Should Museums Brand?

Written by | January 24, 2018 | Posted in Insights, Museums

Branding is one of those vague terms that can mean a lot of different things to different people. If by branding we simply mean a logo, an identity, or a tagline, then yes, of course museums should and do brand themselves as any other business or organization does. But let’s get more specific with our definition of branding. The gruesome etymology, of course, involves metal implements, lots of heat, some sizzle, and very loud braying of upset livestock. Branding cattle was necessary in order to differentiate one ranch’s livestock from all the others. And branding in its marketing usage is still connected to differentiation.

So, with differentiation in mind, should museums engage in branding efforts that seek to feature the qualities that make them distinct from other museums and other local institutions? This is a harder question, and judging from most, if not all museum brands today, using this measure of differentiation, it seems that branding that differentiates is not a high priority. Beyond seeking to implement a consistent set of identity parameters, museums seem content to leave their brand essence, their emotional connections, their unique purposes, both unstated and unexpressed.

I think that there are some common and historical museum institutional habits and priorities that have allowed them to take a soft approach to rigorous branding. And while I am not suggesting that there is an immediate urgency for museums to rethink these patterns, I do think that this is an issue that may need to significantly change in the future.

Before getting into those institutional habits, and why and how an emphasis on branding relates to them, I’d like to dive a little deeper into museum branding in order to evaluate the ways in which museum branding is often anemic.

A Test of True Branding
Prior to my coming on board at Cuberis I was a business and marketing consultant for design firms. One of my first principles and efforts with any new client was to challenge their branding, or as it’s more typically called in the design world, their “positioning.” Most design firms brand themselves as generalists. What do they design? Anything you might need! Who do they design for? Whoever needs it. This broad and general positioning prevents them from marketing effectively and from developing true market expertise that sets them apart from a crowded field of alternatives.

One way to measure whether a brand statement is really doing its job is to ask how many other firms could use the same statement and have it be just as applicable to their brand. You’re “strategic” (and so is every other competent design firm). You’re “creative” (true by definition). You have a “cool culture” (all those other design firms are staffed by nerds). You work with “brands that do good” (as opposed to focusing only on clients owned by super-villains?). What can a design firm say that really gets specific, that not every other firm can say “us too” to? As I had to push my clients on this, it often got uncomfortable.

Applying this test to museum branding is also likely to get a bit uncomfortable. So before applying those tests to museum brands, let’s return to the future-oriented issues that may require museums to get clearer on their institutional branding.

Why Might A Museum Need to Brand?
There are three basic aspects common to almost every museum mission: to preserve, protect, and promote their collections. The first two could be fulfilled by simply maintaining a warehouse for objects–no visitors needed, no audience to be concerned about. But that last part, promoting the collection, requires engagement with the public. And it is this part of a museum’s mission that accounts for the lion’s share of the ongoing costs of running a museum. Promoting your collection requires a great deal of effort. Marketing effort. Scholarly effort. Educator effort. Administrative and facility effort. And development effort to keep it all going. It’s in connection with the promoting part of the mission that branding matters most.

Unlike for-profit companies whose corporate headquarters and administrative staff are fully funded through product and service sales, museums need to be supported in large part through donations as they fulfill their trusts to preserve, protect, and promote their collections. And so the museum, as an institution, needs to be promoted among its donor base.

And it’s here, in promoting the museum to its donor base, that changes to the historic trends, a coming shift in base, that the past de-emphasis on institutional branding may need to be rethought and reapplied.

Since fundraising is such hard work, development officers must prioritize their time, going after the most likely sources for the biggest gifts. Those major donors already have personal connections to your institutions. Therefore this channel is not affected one way or another by your branding. Dependence on major donors one of those institutional habits and priorities I mentioned earlier. And since this is still the status quo for museum funding, the felt need for branding is low. But when it comes to raising support for different, broader, younger, channels–among average visitors who have not historically been your big supporters–in that channel branding will become increasingly important.

Taking a longer range view, looking at the philanthropic trend lines, the historic and current base for museum support is aging, and not being replaced by a new and younger generation of support. Looking to the future, where museums may need to replace some annual gifts of $10,000 from select patrons with $100 donations from one hundred average museum visitors, building personal and emotional connections with a new base, through your institutional branding, may become increasingly important.

But it takes a lot more effort to raise one hundred smaller donations that it does one gift of $10,000. Just ask your development office! Raising a groundswell of smaller donations is a lot more like typical for-profit marketing efforts. And it’s in that kind of effort that branding will either help you or hurt you. Branding, or lack thereof, impacts the amount of effort it takes to connect people to your mission en masse. The first law of branding: the sharper your axe, the better it does its job. Therefore, if your museum’s brand is dull, general, vague, unstated, you will need to exert a lot more effort to persuade the average visitor to become a donor. But if it’s sharper, clearer, more concrete and specific, the less effort you need to exert into order to solicit donations from your “customer base.” What’s more, museum branding on the web can expand that base not only to those who feel connected to a local institution, but to a worldwide audience among whom may be people who are passionate about your particular collections.

With those changes in mind, let’s take a more focused look at how museums are branding themselves today, and how they may need to rethink their approach to branding in the future.

How Are Museums Branding Today?
My evaluation of current museum branding efforts is that museums are actually very adept at branding their products (exhibits, events, programs, etc.), but not good at branding their institutions. As I’ve written before, you do a tremendous job of telling the stories from your collections, but a terrible job of telling your own story. As a result, your audience engages with the things you brand and promote well–they show up at exhibits, engage in education, and attend events. But there is very little engagement with the brand of the institution itself. I’m thinking of the general public in particular, not your major donors and board members.

The general public may respond to your promotion of product, but are less engaged with the mission of your museum as an institution. And that’s in part because museums have not branded themselves. The branding edge for “marketing” the message of institutional support is dull at best. And so branding your institution is the first step toward enlarging your base of supporters.

I can point to few, if any, solid examples of museum branding–at least in as much as it is conveyed through their website. Many have nice logos and taglines, but where is the high level statement about the essence of the museum as an institution? A statement that defines its purpose, focus, and goals. One that is truly distinct from what any other museum can claim?

When you go the homepage of a typical museum, the main piece of information, appropriately, is usually the current exhibitions. Then comes upcoming events, news items, and other features. The main navigation header includes the expected relevant categories: visit, about, art, learn, donate, etc. But is there a brand statement anywhere? Not typically.

If you want to find some kind of distinguishing remarks you’ll need to check out the about us, mission, or history pages. Museum mission statements all follow the same general script. Something along the lines of “[Museum] exists to preserve, protect, and promote its collection for the benefit of the community/world.” The benefits are usually articulated under the categories of education, engagement and experience. These are accurate descriptions of what a museum is, and so it’s not surprising that most museum missions sound the same. But that also means that we need to look elsewhere for a statement that differentiates one museum from another.

So if you keep digging into a museum website, looking for such statements, you might check out the “about us” page or the “history” page. Here you will begin to find institution-specific and unique stories–but even then, if you blank out the dates, locations, number of objects, names of founders, and description of collection, the basic plot point of these narratives are often similar to each other. So again, where do we make distinctions?

Example: The Peabody Essex Museum
The best example of a branding statement that I’ve found for a museum is on the Peabody Essex Museum website. But even here the key differentiator is still a bit buried.

But let’s start with their homepage. As of this writing the current featured exhibition is “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style.” The entire “above the fold” section of the homepage is devoted to promoting this exhibition. That’s standard and perfectly appropriate. But while this does an excellent job branding this particular exhibition the museum’s own brand statement is deeper in.

When you get to their mission page you get a very well-crafted mission statement. But despite its beauty, it still follows the standard formula of museum mission statements.

“The mission of the Peabody Essex Museum is to celebrate outstanding artistic and cultural creativity by collecting, stewarding and interpreting objects of art and culture in ways that increase knowledge, enrich the spirit, engage the mind and stimulate the senses.”

They then expand on that mission adding a clarifying statement that helps.

“PEM interprets its singular collection in ways that invite visitors to discover the inextricable connections that link artistic and cultural traditions.”

That additional statement is a bit more concrete, and they indeed do a great job interpreting and communicating, but I think most museums would and could make the same basic claim.

But then there’s something else that not every museum can say.

“As the nation’s oldest continuously operating museum, PEM was among the first museums in America to collect works of art and culture from around the world.”

Not every museum can say that. In fact, none other than the PEM can! And so a simplified version of this brand marker could be “America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Museum.” This is a brand distinction that could be leveraged in building personal connections between the general public and the institution itself.

How Museums Can Leverage Institutional Branding
Articulating the essential message that makes each museum unique is not easy–especially since it’s overall mission is so broad and expansive. Yet establishing a museum institutional brand message is key for building connections with the general public and the average museum visitor. And since museums rely so heavily on donations, and since the major donor base that has historically bolstered museum budgets is slowly ageing out without replacing itself among the younger generation, museums need to cultivate more personal connections between their institutional brands and their public visitors.

There are many tactical ways these connections can be made in this digital age. But your branding, how sharp it is (or how dull), will determine the effectiveness of every point of contact. Do your visitors connect with your brand? Do they buy into your overarching mission? Or will they remain consumers of only those particular products that suit their interests? Moving your members, visitors, and communities from one level of engagement to a deeper one, will require better museum branding.

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Eric Holter, Owner & CEO
Eric’s passion is to make sure museums focus on the most meaningful digital strategies that serve their core goals–helping them to cut through the clamor of an ever-increasing set of possibilities–to focus on the real opportunities digital offers our treasured cultural institutions.