Push and Pull: What is Coopetition?
The portmanteau term coopetition entered management literature in the 1990s with the publication of a book called (cleverly enough) Coopetition by Brandenburger & Nalebuff. The term is a little cringey, but it means just what it sounds like: cooperating with your competitors. A fairly large body of management literature about coopetition has built up since. It's been studied extensively in the for-profit sector, but not so much in the non-profit industries, and particularly in the non-profit performing arts. Opera specifically has received even less targeted attention in coopetition literature.
Every marketing fundamentals class teaches us the importance of a competitor analysis: we identify our direct competitors, those who are making the same product as we do, and assess their strengths and weaknesses in relation to ours. We do the same for our indirect competitors - those that produce something different that could substitute for what we provide. In the for-profit realm, this means making a profit in the most efficient way possible, with a mentality that our competitors' victory strongly implicates our defeat. We jealously guard trade secrets, IP, customer data, and other assets.
For those in the non-profit performing arts, thinking in terms of competition can be foreign, and even feel distasteful. But we do need to be aware of just who our competitors are and of their strengths and weaknesses. But because we share missions and are not driven by profit-making motives, we can become blind to threats, particularly within our own industry. We may suffer from what some marketing scholars call competitive myopia.
How - and why - might we want to cooperate with competitors? And what might this sort of cooperation look like? The answer is (like everything else) that it's complicated.
One answer is that two or more organisations cooperating might make fulfilling such a mission easier. If two organisations have a c
ompatible artistic vision, and can agree on how to work together, then cooperating may enable them to produce something that is more than the sum of its respective parts - a show that will truly wow audiences, that neither could have produced on their own. Also, in the arts, there is a high PR value placed on collaborative spirit.
A second reason we might collaborate is to save costs. Two individual theaters, for instance, that each design, build, and staff their own productions would spend more in the aggregate than two theaters that pool financial resources and share a co-production. But this requires a few conditions be met to be a good idea. One is that the theaters ought to be far enough apart that they don't normally have audience overlap. If you typically draw people from outside your local area, and they can see the same show closer to home, they won't come see yours. In this way, an attempt to save on production costs could end up costing the company in box office receipts. This type of co-production also necessarily means somewhat of a loss of artistic independence; rather than creating a unique experience, the two companies agree to reproduce basically the same experience in two different venues.
A third way in which arts organisations might simultaneously compete and cooperate is to share resources - resources such as data (customer lists, for example), joint offerings such as ticket exchanges and fundraising synergies. These types of sharing don't involve giving up or compromising on a company's artistic vision, and are less committal than co-productions.
Finally, in the United States, a large number of "cultural alliances" have arisen - these are coalitions of arts organisations that form a larger, umbrella organisation that speaks for the entire sector, organises joint efforts, gives added brand legitimacy to small and emerging organisations, and sometimes offers local festivals or exhibitions. The effect of such groups is to raise the profile of the whole sector represented, and with it the profiles of the member groups as well. In Part II I will discuss findings from my own case study of the New York Opera Alliance (NYOA) as an example of emergent coopetition.