Should museums take branding more seriously?

Museums are often named after the town or county in which they are located. This is especially true of publicly-owned museums but are they missing a trick?

Some of our larger institutions do take branding very seriously. When I was working for Milburns, contract caterers to some well known British heritage buildings, one museum in their portfolio was the V&A. Going back to the late 80s, the V&A wanted to encourage more visitors to visit and spend money in their shop and cafe. A famous advertising campaign followed featuring “An ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached” (Saatchi & Saatchi poster campaign). It succeeded in raising profile and increasing visitor numbers. Victoria and Albert Museum         The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tate and Met in New York  are examples of institutions that have adopted brand thinking. However an article in the Guardian questions if branding has grown organically rather than strategically.

“But behind the scenes, some curators remain suspicious. For many, brand is a dark force bringing control, conformity, corporatism and crassness. It’s the B word. The BBC’s brilliant self-referential comedy W1A, with its terrifying brand BBC consultant, serves to confirm the worst suspicions. Who’s right?”

It goes on to examine the changes in the landscape. Museums used to talk about collections but now audiences have come into the vocabulary as well as interactive experiences and story telling. Successive governments have emphasised the importance of greater accessibility, widening audiences and funding themselves. This has led certain museums ” to think more deeply about what they stand for, to manage their identity more deliberately” and to communicate more effectively to audiences.  

The Tate signalled its drive to become more accessible with strong identities for its sub brands but institutions such as the British Museum “have adopted brand thinking less explicitly, but just as fundamentally”. The National Trust deftly switched its emphasis from properties to people. Such organisations recognise that “the term “brand” is widely understood to mean much more than just logo”.

“If you see branding as superficial, as something for the marketing people, as just a commercial gadget, you’d be right to oppose it. But branding taken seriously is a good thing. In the end, the fundamental role of brand in museums is not to dumb down, but to help scholarship reach more people”.

Robert Jones, strategist at brand consultancy Wolff Olins writes in Guardian Culture

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