Any way you arrange the letters in VISA and IBM, they spell "loyalty" — loyalty to the League of American Theatres and Producers and the American Theatre Wing, presenters of the Tony Awards. For the last six seasons, these two icons of American industry have sponsored the Tony telecasts; and worked closely with the League and Wing on branding for the awards.
In addition to their corporate commitment to the Tonys, Susanne Lyons, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for VISA in San Francisco, and Abby Kohnstamm, senior vice president, marketing, IBM in Armonk, New York, have a love of theatre. In fact, both have performed in musical theatre.
Lyons grew up in New York and Pittsburgh and was active in theatre from high school through college. "It was something I loved ever since I can remember," she explains. "I loved getting onstage and being someone else. I loved moving people — making them laugh, making them cry."
Her first role was playing Maggie Cutler in the Kaufman and Hart chestnut, The Man Who Came to Dinner. That was ninth grade! "It was, shall we say, sophisticated for that grade and some of the racy stuff got cut." Later, "there were also lots of musicals." She studied theatre at Vassar College, "where I had the same speech professor as Meryl Streep...and that's where the similarity ends!" One of her memorable experiences was appearing in Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle.
Though her great love was theatre, "financially, it became clear that wasn't the path to follow." Before joining VISA, she spent 20 years in the investment arena. "Theatre was still in my blood," she laughs. "They couldn't keep me off the stage." Besides performing, she helped pen parody lyrics for company holiday shows.
Her theatrical training has "been fantastic for business, as it helped me communicate. I give speeches to large groups and am able to grab and keep their attention."
She enjoyed being in the limelight, she admits, but now, with VISA being a sponsor of the national tour of Movin' Out and the Tonys, is delighted to be working behind the scenes.
"Theatre is an important audience for VISA," states Lyons. "Everyone loves theatre, so it's not just an affluent audience we reach. Not everyone has the opportunity to attend, but between tourists coming to New York and loyalists, we get a broad cut from our ads touting VISA as the card of choice for the Tony Awards."
From the standpoint of marketing the VISA Signature Card, a more upscale product, Lyons has found Broadway audiences very responsive. "The Tonys are not just fun," says Lyons. "They celebrate the best of the best. They carry the characteristics we like to associate ourselves with."
VISA's payoff, reports Lyons, is that the company sees a "definite lift" or bump in card usage from their Tony Awards sponsorship.
Pursuing Uniqueness at IBM
The thinking at IBM is similar, according to Kohnstamm, but IBM also presents and hosts the official Tony Awards website, www.tonyawards.com.
Kohnstamm, who especially enjoys musical theatre, says that IBM picks partners based on the right fit for business. "The Tonys are a unique, first-class event with the desired demographics. We felt there was a role for us since our mutual goal was to make the site a complementary experience to the live broadcast of the Tonys.
"It was a great opportunity for Tony Award Productions," she continues, "to take advantage of what we uniquely offer in terms of our technology and expertise. The Tony website benefits, and we think of everyone visiting the site as a potential client."
Consumers expect sophisticated websites, especially in the entertainment industry. "But," says Kohnstamm, "like many small businesses, the Tonys didn't have the type of funds to create a global medium with rich multi-media functionality, especially for an event that has a huge traffic spike once a year. Because of our ability to leverage the infrastructure we have for websites, we're able to handle a tremendous response."
IBM post-Tonys surveys have shown that site traffic has increased 100 percent annually.
Through the "real time" webcast, IBM offers a you-are-there experience as events unfold on awards night. Since nearly 20 percent of ticket purchases are now made on-line — second only to box office sales — Kohnstamm points out that the Tony tickets option is a popular feature.
Other innovations include a video player link to enjoy up close and personal encounters with winners on Tony night; access to winners' acceptance speeches; an archive of nominees and winners in every category from 1947 to the present; Tony trivia; and a profile of actress/producer/director Antoinette Perry, for whom Broadway's most coveted honors are named.
Happily, observes Kohnstamm, "The League and the Wing see our partnership as a powerful marketing tool to increase interest in Broadway and make it more accessible to a broader base. That helps IBM, because we've identified their business needs and helped reach their goals."
Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline."