Rethink, Rebrand: Why, When, and How Museums Reinvent Themselves

Recently, a number of prominent museums have rebranded. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Victoria & Albert, museums are reinventing their public images. But, why are museums choosing to remake themselves? How are they reimagining their brands successfully?

On Thursday, the Chicago Museum Exhibitors’ Group (CMEG) met to explore these questions with three museum branding experts:

Julian, Stacy, and James provided a number of valuable insights to the group, but the most important takeaway was that rebranding isn’t about colors, graphics, and fonts. Rebranding is about refining your mission and listening to your stakeholders.

Rebranding is about your mission

If you’re thinking about rebranding your museum, you need to work from the inside out. As James stated “a rebrand needs to be about changing who you are…behavioral and operational change…If you’ve got a product problem, you’ve got to fix the product problem before launching the brand.”

The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) started its rebranding process with an exploration of its mission. In 1992, the museum opened in the Chicago Cultural Center, where visitors could listen to and watch archival recordings on old equipment. In 2003, the museum lost the lease at the Chicago Cultural Center and, due to financial limitations, did not reopen in a new space until 2012. By 2012, the world of communications had changed drastically, but the museum had not. As Julian related, in a Youtube world, no one needs to go to a museum to listen to music and see old TV shows. “It’s a cultural and societal moment right now,” he pronounced. “Everyone knows media is incredibly powerful, trust in the media is in crisis, and everybody’s a broadcaster.” Facing a brave new world, Julian decided to reinvent the MBC. “We should be the museum of media literacy,” he told CMEG. Julian has not started choosing fonts and creating logos, but, by clarifying MBC’s mission and revising its content, he believes the MBC has “laid a foundation,” for a new brand identity.

The Field Museum exemplifies the next step in the branding process, using your mission as a foundation for your brand identity. When Dilling joined the Field, she noticed that visitors did not know the Field’s mission to support scientific research across the world. “There’s this myth about us that we’re static,” Dillon stated “But we’re in a state of perpetual evolution, changing everyday.” Stacy told CMEGers that the Field’s new logo embodies the museum’s scientific research. According to the Field’s blog, “the square shape and bold lettering of our new logo represent the impact of our scientific work, and the shade of blue draws inspiration from the sky, the oceans, and our Earth. A smaller inset square represents the small proportion of what’s on display in the context of our vast collections and crucial work behind the scenes.”

Rebranding is for your stakeholders

You have to take the needs of your stakeholders into account when rebranding.

Audience research is a great way to take the pulse of your visitors. Stacy began the rebranding process at the Field by diving into the archives of the Audience Insights and Research department. However, James warned CMEGers not to start their rebranding project by launching a huge quantitative survey. “Don’t throw out a survey if you don’t know the questions,” he said. Start with your mission, he advised. Then, hypothesize about the needs of your audience. Finally, develop survey questions that help you define strategies for relating the visitors’ needs to your mission. Additionally, Julian emphasized that museums need to consider the audiences who don’t already come into the museum. If you’re a small museum, you can find these new audiences by “riding the coattails of larger institutions” and examining their research.

When you’re making big branding decisions, make sure your big donors are, to quote Hamilton, “in the room where it happens.” James told CMEG that, when he was leading the final branding meeting with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, a donor was on the phone line. She saw his designs for the first time at the meeting and nixed the entire plan. James had to scramble to find a new design. “My only professional qualification for being in front of you is I’ve made a great deal of mistakes and they’ve taught me a lot,” James joked.

If you want your rebranding campaign to be successful, you need to educate your employees about the new procedures and why you’re rebranding. Stacy created a thorough internal education program for the Field. When she began her program, every department controlled its own collateral, now everything is stamped with the museum branding. But, “this wasn’t like a light switch,” she said. “There were a lot of internal meetings.”

Other blogs on museum branding

Want to learn more about museum branding? Check out these blog posts:


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