What Indiana Can Teach Arts Pros About Brands

Poor Indiana.

A misguided political maneuver has backfired spectacularly and in just a few days that innocuous midwestern state with the annual car race and famous hoosier hospitality has become a bloodied battlefield in the culture wars.

By enacting legislation designed to enable Christians to discriminate against gay people the state has found its reputation being ripped to shreds in the media, and its economy is now the focus of a boycott that continues to grow as I write these words. Not the sort of subject I normally cover here, but there are lessons aplenty for anyone who cares about brands.

Here are a few observations on Indiana’s situation that contain cautionary lessons for brand managers in the arts.

Your brand is your reputation. Many older arts pros still think that brands are logos, tag lines or the images we use to decorate our communications, but that’s not the case. Your brand is what people think and feel about you and how those thoughts and feelings influence the way they behave toward you. A week ago Indiana had a great brand, but today it’s in tatters. The state hasn’t really changed, but the brand, which lives in people’s hearts and minds, has been damaged in ways that will take many years to repair.

Managing a brand that exists in the minds and hearts of other people means paying close attention to what those people are thinking and feeling – something arts organizations find difficult to do.

Brands are dynamic. Many arts organizations tie their brands to the universal importance of their art forms and thus assume they are unassailable. But brands, because they live in the hearts and minds of people, are destined to change as attitudes, beliefs and values change. Ten years ago Indiana might have gotten away with a craven ploy to snatch rights away from gay people, but the world has changed and the failure of Indiana politicians to change with it has cost the state dearly.

Managing brands in a changing marketplace means continually adapting brand management tools and strategies – something arts organizations find extremely difficult to do.

Brands can’t be built on bullshit. Arts organizations, because they pay so little attention to their customers’ thoughts and feelings, tend to fill their marketing materials with meaningless bullshit. Indiana governor Mike Pence tried to bullshit his way out of his brand disaster in a now-famous interview with George Stephanopoulos, but it only added fuel to the fire. Others have since tried to finesse Pence’s bullshit, but the world has seen through it and Indiana’s brand has lost its credibility.

Managing a successful brand in a media savvy marketplace means speaking simple truths with deference and humility – something arts organizations find almost impossible to do.

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Most arts organizations won’t have to go through what Indiana’s going through, but that doesn’t make the brand lessons any less important. Arts administrators who don’t quite get brand management, and who design their brands to project their own thoughts and feelings, rather than taking meaningful, proactive steps to shape other people’s thoughts and feelings, have a great deal to lose.

So my advice to arts organizations is this: Engage with your new audiences to learn what’s in their hearts and minds. Change the way you communicate with the world to reflect the way it has changed. And cut the bullshit. You need audiences more than they need you and everybody knows it. Start speaking simple truths with humility and deference and new audiences will beat a path to your door.

As for Indiana, it looks like the good guys are going to prevail and the state’s reputation will be restored. But the cost of earning back the brand equity that Pence and his cronies squandered will be absolutely enormous.

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