on Broadway as a General and Company Management intern. Since then, she has worked her way up as Marketing Assistant, Marketing Associate, and now, Marketing Manager. She is part of what she describes as a “small, but mighty, marketing team of two.” As Marketing Manager, she works to form partnerships, manage sales channels, and coordinate events and cast appearances.

This past summer, I had the pleasure of working with Marissa so when I began my arts marketing class this semester, I was eager to speak with her about what I was learning and her experience at WICKED. There were three primary topics I aimed to explore as they related to her marketing experience: the role of brand and customers, the use of technology and social media, and challenges she and the field face.

The Role of Brand and Customers
In his book This is Marketing, Seth Godin emphasizes that a brand isn’t a logo; it’s the customer’s expectation of an organization’s product or service and the organization’s promise to the customer. He writes, “If people care, you’ve got a brand.” While Broadway has a brand of its own, I was curious to know, from an inside look, the influence brand and customers have on marketing strategies for a specific Broadway show.

Marissa Gonzales and her coworker, both young adult females with brown hair, standing on a football field.
Marissa Gonzales and her coworker, both young adult females with brown hair, standing on a football field.

Ashley: What role does WICKED’s brand play when developing marketing strategies?

Marissa: Quite a bit. We have the luxury that most people - or at least those interested in seeing a Broadway show - recognize WICKED from its logo, which means that part of our job is done. From there, we can focus on selling points and specific sales messaging, including our pricing.

Ashley: What do you think your customers expect from WICKED? What is your promise to audience members?

Marissa: Since we are a large, recognizable brand that has had a 19-year run on Broadway, guests expect a great show that is worth the price of a Broadway ticket. We market and promise a show that is family friendly, has great music, a nostalgic storyline, and strong spectacle.

Ashley: When developing marketing strategies, do you have a target audience in mind?

Marissa: This varies, but overall, we say that WICKED is good for those ages 8 and up. This is especially helpful when targeting families who are looking for a show that will work for each generation in their group. It truly has something for everyone. This is a year-round strategy, but we also have key moments when we focus on other strategies, like a date-night push for Valentine’s Day. It’s interesting because WICKED is also running in London, and while it is the same exact show, over there it is usually more of a date-night with a smaller focus on families.

Ashley: My class has discussed that the core of effective marketing is to study and understand your customers’ needs and desires. How do you conduct customer research and what role do those findings play in your marketing strategies?

Marissa: WICKED participates in several layers of customer feedback: we read reviews on major sites such as Ticketmaster, annually survey audience members in-person, and sometimes send out post-show email surveys. We also have street teams who share show information with potential audience members on the ground in and near Times Square. They then relay information back to us on feedback they receive.

Technology and Social Media
Over the past few years, there has been an enormous growth in technology and social media platforms as well as reliance on them. However, in his book, Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaefer writes, “Technology has become the enemy of great marketing.” It’s not that technology is bad; it’s that, specifically in marketing, technology and social media are sometimes over relied on causing customers to feel overwhelmed or annoyed by the mass of emails that swarm their inbox daily. Each organization must work to find a balance that uses technology efficiently and effectively.

Ashley: How does your team balance the use of technology?

Marissa: We try to pulse items such as our Ozmo e-newsletter so that we only send it out when we truly have something to say or relay to our nationwide (and beyond) fans. We do not want to become wallpaper in anyone’s inbox or over send to the point someone wants to unsubscribe.

Ashley: Do you think the growth in social media has helped or hindered effective marketing?

Marissa: WICKED came out at a time when social media was really taking off, and it has certainly helped - especially in the beginning when we were not an across-the-board critical hit. Over the years, we have found that theatregoers are relying less and less on critic reviews and are more likely to buy a ticket to a show recommended by a family member or friend.

Ashley: Which social media platforms have you found to be the most effective?

Marissa: WICKED has Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok pages. While we certainly have crossover among our channels, we find that our different audience groups (namely, by age) respond to and engage with each differently. Our content sometimes varies between each channel - we’re telling different stories to each audience.

Ashley: It seems like online ads are impossible to escape nowadays. Do you think these are still effective ways to advertise despite the fact that people may feel bombarded by them?

Marissa: We find online ads to be effective in targeted places, like articles or news sections where the readers may have similar affinities to those who would see a Broadway show. We also like to include specific sales messaging and to have multiple ads on a page so our ad doesn’t get lost among many. Our signature bright green helps with visibility as well!

Ashley: Is there still a place for traditional marketing in this digital age?

Marissa: Both traditional and digital marketing are greatly used by WICKED. The con of traditional marketing is that we cannot directly track data, whereas we know who opened our email, who clicked on an ad, and ultimately who purchased tickets in a window of time. We like to approach people where they are, whether it be a social ad as they are scrolling on their phones or have onsite branding at a sports game.

While Marissa has found value in using technology and social media to market WICKED, her experience also demonstrates the importance of word-of-mouth marketing. Schaefer writes, “Word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM) is the oldest way to promote a product, and it still can be the most effective,” just as Marissa found from the number of ticket buyers who attend based on family and friend recommendations.

As with any other field, arts marketing faces its own set of challenges. To break it down even further, each organization will face its own hurdles. Then a pandemic was added to the mix creating a whole new trial for organizations and marketers to navigate. How an organization chooses to respond to challenges will have a huge impact on its customer base.

Ashley: What challenges do you see the arts marketing sector facing as a whole?

Marissa: Price accessibility. I fear that Broadway and other top-tier theatre and arts productions are becoming inaccessible to the average person. There are so many headlines about how expensive show tickets are.

Ashley: What challenges do you face in your marketing?

Marissa: Overcoming the aforementioned headlines are always a challenge. While theatre is still consumed by those with disposable income, our top regular price ranges from $149-$179 throughout most of the year, and we have orchestra seats from $99. However, people often assume that our prices are in the Hamilton range thanks to the chatter about high ticket prices.

Quantity is also something we have to balance. We have the largest theatre on Broadway and strive to sell approximately 15,000 tickets to the show each week. And, of course, theatre isn’t a tangible product; if a seat goes unsold, we’ve lost that revenue forever.

Ashley: What challenges and benefits do you face marketing for such a well-known Broadway show?

Marissa: People know that we’ll still be around in 5 years so we may not be at the top of their list. They think they’ll just see us during their next trip while they focus on the newer shows. People also often have the misconception that we are sold-out well in advance. While we are still often sold out, the purchase windows are getting shorter and shorter, and we almost always have great tickets available week-of.

On the flip side, audiences know we are a safe bet, therefore a great show for everyone in their group. Most are at least somewhat familiar with the show as a whole, so we can then focus on logistical points such as price and availability. We are often a top choice for various groups. From the business side, we are also often in a position to negotiate for premium advertising placements, be pickier about the types of events we participate in, and are often sought after for larger appearances, such as being asked to perform at an international event for world leaders or at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Ashley: How do you think COVID impacted the arts marketing sector as a whole?

Marissa: So many ways! We are finding out that locals have gotten into the habit of simply staying home. COVID also had quite the impact on personal budgets. People are less likely to spend money or are just more price-conscious in general. Domestic tourism is just starting to resemble pre-pandemic numbers, while international travel is still lagging behind.

Ashley: How has COVID impacted the marketing strategies you use?

Marissa: We primarily focus on reminding people that we are here, relatively affordable (at least compared to many other shows), and a value for their money (a big show full of spectacle). We’ve pulled back on advertising to specific international markets whose tourism numbers are still significantly down.

Peter F. Drucker states, “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” My conversation with Marissa reinforced this idea as well as demonstrated what a customer-focused approach to marketing looks like in action. Because WICKED has such a strong brand and reputation, it partially sells itself. When working to bridge the gap in-between, however, Marissa focuses on strategies that appeal to her customers. No matter what her team is working towards, whether it’s analyzing their brand and customer base, developing new digital and non-digital marketing strategies, or working to overcome challenges, she and her team ultimately aim to “approach people where they are.”

Ashley Pope is a graduate student in the MF.A in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.