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The Mail Man Cometh

New CSO marketing maven Stephen Belth wants to stuff your box.


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The Mail Man Cometh

Everyone likes getting mail, though most of it ends up in the trash.

But that won't stop Stephen Belth, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's vice president for communications. He plans to create more than 100 different brochures and flyers promoting the CSO and other programming at Orchestra Hall, which he'll then send out as more than three million pieces of mail. Belth's aggressive marketing strategy anticipates next season's opening of the orchestra's $100 million Symphony Center complex. The new facility promises to host a wider variety of programming, including jazz, pop, and world music concerts, and some observers wonder if promoters can fill the seats.

"Belth is a direct-mail maven," says Terry Schlender, who worked at the CSO for more than seven years before leaving to become the marketing director for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra two years ago. Direct mail is generally more costly than radio or print advertising, so it requires a substantial response from targeted recipients to justify the expense. But Belth maintains, "Direct mail is the most effective way to reach people."

Belth arrived in Chicago 18 months ago from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where under his leadership subscription and ticket sales reached record levels, even with a new and untested musical director at the helm. Before moving to Los Angeles, he honed his skills in his family's advertising business in New York City, where he first learned the mass-marketing strategies he would later apply successfully to selling high culture. Belth's achievements in Los Angeles apparently caught the attention of CSO president Henry Fogel, who brought Belth on board following the retirement of longtime orchestra marketing head Joyce Idema.

Perhaps no one has noticed Belth's new strategy more than Deborah McCabe, an advertising sales representative for the all-news radio station WBBM AM. For years, when Idema ruled the CSO marketing department, the orchestra typically ran as many as 15 one-minute spots a week on WBBM during the concert season, and McCabe handled the lucrative account. But when Belth arrived, the CSO's buy on WBBM dropped almost immediately to zero. McCabe speculates that the marketing focus is "almost 100 percent direct mail now." She maintains the radio spots helped the orchestra build "an incredible presence in the marketplace" while also encouraging last-minute impulse ticket buying. The CSO still places some spots on FM classical stations WFMT and WNIB, but the ads are now read live by station announcers rather than produced and recorded. The use of live instead of recorded spots means radio listeners aren't able to hear music from upcoming CSO concerts, a loss that concerns some music marketers. "I'm a real proponent of radio advertising because it is aural, and it gives potential customers the chance to hear a snippet of the music," says Schlender.

But Belth is putting big bucks behind the direct-mail pieces. The most exhaustive brochure so far is the 1996-'97 concert calendar, a 28-page behemoth that includes a day-by-day listing of events for each month of the symphony season. Observers say the calendar has changed quite noticeably under Belth's direction. It not only lists a daunting number of events but gives corporate sponsors much bigger play too. For example, the month of December includes three holiday concerts, with the logo of corporate sponsor Marshall Field attached in large letters to each listing. The same is true for the Ameritech jazz series, and Kraft gets the star treatment for its four family-oriented Saturday events. Belth has also introduced a Caribbean cruise contest for ticket buyers that gives considerable play to Princess Cruises and United Airlines. Belth says these acknowledgments are necessary today, given the prevailing corporate attitude about philanthropy. "Corporations want more for what they give."

So far Belth seems to be getting high marks from those who have watched him in action. "What I like about Stephen is that he is quick to react," notes Ravinia Festival executive director Zarin Mehta. But Belth says all of the new programming, the enhanced corporate affiliations, and the emphasis on direct marketing won't mean much if he doesn't achieve his goal: "We want to get people to come to Orchestra Hall, see it is a friendly place, and hopefully introduce them to other things while they are here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.

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