Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand! (Pt. 1)

Branding the Museum

What is a brand? Is it the trademarked logos in the shopping mall, or the packaging of products lining the shelves in the grocery store? Is a brand reflected in a company’s matching stationary, or simply embodied in the “look” and “feel” a company projects to its public? The simple answer is a brand encompasses logos, packaging, stationary, architecture, design, and the socio-cultural references we associate with a particular product or business. The goal of a brand is to stimulate memory, to entice consumers to purchase products or services. It can be thought of as the tool of capitalism to make the public purchase even what they do not need. However, a brand does not only embody a product or service. It can accentuate an individual’s identity and assist in validating their social status when they use things they think will set them apart.  The Apple iPhone and four-dollar lattes from Starbucks create an illusion of a certain lifestyle because these companies have strategically designed branded products that can transcend mere monetary value and transform the way their customers live by changing their habits, tastes, and interests.

Branding Resistance

The non-profit realm of museums has experienced resistance to marketing in general, but branding specifically. Given its more mercenary purpose in the for-profit world, the reticence is not surprising. Corporations reserve a large percentage of their budget for marketing and often have more room to modify their brand if at first it does not succeed. While companies aim to offer products or services customers will buy, they are not publicly funded institutions as museums are and are thus not as accountable to transparency and the public trust. In general, museum administrators have been more apt to spend money on collections management and public programs rather than on the often lengthy and expensive branding process that typically aligns more with entrepreneurial endeavors. However, non-profit organizations including museums are increasingly seeing the benefits of branding as necessary to “creating and maintaining a body of programs and attitudes that convey a clear promise, encourage familiarity, and generate ongoing support” (Wallace, 2006, 1), and in some cases this includes museums that have history but not necessarily an identity. They may be working with a design that has graced their building for twenty years, but that is not integrated across their website, communications materials, or has even evolved into something more than a logo.

Many organizations may see a need for a change in their image, and embark on the process of re-branding.  Wallace (2006) argues, “Smart museums are finding their identities, articulating their core values, and as any good professional would do, seeking new ways to enhance their image” (p. 6). This is what re-branding is all about, and in the following pages, I will discuss the importance of branding for a museum, why a museum would embark on the process of changing this brand, and will conclude by examining cases involving the New Museum in New York City and the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Why Brand a Museum?

A museum brand is a business imperative, a strategic marketing move, helps attracts more volunteers (and visitors), and assists in raising funds (American Association of Museums; Branding Strategy Insider). Colbert writes, “the role of the brand is to differentiate the products of one firm from those of other firms, or to set the firm itself apart from the competition” (p. 36). Branding encompasses “collections, exhibitions, publications, marketing materials, Web site, partnerships, recognition, awards, docent tours, store merchandise, programs, events, and signage,” which all broadcast an identical message about the museum with similar visuals (Wallace, 2006, p. 2). Richardson believes that while a logo is important in the branding process, it is not the only consideration. He writes, “[Branding] really starts with asking what makes your Museum special and thinking about how you can communicate that to your audience” (para. 3).

Goal of Branding – Ries’ “Seven Steps”

The goal of branding is ultimately to further the mission of the museum. If branding is a reflection of the museum’s personality and purpose long before it is a logo, as Flint suggests, how does an institution reflect this to the public? Ries outlines seven specific steps for building a strong non-profit brand: the name, the spokesperson, the position, the competition, public relations, a signature event, and color and logo. Most museums will already have a name they need to work with, but every brand requires a point person that will properly represent it, and a position or focus, which is generally culled from the mission of the organization. For example, the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon abides by the following:

The mission of the Portland Art Museum is to serve the public by providing access to art of enduring quality, by educating a diverse audience about art, and by collecting and preserving a wide range of art for the enrichment of present and future generations.

The next step, competition, requires a museum to look at what similar  organizations are doing and in someway set their institution apart. Public relations build a brand as the spokesperson speaks at press conferences, with reporters, and through press releases with a clear, focused position. A signature event can drum up attention and raise money for the museum, and color and logo bind the organization’s communications together with a similar visual representation. All of the steps must work in conjunction in order to provide the organization with a way to communicate what makes it unique to the public.


One response to “Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand! (Pt. 1)

  1. Pingback: Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand (Pt. 2) «

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