Brands in the News

Interlochen’s Debatable Decision

20 Jul 2022  

There are a lot of big issues in the world. There is a war in Ukraine. Global warming is changing our environment in profoundly negative ways. The U.S. is battling inflation and fractured over abortion. It is exhausting.

So, this week, I’d like to focus on a very small issue: the tradition of not clapping after the playing of the theme song at Interlochen Music Camp. In a small way, this issue represents the challenges many brands are now navigating.

Interlochen and the Theme

Interlochen is a famous music camp and school outside of Traverse City, Michigan. The camp was founded back in 1928, and over the years many of the most gifted musicians in the world have studied and performed there. It is a place where musicians, artists and writers gather to study and learn from each other. Nestled in the woods, it is a magical place.

One of the most interesting traditions at Interlochen has been the playing of its theme song after every concert. Once the main performance is over, after all the clapping and bows, the concert master conducts the theme: a short section from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, which was composed in one of the camp’s cabins. You can hear it here.

After the theme, according to tradition, there is no applause. The lights come up and the audience quietly exits. Often it isn’t perfectly executed; a few people clap, not aware of the tradition, and are shushed by the audience.

Apparently, the tradition started when the concerts were broadcast on the radio; the silence was necessary to transition to the next program. It is a tradition lasting many decides.

A Change

This year, however, things are different. Instead of asking the audience to be silent, people are asked to remain seated. So, people applaud, as they might after any piece, and eventually leave.

I asked Trey Devey, the President of Interlochen, about the change. He wrote back and explained the move:

In recent years, however, we noticed that rather than this being an inclusive tradition in which the entire audience took part, the silence was confusing and exclusionary for new attendees. As much as we tried to communicate the practice of not clapping, many in the audience clapped. When new audience members were shushed or gestured at for clapping as they would at the end of concerts in other venues, it was off-putting. Some indicated that they did not want to return to our campus.

A Questionable Decision

When you look at this situation with a marketing lens, you quickly realize the team at Interlochen has made a very debatable decision. Here is my analysis, and why I think it was an unfortunate move.

Any business decision needs to consider benefits and costs of a policy change. First, what are the benefits? What is the upside in a particular decision? Second, what are the costs? Costs can be financial but also might include customer happiness and social good.

Of course, this tradeoff is only relevant when the matter at hand isn’t about legality or ethics. If something isn’t legal or ethical, then an organization shouldn’t do it. The question of costs and benefits must be set aside.

For Interlochen, this is a costs and benefits decision. There is nothing legal or ethical in question. It isn’t illegal to ask people not to clap, nor is it unethical.

The Benefits

Being inclusive is a noble thing; I think we can all agree this is important. Certainly, for Interlochen and the broader world of classical music, expanding the audience is essential.

The benefit of the policy change is that some people won’t be shushed at the end of a concert.

Now, I would love to see data on the number of people who were deeply offended by this tradition, especially the number of people who abandoned either Interlochen or classical music as the result of that moment. Still, I am sure it has happened.

Of course, if the data showed that a significant number of people really find the silence after the theme off-putting, there are ways to address it. Perhaps someone could explain the tradition each evening. Perhaps there could be signs. At some game shows there are “clap now” signs for the audience. Maybe Interlochen could install a “don’t clap” sign.

The Costs

The reality is that changing the treatment of the theme seems easy, but it is not a cost-free move.

First, the move is annoying at least some supporters. Interlochen is a place that relies on a core group of advocates and champions. Generations of students know the theme and the tradition. In cluttered, busy, stressful world that moment of quiet has huge impact. Some of these supporters will not be happy to learn that the tradition was abandoned due to inclusivity.

The inclusive argument raises complex questions. If Interlochen wanted to be more inclusive, it could do many different things. One easy change: reduce the price of tickets or move to a “pay what you can” model. A more interesting change would be eliminating auditions. Requiring people to compete for spots at the camp and in certain ensembles is not inclusive.

Second, there is a broader cost in terms of the brand. Traditions are hard to create. One of things that makes organizations and brands special are the quirky and unexpected behaviors and design elements.

The Outlook

I suspect the team at Interlochen didn’t do a lot of research on this decision. I am sympathetic; it would be a difficult question to study. I think it was the wrong decision.

The good news is that Interlochen can easily reverse the policy. There is no financial cost. A simple explanation would be fine.

In the end, it might all be for the best: the team at Interlochen has learned one thing that people care about. One could consider this inexpensive market research on its brand. If, of course, the team at Interlochen listens to the feedback.

If you want to email Trey Devey, his email is presidentsoffice@interlochen.org

 

 


4 Responses

  1. Alyce MacDougall says:

    It can’t be worse than what they did to the Bowl.

  2. Adrienne Hirsch says:

    I was very grateful to find this thoughtful analysis. As a parent of a camper who attended Interlochen nearly 30 years ago, I can attest to the experience as being transformative…for our daughter and our family. We are committed to the institution and its values. The theme has always been one of core elements of the traditions that bind this great arts institution together. I found it disquieting to have the change to clapping at the end..in a sense, a small but sad abandonment of this cherished institution’s proud heritage.
    Alas, never too late to reverse course !

  3. Russ J says:

    Tim,

    I find your writing, the issues you consider, and the sources you draw upon for inspiration so engaging. I have always appreciated your willingness to take a reasoned stand on issues. The process you use to lay out your analysis is always insightful for me. More important, your willingness to write with conviction provides a useful example when being wishy-washy may be simpler, but also leads to a dissipation of values (monetary or non) over time.

    Thanks for being a helpful teacher and role model.

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