December 08, 2008

How variety hurts? Or Not?

"Traditional wisdom teaches that brands win market share by offering a wide variety of products, increasing the chance of appealing to a wider variety of customers. But how happy are you when trying to find a head cold remedy at the pharmacy amid an overwhelming number of competing formulas, each slightly different than the other? It's enough to give a shopper, well, a headache."  —  Harvard Business School (full online interview)

I'm not taking one side or the other here (yet). I'm as confused as you. But I find myself having to deal with the problem of variety overload on a regular basis (read: TOO MUCH ON THE BUFFET) as an owner of a comedy theater and festival producer. For a long time I have imagined my theater as the comedy version of Cat's Cradle. They are a music venue that features a pretty wide range of acts on stage. People know them as a venue, but it seems that fans work to find the MUSIC they want to hear. 

As a comedy theater, DSI features a pretty wide variety of acts on stage. However, our potential audience doesn't often process the differences between our acts; what critics refer to as "alternative" comedy, improv, sketch, or standup comedy, and how to pick between them. Is it because comedians or comedy groups don't often take an interest in promoting themselves like a band might? Probably. But maybe that's because standup comedians come and go, and "going the distance" for a comedy group in most markets means 12-18 months. Is it because we focus so much energy on producing product and not educating our potential audience on the options available to them? Probably.

Harvard Professor of Business Administration agrees, "An alternative to reducing variety would be to help consumers navigate the variety that exists."

Yeah, I know. Easier said than done. In my experience, Artists don't want to put limits on the creative work they produce or god forbid we label the artistic product so that it's easy for the general public to consume (read: SUPPORT FINANCIALLY). But I digress.

My real questions: Why do something different just to be different? Does it being different make it MORE worth my time to experience? What about assortment trade-offs? If you make the stylistic choice to do "smart" comedy but it doesn't make an audience laugh it doesn't matter how smart it is. That's not a trade-off we should be okay with, but an example of how we can forget the point by chasing variety.

I've been thinking about this a lot with the NC Comedy Arts Festival coming up. Acts have been selected and NCCAF staff had to make some hard choices in order to balance Quality AND Variety. For the mission of the festival, inclusion and celebration of the Art of Comedy, some groups that I'm sure are very funny were not accepted because they did not differentiate themselves. On the flipside there were groups that worked hard to communicate how unique the format of the show was, but often those same groups did not offer a professional product that would make it worth how "different" they were.

I have more to say, but I have to catch the train.

What do you think?

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