NEWS16 March 2021

How Bristol’s Colston Hall rebrand celebrated its roots rather than dwelling on its namesake

Impact 2021 Leisure & Arts News UK

UK – Last September, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, music venue Colston Hall changed its name to Bristol Beacon. No mere rebrand, it made an emphatic statement about culture, ethnicity and some troublesome aspects of Bristol’s history. The venue’s marketing head and research partner told the MRS Impact 2021 conference about how research helped drive that process.

Black lives matter protest_crop

The fact that the former Colston Hall was named after 17th century slave trader Edward Colston had always sat at odds with the venue’s place at the heart of Bristolian live music culture, and had sparked protest and debate for years.

Andy Boreham, head of marketing at Bristol Beacon, and Phillipa Neal, senior research executive and division manager at Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, spoke to delegates about how their collaboration sparked several “eureka moments” that drove the project.

The first such moment was when Morris Hargreaves McIntyre’s pitched for the business.

“At the start of this process, we were in a mindset of having cerebral conversations about the name Colston, and how to move forward from that,” Boreham said.

“The first ‘eureka moment’ was [Morris Hargreaves McIntyre] coming to us and saying: ‘if you get stuck in that narrow conversation, you’ll continue to be a lightning rod for this issue’.”

Instead, both parties “widened the scope, moved away from conversations about the name and talked more about who we are and who we want to be”. 

“Rooting the project back into the emotional grounding of music took it out of that head-space and made it more grounded and rooted,” Boreham said.

It was a project that started as a consultation around branding and renaming, Neal recalled. “Because of the complex context that you were working in and the scrutiny that all these high profile issues would face, we approached this as a much wider organisational change project.

“And only once we had done that could we begin to consult on how you could increase your relevance and relationships with the public, which was the key question underpinning all of this.”

The process started “from the centre with the staff and trustees at Colston Hall", then worked out to stakeholders who might have a connection, "to audience members who go there, right out to the wider Bristol community who might not even be aware” of the venue.

Workshops were held “where staff spoke openly about their understanding of organisation – why does it exist, what does it exist to do and serve?”

“The output of this was a model that detailed the fundamental elements of the organisation, which would become our central guiding light.”

This model, which has since become an everyday tool used by the venue’s staff to make both small and big organisational decisions, served as the launchpad for primary research, the findings of which would be fed back in.

The forward-looking outlook it adopted resonated with the community too, a fact borne out in research with stakeholders and locals. “We could talk to people for five or 10 minutes about the [Colston] name, there wasn’t a lot to explore,” Boreham said.

“It was the conversations about music and the experience of going to a live concert that really sustained themselves for a longer period of time.

“What the research process gave us was a sense of being bold, being open and reconnecting, and not getting dragged into the agenda that other people were setting. Reconnecting with the idea that people have of you at the core of your organisation.”