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Is the Museum Brand God Dead?

Has the museum brand met its maker? Are brands just a modernist vestige of the 20th Century marketing ethic? Do museums even need to bother anymore?

“Museums are not meant to be experienced in a consistent or predictable fashion. Branding to, as you suggest, standardize the visitor experience is a modernist notion that is unhelpful for today’s cultural institutions.” Lily (commenting on the article “What if museums were run like successful companies?”)

Lily suggests that postmodern thought—the tearing down and parsing of the notion that one must appeal to authority to make sense of one’s experience—applies to museum brands. Bear with me as I offer some background first on what a brand is, and then take up this question of a paradigm shift that might alter what is required of a museum brand. If you just want the answer first, it’s yes, museums do have to bother.

As to the other question about the brand god, you’ll have to read on for that.

What is a museum brand?

Indeed, what is a brand anyway?

Short answer: A museum brand—like any brand—is whatever your consumers (visitors and members) have in their minds about you.

That’s it.

You have a brand whether you choose to exercise any control over it or not.

It’s not your colors, your logo, your message, your collection. It’s what they—your brand consumers—remember about those things. It’s the sum total of the images and ideas that they have about you. It’s not necessarily the truth, but it is their truth. (You are a brand consumer as well, and the truth you have inside your head is also the brand, but what really matters is the brand as understood by those who pay admissions, attend programs, donate money, and thus allow you to fulfill your organizational and public service mission to educate, enlighten, and inspire.) So, what does the public hold in their minds about you? For good or ill, that is your brand.

Branding, therefore, is all the things you do to bring your consumer’s truth closer to the truth about you. Your marketing, PR, communications, and visitor services practices all contribute to your brand. All of your consumers have a kind of mental model of you. It may include some or all of those things we traditionally associate with a brand (logos, colors, the masterpieces in your collection, or the cute baby dolphin you use in your advertising), but it also includes the guy who was polite to me when I used the coat check last time I visited. Or the time I came and your institution was closed even though I had gone to your website to check beforehand. Unfortunately, negative emotions can have a more lasting impression than positive ones so you must be very careful with your brand. It is made up of many things, and it is precious.

Branding process

How healthy is your brand? Do you clearly understand who your audiences are and how well you are meeting their emotional needs? Are you able to think about your exhibitions, programming, and promotional activities from the perspective of your key audiences?

When we work with public institutions like museums, one of the first things that we do is create diagrams that visually represent the mental models their consumers hold. What is the relationship between the real offer and the understanding of that offer in the public’s mind? Adjusting, fixing, aligning, and improving this relationship to better reflect reality is what we call branding. (This assumes a good product of course.)

So let’s assume for a moment that aspects of what you actually deliver day in and day out as an institution are not fully understood by some or all of your audiences.

We are in the habit of relying on this authority to help us understand the world—to see the proper “order of things.”

What aspects of your offer have real emotional value for your consumers? What does the consumer really care about? This raises the question: Who is your consumer? A detailed answer to this seemingly simple question will clarify exactly which segments of your audience have the strongest and most natural connections to particular parts of your brand. This can also illuminate what other audiences you may be able to attract if only they knew you better. To get these answers you must carefully review your brand from the perspective of each distinct consumer type (persona), and clarify how strong its pull is for each in the context of your competition. Once you know what each audience actually needs from you, then you will have the insight necessary to effectively communicate with them. “Effective” here means you can speak in a language that resonates with them and that specifically addresses their emotional needs. Equipped with this knowledge and tooled up as a brand, all of a sudden your marketing efforts become more efficient and effective. The sequence though is critical: Understand, then act. The brand idea comes before the logo.

Museum branding and the erosion of authority

For most of human history, we have accepted the top-down authority of certain institutions—whether they be cultural, religious or, more recently, scientific. We are in the habit of relying on this authority to help us understand the world—to see the proper “order of things.” This imposed order assigns meaning, packages it and doles it out in discrete, easily digestible forms like museum labels, names for things, or species designations. Thanks to science we understand that a house cat (felis catus) is an entirely different category of animal from a dog (canis lupus familiaris), even though both may be beloved house pets.

The postmodern movement calls into question this way of chopping up the world. Originating in 19thCentury philosophy with Friedrich Nietzsche (who famously pointed out the increasing irrelevance and waning authority of the church with “God is dead”) and Søren Kierkegaard, a rebellion has been mounted against such inherited hierarchies. Why, they asked, must one’s conception of the world always be handed down from trusted authorities? These thinkers and their philosophical heirs have proposed that an individual has the power to create meaning and to decide what is personally relevant. This suggests that how we give meaning to things—how we distinguish one category from another—might just be arbitrary. Or, it could mean that all systems are equally valid, thus giving each individual the power to create her own world of meaning and parcel it up as she sees fit.

The authority, the curator, the author, the expert—anyone whose charge it is to create grand classifications and assign meaning—has been demoted.

I like this idea, and it is precisely this latter interpretation that I understand Lily to be espousing for museums and, by extension, for museum branding. Who are we, she says, to dictate how one understands the meaning of the content of “my” museum? A museum brand that tries to assign meaning in predictable ways is anathema to this. Follow this reasoning and you get to a very interesting place, one of ever-changing invention and categorization. I’m reminded of the preface to The Order of Things, in which Michel Foucault cites a wonderful list of classifications for animals originally invented by Borges in his Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

“This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.”

In a postmodern world—the one we live in now—this typology is possible, desirable even. The authority, the curator, the author, the expert—anyone whose charge it is to create grand classifications and assign meaning—has been demoted. This is our Internet paradigm, is it not? The authority is now just one voice among many. In this 21st Century, who is to say that Borges’s list, with its amusing classifications, is not just as good as the scientific version we use with its arcane Latin designations?

What does this mean for museum branding?

Has branding been reduced to an unnecessary affectation, an agenda that museums—or any institutions for that matter—no longer need to cultivate?

Nike has now eschewed Just do it as too directive and preachy (AdWeek). It is now, they say, left to the consumer to decide how they want to think about Nike’s products. Another brand among brands, Apple, is no longer saying anything like Think different. It’s just putting a small declarative note on its products: Designed in California. Is this shift away from brand slogans a sign of the dawn of a new post-branding era, or simply a privilege that can only be enjoyed by the brand elite? More to the point, can your institution forgo the endeavor of museum branding?

Let’s venture down this path. First, though, let me remind you once again of what a brand is NOT.

It’s just too damn hard to make things from scratch. So we don’t.

A brand is not your logo. A brand is not your style guide. A brand is not your slogan, like Just do it. A brand is not even your guiding idea. A brand is all the concepts, the memories, the images, the associations, and the feelings that are retained about you or your products in the minds of your consumers. So you have a brand whether you choose to exercise any control over it or not. It is there, inside and outside of your museum, walking through your front entrance (or not, as the case may be) blurry and nondescript, or sharply in focus and shared by many. Your brand lives, breathes, evolves, grows, and fades as you nourish it with whatever you feed it: exhibits, ads, events, news, images, anything and everything that you put out into the world and into people’s minds.

So have museums reached a place where brands no longer matter?

Have we reached that place where a person can and should hold any idea about you that she likes, experience your offers just as she chooses, and make of that experience whatever she will? Does such freedom now reign? Freedom from curatorial authority, freedom from conceptual frameworks, freedom from the authority of the artist, the learned, the brand manager?


It is an appealing thought. It’s a thought that poses a basic question of free will, something that has been debated for centuries, and it is also where I get stuck.

Maybe you do need to be more than the sum of the parts of your collections, more than the object of random thoughts unmolded by concerted and coherent effort.

As much as I would like to imagine it, we are not free. We are not free from our desires and preconceptions. We are not free from our basic needs and our primitive modes of thought. We use patterns and mental shortcuts to make sense of the world. We resort to stories to understand and communicate ideas. These shortcomings make us human, and they help us make choices about what we decide to do and what we choose to buy. We borrow, we reuse and recycle. It’s just too damn hard to make things from scratch. So we don’t.

We can’t.

Our decisions, our ideas, our very thoughts are not ultimately characterized by freedom or originality. Every minute of every day we make use of what is given to us. We think we are rational and independent of outside influence, but in fact we are ever the victims of manipulation and coercion both subtle and profound. We are driven by our emotions and our basic needs. We think we are free only because this notion of ourselves as such massages our egos.

In liberating me, you would, I believe, unfortunately lose me to those who do not share your optimism about the human capacity for invention.

In a postmodern vision of a brand, you would leave me alone. You would not bother me with your brand. My decision of what museum to go to, what exhibition to see, what product to buy, would be left entirely up to my free will. And in liberating me, you would, I believe, unfortunately lose me to those who do not share your optimism about the human capacity for invention. You would lose me to those whose more Machiavellian (or at least pragmatic) schemes do employ the tools of marketing manipulation and persuasion, whose use of mechanisms such as branding—that accursed spawn of modern marketing—serve to foil your best-laid postmodern plans for the release of my free will.

You will lose me to a better museum brand and wonder why. Maybe you are supported by the state and do not need to resort to any such measures. Maybe your only competition is your own past best endeavors. Maybe you operate above the fray, outside of the need to attract, or maybe the raw magnetism of your collection is sufficient attraction in its own right.

But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just not enough.

Maybe museums are in the same not-yet-liberated world as everyone else. Maybe your greatness does not come from the fact of your existence, but rather from the fact that your audience is or could be the “everyman.” Maybe your craft, your inventions, your products are worth the added effort of figuring out how to impress upon me—your consumer—why I should care. Maybe, just maybe, you are in competition for the same hearts and minds, for the same dollars and devotion as everyone else.

Maybe the idea of your museum brand—the answer to the question “Why do you matter to me?”—is not irrelevant at all. Maybe you do need to be more than the sum of the parts of your collections, more than the object of random thoughts unmolded by concerted and coherent effort. Maybe you do need a brand after all—lovely animals drawn with fine camel-hair brushes notwithstanding …


Illustration by Anne Mieth for Tronvig Group

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  1. Tim says:

    Lily’s comment might just as easily be the classic modernist position taken by museum staff for decades—an uninterrogated “culture is pure, brand is commercial/corrupt” stance.

    Great blog.

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