Name, place and identity in local theatre branding
It’s a tale of two theatres. It’s the Kiln versus the Tricycle. It’s old versus new. It’s history versus future. It’s broadcast versus dialogue. And it’s not how the story of a rebrand is supposed to be told.
For the newly renamed Kiln Theatre – which opened its doors last week – its rebrand has led to a challenging situation. Artistic director Indhu Rubasingham spearheaded a rebrand, and multimillion pound refurbishment, of the beloved local theatre in the Kilburn area of northwest London. Despite a fresh approach to the artistic strategy, a new modern venue and a passionate community, things have not gone well in terms of PR.
The theatre was once called the Tricycle and has been at the centre of Kilburn’s community since 1980. Since the announcement of the renaming, a group of local residents has been protesting the change. The theatre, due to open this month, has had to deal with negative local and regional press and a horde of angry protestors outside its door.
The Kiln team describes a consultation that took place over an eight-month period and received survey responses from 300 theatre patrons. It also conducted a two-day long street survey within the local area in March 2017 and interviews with the theatre’s key stakeholders (donors, staff, actors, directors, etc.) last year. The protestors say they have not been consulted with on the name change.
The dispute is academic, but the problem for the Kiln is more immediate – how to respond to negative backlash during its opening month.
“We love the theatre,” says Kilburn resident and member of the ‘It’s Our Tricycle’ movement Richard Kates. “But we love the name Tricycle. There’s so little in Kilburn that actually means anything and the one thing that people associate with Kilburn is the Tricycle Theatre. To remove that history is pointless and a worthless exercise.”
One of his fellow protestors, Sheila Stayte, says the theatre has played a crucial role as a community centre, offering arts programming and allowing local groups a meeting place – most of which she suspects will disappear once the Kiln opens its doors. Stayte also cites an instance in 1987 when a fire broke out from the neighbouring timber yard (ironically during the run of a play called ‘Burning Point’), after which local residents – some now protesting – personally helped rebuild the theatre.
In addition to ‘It’s Our Tricycle,’ the Camden New Journal – the local paper covering northwest London – and the Guardian have been in support of the protestors.
Kates and Stayte say their goal is to have the theatre renamed. However, that might not be as easy as it sounds.
Developing a rebrand requires a complex process. A spokesperson for the Kiln Theatre says, “We’ve worked with many talented companies to create the branding and artwork for the venue. Our naming and branding came from an extensive immersion session, we were then presented with a number of concepts for the brand which we considered alongside the rest of the theatre landscape. The particular branding we chose was simple, original and versatile. Our brand colours were created alongside the design of the building for consistency.”
“We love the theatre, but we love the name Tricycle. There’s so little in Kilburn that actually means anything and the one thing that people associate with Kilburn is the Tricycle Theatre. To remove that history is pointless and a worthless exercise.”
The resulting visual identity, designed by London-based creative agency Koto, for the Kiln is modern, but has personality; its current strapline is, ‘The Tricycle Transformed.’ The building itself has undergone a massive refurbishment and opens with modern, new amenities. Basically, it’s trying to punch above its weight as a local theatre. The Tricycle was always home to boundary-pushing content, which the Kiln is on track to continue, but the refresh also sees the theatre establish a more professional tone in terms of its name and brand.
The rebrand guidelines were extended to the website. The theatre met with four companies with experience in crafting websites for theatres and ultimately worked with London- and Bristol-based Substrakt on a user-friendly and straightforward site.
The building, for its part, has been updated by Chapman Architects to best embrace the theatre’s history and site on the high street, while also making way for more seating and a more modern production quality. Director Greg Chapman says, “This was achieved from a technical perspective, by reducing the internal levels, to create room for more equipment and seating. From an aesthetic point of view, all of the existing parts of the Forester’s Hall that could be retained, were exposed and now provide a wonderful backdrop to the new auditorium, reminding one of the theatre’s past.”
“We are thrilled that many loyal, local patrons are loving the new space, and it’s also attracting new audiences. In turn, local businesses will also benefit greatly from the increased visitors to the theatre,” adds the spokesperson. To some extent, this is accurate. The theatre itself is now bigger, in stature and status, and a new cafe opens the space to the passers-by on the Kilburn High Road. Yet, that might well limit the ability for the community to use the space as a sort-of community centre, as it once did.
When undergoing any rebrand – local, national or global – one of the key parts of the process is stakeholder engagement. Organisations often use surveys, workshops or meetings to identify how stakeholders perceive the brand. Then, they follow that up with communications about the process, about the rebrand and about the changes and why they were made.
Despite the exciting slate of new shows in the autumn lineup and a gorgeous remodel of the building’s interior, the local reaction on the eve of opening night shows the value consistent and clear communications can have on the success of a rebrand among its key audiences.
All about that name
Steve Howell, creative director, Howoco
What’s in a name? Loads, it turns out.
There’ve been furious rows about renaming London’s Tricycle Theatre as the Kiln after a £7m, two-year refurb.
More than 1,500 people have signed a petition against it and there were dozens of protestors outside when it official relaunched last week, waving placards saying 'It’s Our Tricycle, Not Your Kiln.'
Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington wrote that artistic director Indhu Rubasingham’s rebrand was wrong and the Tricycle’s former artistic director Nicholas Kent penned a letter expressing his dismay.
They argued the rebrand trampled over almost 40 years of history of the much-loved Kilburn landmark and protestors’ claimed there was no local consultation.
The thing is, even with consultation – and Rubasingham insists that there was – people would still have been unhappy. Because the great British public are hugely capricious.
As a result, naming is always the most contentious issue in branding.
For instance, when the GPO was trying to establish the British Telecom name in 1980s, there was uproar. The public insisted on calling it BT. When in the late 80s, the company started trading internationally and changed their name to BT, the public insisted on calling it British Telecom.
It takes a lot of money and effort to change perceptions for large organisations, but the British get offended regardless. And as the Kiln has shown, it doesn’t matter how big the organisation is – a much-loved tiny organisation can attract even more venomous reaction.
With the Tricycle brouhaha, there’s the added insinuation it was a subjective decision made by the relatively new artistic director to make her mark.
But rebranding is never just on a whim.
A multimillion facelift and relaunch was the ideal opportunity for a fresh direction and rebirth. Affection and nostalgia doesn’t necessarily make for a successful future – often, something needs to change to go forward.
I actually think Tricycle was a strange name for a theatre which has always prided itself on ambitious and groundbreaking plays, as it evokes a mental image of something old-fashioned in attitude and personality.
The issue for me is whether the new name Kiln works, especially when it took me some time to twig it’s meant to be a diminutive of Kilburn. And if you read the blurb on the theatre’s website, the new name is ‘warm,’ ‘creative’ and ‘energetic’ – energetic is a bit of a stretch.
I think it should have been renamed as the Trike - a link to the past, but revving up the brand by alluding to powerful three-wheeled motorbikes as it roars into the future.
But ultimately, we now have a wonderful shiny new theatre. With ongoing successful productions, this storm in a teacup will be forgotten.
After all, it’s not like someone trying to rename the Globe theatre as Gaia is it? Or a matter of life and death like rebranding Marathon as Snickers...