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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tired Brands: The Cream nightclub

Last dance saloon?

In the 1990s Liverpool nightclub Cream grew from being a small intimate venue catering for around 400 clubbers every Saturday night, to being one of the UK’s first ‘super clubs’ regularly attracting thousands of devotees from all over the country. It quickly capitalized on its success by launching merchandising material, setting up its own record label in partnership with Virgin, touring nationally and internationally with a variety of sponsors, and even embarking on a series of dance music festivals called Creamfields, catering for around 40,000 clubbers. By the end of the 1990s there were regular Cream nights in places as far afield as Buenos Aires and Ibiza, as well as the brand’s native Liverpool.

Yet in September 2002, Cream co-founder and boss James Barton announced that the Liverpool club was closing. Although Barton said the reason for the closure was to concentrate on other aspects of the company, he also admitted to Radio One that ‘if the club was doing the sort of numbers it was doing four or five years ago we wouldn’t be making this decision.’ The media responded by saying that the decision not only signified the imminent death of the Cream brand, but of club culture in general. Whether or not Cream manages to survive without its spiritual home remains to be seen, but the closure certainly indicates tough times ahead.

So why exactly did it happen? How could a club that became a household name for a generation suddenly lose its appeal? The reasons, as you might well expect, are numerous.

One argument was that as Cream expanded it gradually lost its cool factor. In 1992, the year James Barton and Darren Hughes set up the club, Cream was immediately viewed as a welcome antidote to the business-minded approach of the London club, Ministry of Sound.

Word of mouth helped to fuel its early growth, along with celebratory pieces in dance music magazines such as Mixmag which named Cream its ‘club of the year’ in 1994. Around this time Cream decided to expand its operation, moving the club to a larger venue and launching nights in Ibiza.

By the middle of the decade, Cream was everywhere. Clubbers were sporting tattoos of the distinctive Cream logo (which itself had won awards for its ‘propeller-style’ design), DJs from around the world were lining up to play in the main room, and one Liverpool couple even decided to get married at a Cream event. In 1996, Cream was cited as the third main reason people applied to Liverpool University in a poll conducted by the university. Over 60,000 people rushed out to buy the ‘Cream Live’ CD in the first week of release.

Then, in 1998, the first signs of trouble started to appear. Darren Hughes left the company to set up his own super club, Home, in London’s Leicester Square. The year after the first ‘Creamfields’ festival, Hughes started his own ‘Homelands’ event. The club’s former director was now the competition.

Another problem was the cost of putting on Cream events at the Liverpool club. Ironically, for a club which helped to establish the cult of the ‘superstar DJ’, the fees charged by big names such as Fatboy Slim, Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, the Chemical Brothers and Carl Cox were becoming the major weekly cost. However, without paying for the DJs, Cream would have risked losing its market altogether. ‘It’s the performers who make the real money, though they used to draw in enough custom to make it worth the club’s while,’ says Mixmag editor Viv Craske. ‘Big clubs still rely on the same old DJs, despite no longer drawing the crowds.’ With big names typically charging four or five figure sums for two hours’ work, the costs could clearly be crippling for a club such as Cream which always advertised their events on the strength of their DJ line-ups.

Another factor, and one beyond Cream’s immediate control, was the fact that its original customer was now getting too old to be on the dance floor at three in the morning every Saturday night. For many 18-year-olds, the idea of ‘super clubs’ and ‘superstar DJs’ was starting to be wholly unattractive. As Jacques Peretti wrote in a July 2002 article in the Guardian, this generational shift took place at the end of the 1990s:

These teenagers were more interested in rebelling against their siblings and joining a band. Instead of going to clubs, it became cool to follow American nu-metal bands such as Slipknot and Papa Roach – bands that preach hate and pain in ludicrous gothic garb, not peace and love, as ageing house DJs might. [. . .] Even to their natural constituency, super clubs epitomised everything that had gone wrong with club culture [. . .] The cutting edge of this culture now is not Cream or Ministry of Sound, but tiny venues with a word-of-mouth following.

As Cream became ever-more commercial, it was seen to lose its point. What did it have to offer which couldn’t be provided by mass-market pub, club and restaurant corporations such as Luminar and First Leisure (which began to borrow the super clubs’ music policy for their own venues but without having to fork out for the high profile DJ)? Cream, and the other super clubs, had suddenly seemed to lose their sense of creativity and personality. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that in 2002, the year Cream shut its Liverpool club, the biggest nightclub event in the UK was School Disco – which completely rejected the dance music ethos in favour of unpretentious good fun, with clubbers dressing in school uniforms and dancing to Duran Duran and Dexy’s Midnight Runners).

Some people have also questioned the competence of Cream’s management team. The owners certainly had no formal training, as with most people in the clubbing industry. As Oxford graduate, former merchant banker, chairman and co-founder of Ministry of Sound, James Palumbo, once put it: ‘The world of nightclubs is so populated by incompetent people that you only have to be a bit better to make a success of it.’

This accusation is at least partly unfair though. In many ways Cream has been too ‘business-like’, at least ostentatiously. In an interview with the Liverpool Echo, James Barton was asked about the decision to close the club.

‘It is something which is unfortunate but I think we have to make these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘At the end of the day we are businessmen.’ Of course, they are businessmen, but that doesn’t mean they have to advertise the fact.

Equally, they were perhaps unwise to make such a big deal out of their tenth anniversary.

Cream is, or at least should be, a youth brand. As such it needs to be about the here and now, not the past. As one anonymous commentator remarked on the Internet, ‘when was the last time you watched other youth brands like Nike or Nintendo celebrate their birthdays.’ Certainly, when your core market is 18–24 year-olds the last thing you want to be telling them is that you are 10 years old. They don’t care about what you were doing when they were, in some cases, only eight years old. The club’s reputation has also been tarnished by its association with drug use. Merseyside Police expressed concerns in 2000 about the ‘drug culture’ at Cream, saying it could have taken more measures to prevent drug dealing at the venue. In 1999, a 21-year-old woman died after collapsing on the dance floor.

Although James Barton said after the club’s closure that the German brand remains at ‘the forefront of youth culture’ there is an increasing amount of evidence to the contrary. Its ‘Cream Collect’ album sold under 2,000 copies in total.

Competitors have also been quick to isolate themselves from the Cream closure, by blaming a lack of brand innovation. ‘Cream closing is a seminal moment in club land history,’ Ministry of Sound managing director Mark Rodol told the Independent newspaper. ‘It’s a lesson to club promoters that you can’t sit still. Ministry of Sound’s music policy changes at least every twelve months and has always done so, with our nights proving there’s still thousands of clubbers looking for a great night out.’

Although it remains to be seen whether the Cream brand will turn sour, or once again be able to rise to the top, there is no denying it needs a radical overhaul if it is to survive. ‘Clubs like Cream no longer empathise with customers,’ says Mixmag’s Crastke. ‘They’ve lost the trust of the kids. And once you’ve lost the kids, it’s very hard to get them back.’

Lessons from Cream

  • Don’t contradict your brand values. If you’re a nightclub which is open untilsix in the morning, your key market tends to be people under 24 years old. It was a mistake then to emphasize the age and longevity of the Cream brand to a market which cares little about such values.
  • Adapt or die. For youth brands, the only constant is change. The Cream nightclub relied on the same tried and tested formula for too long, using expensive DJs who had passed their sell-by date.
  • Avoid over-exposure. By 2000, Cream could be found everywhere. At festivals, in clothes shops, in music stores, on TV adverts. As the brand extended its line however, the identity became diluted and consequently the club struggled to attract enough custom to keep it going.
  • Watch market trends. The fact that 200,000 people went to see Fatboy Slim live on Brighton beach in the same month that Cream closed down proved that there was still a strong market for dance music events. It also proved that the Cream nightclub may have been moving in the wrong direction.