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

(You can read Part 1 by clicking here.)

Sometimes Re-branding is Necessary

It is imperative that museums constantly reevaluate the messages they project about themselves to the public, what can be considered branding. Re-branding is a part of revamping or even creating an identity for the institution. Thor writes that re-branding:

“is not simply a marketing initiative. It’s a holistic process that must consider and represent every aspect of any organization. Branding is not just about how you want to be seen. It’s about showing the world what you are and what you believe in…your brand must capture your vision, mission and values, not just a subset” (para. 6).

DeLouise suggests, “Re-branding is always an act of imagination. The question to ask if you want to re-brand is “will this propel our mission?” (para. 5). Also called brand repositioning, this process can be difficult and time-intensive. Notwithstanding the financial burden, a museum may not have the resources necessary to change the public’s mind about who they are and what they offer. If an institution is going to re-brand, this not only means a overhaul of its current messaging, logo, graphic standards, and communications processes, but also requires the organization to strategically determine how they are going to persuade visitors and non-visitors to think about their museum in a different way, away from the frame of previous experiences and impressions.

VanAuken (Branding Strategy Insider) offers the following conditions under which an organization might re-brand:

  • “Your brand has a bad, confusing or nonexistent image…
  • Your organization is significantly altering its strategic direction…
  • Your organization has acquired a very powerful proprietary advantage that must be worked into the brand positioning.
  • You are broadening your brand to appeal to additional consumers or consumer need segments for whom the current brand positioning won’t work.”

VanAuken operates from a commercial standpoint, but his ideas resonate with museums, which also struggle to establish a reputation due to a bad image. The catalyst for change may be that the organization wishes to alter their focus from being an institution known for putting on blockbuster exhibitions to one that showcases more regional art and artists. Many non-profits want to reach out to a younger demographic like Generation Y, individuals born between 1977 and 1998. Appealing to a new segment of the population may require a museum to change its brand so that it is more easily communicated across electronic media platforms like a Facebook fan page, an e-newsletter, or a blog.

How does a museum ensure that its new brand will thrive? As with any investment, monetary or otherwise, the return-on-investment is not always guaranteed, but there are ways an organization can strategize for brand success. Brothers Chip and Dan Heath (of “Made to Stick” notoriety) use the term “stick” to describe ideas that are “understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact—they change your audience’s opinions or behavior” (p. 8). In the twenty-first century, institutions should rely on an integration of traditional and guerilla marketing techniques to communicate a new identity to the public.

The process of re-branding may only last one to two years, but establishing an identity and creating meaningful relationships with visitors requires long-term strategizing and commitment to a consistent message and image.

Case Studies

The New Museum of Contemporary Art and NCMA are two examples of museums re-branding and are analogous in many ways. Through the re-branding, both organizations have sought to occupy a more unique position in the marketplace and to mean something more to their publics, to stand out and modernize their brand. The New Museum designed an inventive contemporary building to exhibit art, and crafted a new look and logo to exemplify their mission of “New Art, New Ideas.” NCMA is currently redesigning their building, and the architectural improvements have been supplemented with a complete re-design of the logo, signage, and graphic standards. Due to its establishment of a permanent location and a successful re-branding process, the New Museum increased attendance by 600%. According to the North Carolina Museum of Art, its goal is to communicate consistently while using the flexibility of their system in exciting new ways.

NCMA began its re-branding process by launching a building project, adding 127,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 449-seat open-air amphitheater, and a 163-acre sculpture park complete with walking trails. To augment its architectural improvements, the NCMA hired Pentagram, a design firm, to create a new logo, graphic standards, and signage, essentially “a new graphic identity that would reflect the boldness of the museum’s transformation.” Pentagram designers used a Bauhaus-inspired typography to devise a unique alphabet for the museum, and it is currently being used on brochures and even as the icon for NCMA’s Twitter profile.

The museum re-opens April of 2010, but already the logo has received mixed reviews from the community of Raleigh. On its website, local online newspaper New Raleigh praised the museum for hiring a preeminent design firm like Pentagram and going to great lengths to match their new graphic appearance to the incredible expansion project. However, feedback in the comments section of the article represented a wide range of opinions, from “horrible” and “not very readable” to questions about the cost of such a re-design to opinions that it is beautiful and challenging. While this represents only a smattering of opinions about the new logo, it conjures questions of whether or not the museum bothered to invite the public to have a stake in the re-branding process before embarking on what one can imagine was a pricey venture with Pentagram. The logo visually binds the museum’s various social media platforms together, but what message does this send to their public? Is it one of access or one of exclusivity? This will remain to be seen when the museum unveils its complete transformation in April.

The New Museum in New York City re-branded its image employed a similar technique of using architecture to alter its identity and perception to the public. Marianak writes, “The expressions of the New Museum identity are striking and distinctive in achieving a coherence between mission, building, and identity” (para. 9). The mission of the New Museum is “New Art, New Ideas” and the new building looks like giant boxes stacked haphazardly one top of one another. Designed by Tokyo-based SANAA associates, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the buildings blatantly contemporary look and bright exterior stand in stark contrast to the rest of New York City. Nancy Schwartz (a.k.a. marketing guru) writes that motivating factor for the re-branding of the New Museum was due to the fact that “it had fallen from the public eye after an initial decade or so of attention” (para. 4). With its eclectic exhibitions and vibrant history, it could not claim a place to call its own and needed to achieve architectural stability before anything else. The planning fell into three steps: development, strategy, and execution, a collaborative effort between the museum’s administration, the architects, the designers, board members, and the like. As a result of early strategic planning and leadership, “the Museum was reward with extremely successfully processes and products on the brand development and roll-out fronts” (Schwartz, n.d., para. 35). The result was an astounding 600% increase in visitors, and 400% increase in new members (Schwartz, n.d., para. 32). Ongoing audience surveying and enthusiastic staff members are propelling this institution forward, fueled by the initial re-branding that was necessary to reposition the New Museum to its public.


When a round-table of some of the top museum directors in the United States convened in the early 2000’s, branding was described as disposable; something that is imposed on the museum but is not “of” the museum; a short-term strategy; a self-destructive strategy; and is incongruent with an institution’s plans to create long-term relationships with their publics (Cuno, 2004, p. 175). Such staid mindsets still exist, but are gradually giving way to innovative marketing plans that involve social media tools, virtual exhibition spaces, interactive websites, and creative approaches to re-creating the identity of a museum by changing what it means to brand a non-profit organization.

Museums should glean information from the for-profit sector on how to effectively brand their institutions, while also staying aware that their mission is different from the goals of a business. Increasing funds and membership is a fortunate by-product, but is not first and foremost an entrepreneurial means to an end. The purpose of a brand in the non-profit sector is to further the mission, not necessarily to sell a product or service. .

Click here for a PDF of the references cited in both parts of the re-branding article.


2 responses to “Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand! (Pt. 2)

  1. Pingback: Museums: Don’t be scared of the re-brand! (Pt. 2) - Sharing and Integration | AFFANDA.COM

  2. Sounds like job security if you’re at the right place at the right time.

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