I was once hired to help a struggling museum generate an increase in weekday admissions. It was a simple process of doing some qualitative research, dusting off a few under-exploited opportunities and engaging with local partners that served a similar audience.
I worked with the marketing team to develop a plan that involved creating packages and promoting them with marketing materials that were based on what we’d learned about our target demo during our investigations.
Unbeknownst to me, however, there was an old gal on staff at the museum whose job was to “protect the brand.” She was a graphic designer, primarily, but she’d been there for many years and was highly regarded by several board members and the executive director.
I had developed a set of recommendations for creating audience-centered campaign materials and we were all set to begin the process when this woman stepped in and squelched everything we’d been working on. According to her, it didn’t fit the brand.
So, instead of making changes that would have improved results, the folks who ran this museum – in an effort to protect their brand – did what they’d always done and, not so surprisingly, achieved no increase in weekday admissions.
Consultants who work with nonprofit arts organizations occasionally discover that the problems they were hired to solve are the people who hired them.
This designer meant well, of course, but she had no professional marketing background, no real marketing education, and her knowledge grew out of a mid-20th century brand understanding that was tied to graphic design. Back in the 1970s when she learned about brands, people still thought they were logos and design schemes that dictated what the organization’s communications should look like.
Today, of course, marketers have a far more sophisticated understanding of branding. Most professional marketers know that brands – to the extent that they can be said to exist at all – exist well apart from the organization or its products: Brands live in the minds and hearts of people who come in contact with the organization.
Graphic design isn’t the brand because the brand doesn’t live in the marketing messages. Graphic design is just one of many brand management tools that organizations can use to shape public perceptions, and good designers continually hone their tools in response to the way people on the outside think, feel and behave. Or, in other words, in response to what they learn about the status of their brand.
Fundamentally, organizations that manage quality brands do three things:
- They assess public perceptions in order to measure the brand
- They stay focused on what they want people to do
- They develop and use tools that shape perceptions and motivate behavior
The only way to protect a brand is to learn what people think and feel, and then use that information to further influence perceptions and behaviors. The purpose of branding is to engender favorable predispositions in the marketplace and motivate consumers to buy (or attend or give), so a well-protected brand is one that engenders favorable predispositions and motivates desirable behavior.
A poorly protected brand, meanwhile, is one that remains unmeasured, and that is managed by an organization that tries to tell people what they should think and feel, rather than asking them what they actually do think and feel. You can’t protect a brand if you don’t know what the marketplace thinks and feels because the brand is what the marketplace thinks and feels.
This museum wasn’t protecting its brand; it was protecting an image that it wanted to project and that’s not branding, it’s narcissism. Deciding what image you want to project in the absence of input from the outside world and then stubbornly clinging to that image in the face of diminishing results is just plain nuts.
Arts organizations that want to have vibrant, active, productive brands need to abandon outdated conceptions of what brands are. They need to place the responsibility for managing their brands in the hands of staffers – preferably young marketing staffers – who have the most regular personal contact with the community (which means interaction with the brand), and they need to take their brand management cues not from venerable internal gatekeepers, but rather from the community where the brands they presume to manage actually live.
If your organization is projecting an image that doesn’t motivate enough people to respond, that image isn’t worth protecting.