Extending the dancefloor

James Knight finds out how the 1990s superclubs are counteracting falling visitor numbers by extending their brands to appeal to a mainstream audience

Superclubs like Cream and Ministry of Sound became some of the UK’s most successful entertainment brands during the 1990s. Their names are recognised by clubbers and music fans from Kent to Koh Samui. But, as the big players gear up for another battle of the brands in Ibiza this summer, they are having to stave off superclub fatigue at home.

Attendance is down at the bigger venues, as dance culture becomes less homogenous and smaller scenes proliferate. Liverpool’s Cream is struggling to pull in the punters, Sheffield’s Gatecrasher has gone from a weekly to a monthly night and the dance floors at London’s Ministry of Sound are often filled with tourists, according to Paul French of clubbers’ bible Mixmag.

But if ‘their star is waning’ in terms of audience numbers, as French suggests, superclubs are now pushing harder than ever to diversify into areas like merchandising, album sales and other brand extensions. And design, which has long been a vital element of club culture, is playing its part.

With an annual turnover close to £100m, the Ministry of Sound is launching a range of audio equipment later this year through a licensing deal with electronics firm Alba. On-product graphics and packaging have been created by Amp Associates (DW 16 May). The brand is also planning an application for an East Midlands radio licence – to be called Play 106 and incorporating rock and other new music – and a Global World Tour co-sponsored with Nescafé.

As superclubs operate on a more corporate scale, is there a danger of alienating their traditional audiences? How do designers working in this market balance commercial and brand issues with the need for authenticity and an alternative feel?

Former Factory Records designers Trevor Johnson and Andrew Panas, now with the consultancy Via, believe The Haçienda in Manchester was a precursor to the highly branded superclubs of today. They were involved in designing promotional material for the club – mythologised in Michael Winterbottom’s recent movie 24 Hour Party People – for most of 1980s and early 1990s.

‘Design was foremost in everything [the club did], even down to branded matchbooks and toothpicks. It stemmed from a necessity to make everything as good as it could be,’ says Johnson.

Such an approach implies that design is a labour of love. But while this may have been true in club culture’s early days, have standards slipped?

Sheffield-based consultancy Designers Republic has been working on Gatecrasher’s visual identity since 1999. As the brand starts to grow internationally and extend across platforms, ‘pure creativity is sacrificed for creative strategy,’ admits creative director Ian Anderson.

‘It’s a balancing act, based on intuition and instinct. You must weigh commercial, brand issues with the need for authenticity and a youth focus,’ he says.

Club brands now seem to be more about bringing the underground to their audiences than trend-hungry clubbers seeking out the latest sounds. Anderson describes the Gatecrasher brand as a ‘huge conceptual processor’ that can filter and remix ‘source material into something palatable’ for consumers. ‘The [design] elements express not just the expectations of the audience, but also [their] projected aspirations,’ he says.

Tim Fielding, director of the original DJ compilation label Journeys by DJ, thinks many superclubs are no longer targeting their initial fan base as they attempt to broaden their appeal.

‘Ministry of Sound, for example, is very good at making the high street crowd feel that they have credibility as underground clubbers,’ he says.

And design can help to convince consumers their choices are still cool. ‘The average music buyer is pretty savvy about brands,’ says Fielding. With this level of market awareness, ‘it’s important to stand for something,’ he adds.

Targeting clubbing cognoscenti has never been top of MoS’s manifesto, according to Amp Associates creative director Scott Parker. The club’s mission, he says, is to appeal to mainstream 15to 25-year-olds who love music.

This ambition is evident in the work that Amp Associates carried out on Ministry of Sound’s identity. The crown has been simplified and lots of angular corners have been feathered. Dalton Maag was enlisted to create a new typeface, which is now a slightly less formal custom-made sans serif.

‘We wanted to soften it up slightly. The authority and heritage of the brand can look quite masculine. It’s always been something that’s very imposing,’ says Parker.

The brief was to create an instantly recognisable ‘cross-platform’ marque, with overseas markets in mind, that could appear on a T-shirt, a CD cover or a mobile phone screen. Parker hints that a more radical interpretation may follow if the brand keeps growing at its current rate.

There was a time when a hastily-designed flyer was the only thing you took away from a club besides the experience. But dance culture has come a long way since then. Today’s clubs may have evolved from a design-conscious heritage, but will need to be sophisticated in meeting the demands of an advertising and brand literate audience, says Mixmag’s French.

‘Clubbers want to feel like they’re going to a special event. Big clubs are clearly businesses rather than anything else and people who go to clubs realise to some extent they’re being marketed to. When clubbing started it was a reaction against that,’ he says.

As superclubs raise their profile as mainstream entertainment brands, the challenge for designers will be to continue to mix in subtle samples of authentic clubbing elements as the commercial imperatives become louder.

The rise and rise of Ministry of Sound: from London’s Elephant & Castle to king of the hill

1991: Club opens in converted bus garage at Elephant & Castle

1993: First record released; first UK club tour

1994: First international club tour; Pepsi sponsorship

1996: Website launched

1997: Ministry magazine launched; Public Entertainment Act passed and MoS thanked for support

1998: Radio programme syndication begins with Kiss FM show

1999: MoS radio launched; Australian office opens; Defected, Relentless & Incentive labels launched

2000: First No1 single; holiday company launches; MoS radio launches on DAB in London

2001: US and German offices open; MoS most successful independent record company in UK; MoS launches on DAB in Scotland; four No1 singles from DJ Pied Piper, Roger Sanchez, So Solid Crew, Daniel Bedingfield; MoS takes over Knebworth festival; venture capital company 3I injects £20m funding for 15 per cent stake

2002: MoS wins five Brit nominations; application for East Midlands commercial radio licence; audio equipment range launches

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