In a time when cities, and even airports, find it important to differentiate themselves to remain viable, we decided to look at museum branding in the United States. What we found was really something of a shock for our seasoned brand strategists—a combination of extraordinary creativity and almost a total absence of strategy.
Let’s start by talking about two components of place branding: place making and strategic positioning. Place making is the enhancing, improving, and revising of the physical product—often the addition of new assets over time. For a city, it might mean a new children’s park or building a theater to attract respected performers.
Strategic positioning is finding that one thing important above all others that makes the city different. Tangible examples include Chattanooga’s “Gig City” or New
York City’s “I Love NY.”
The branding effort brings place making and strategic positioning together in a unified message.
Now that we’ve agreed on terms, let’s look at a few museums.
Years ago, when I worked on Madison Avenue, I enjoyed visiting the Museum of Modern Art on my lunch hour. The collection was filled with Rauschenberg, Oldenberg, and Warhol… along with de Kooning, Calder, Picasso, and Jasper Johns.
Stationed in each exhibition room was a uniformed guard, looking very stern. Somewhere within the guard’s proximity was a small sign in classic Helvetica that warned, “No cameras and photographs allowed.” Very intimidating, to say the least.
The Digital Camera Arrives
Photography went digital and cameras got smaller and smaller, giving people the opportunity to take picture after picture… but the stern guard and the small sign still prevailed.
On October 1, 2016, the North Carolina Museum of Art opened an exhibit I couldn’t wait to see called, “Rolling Sculpture: Art Deco Cars From The 1930s And 40s.” Fourteen cars and three motorcycles that served as, “… stunning examples of car design at its peak.”
I was enthralled in viewing these luxurious and glamorous, hand-crafted vehicles; but something was different. I paused, looked around, and noticed everyone taking pictures with their smartphones. Pictures of the cars, close-ups of fenders—even grandma posing before a yellow and black Bugatti. Quite a change!
The guard was still there, but he looked more relaxed—and he actually smiled. I soon discovered the ominous little ‘No cameras’ sign was missing—a casualty of the digital age.
Museums indulged in some big-time place making and embraced the digital world! In his insightful article, “Museums Morph Digitally,” Steve Lohr writes, “Yet listen to museum curators today and they often sound like executives in the media, retailing, consumer goods and other industries. They talk of displaying their wares on ‘multiple platforms,’ and the importance of a social media strategy and a ‘digital first’ mind-set.”
Something earth shattering is happening. Mr. Lohr further states, “Digital technologies being deployed or developed include: augmented reality, a sort of smart assistant software that delivers supplemental information or images related to an artwork to a smartphone; high-definition projections of an artwork, a landscape or night sky that offer an immersive experience; and 3-D measurement and printing technology that lets people reproduce, hold and feel an accurate replica of an object.”
Place making is on fire! But where’s the branding?
The truth is that things are moving quickly internally, but the same old branding techniques are still being used. Tactical activities like elegant balls and fundraising phone calls targeting wealthy benefactors substitute for strategy. This kind of tactical branding is successful. I am not advocating they be banished, but simply supplemented with a comprehensive strategic branding review.
Start with a brand snapshot.
Maybe it’s time for your museum to step back and commission a branding snapshot, a topline exploration of how your brand is perceived. Your unique snapshot will suggest if further research and brand development can be useful. Let us know if we can help promote your museum branding, culture, and image.We’ll be happy to suggest ways to get the process started.