What Marketers And Museums Can Learn From Each Other

Synergies in approaching audience and brand

What can marketers learn from museums? The premise seems absurd on the face of it. Most ad campaigns today are about using the most modern means of communicating, combined with strong visuals and engaging copy that's tied to a deeper marketing strategy that considers the brand values, current market position and competitors, sales goals, etc. 

And museums, well, they're not doing any of those things, are they?

Dig a little deeper, and parallels between museums and brands begin to emerge. Over the last few years, museums have had their self-appointed positions as "noble stewards of culture" met with arched eyebrows in much the same way consumers do with brands that overpromise. The "buyer beware" mentality is ever-present, particularly as institutions struggle to create a feeling of authenticity with visitors.

Given this dynamic, brand marketers often struggle to connect with their audiences, something that most museums and cultural institutions have done well in recent years out of necessity, thanks to the numerous existential threats they face, ranging from shrinking funding and an overall reassessment of their  missions in our changing world.

So, what can brand marketers learn from museums, and vice versa?

Insights and Experiences

Marketing professionals have developed an incredibly sophisticated understanding of their audience that allows them to shape their message for best efficacy. This is something that museum curators might want to consider. Often the work of "audience insights" is seen as a separate marketing-related track within the museum organization that is not considered by the interpretation or curatorial teams when developing an exhibition. 

When these three teams—audience insights, interpretation, and curatorial—work together, they better understand the visitors they are engaging with so the exhibition is more likely to succeed in forging a connection between the presented content and visitors. This may feel too close to pandering for the comfort of most curators, but it's worth putting in the effort to understand the museum's audience better in order to have a richer, more inclusive conversation. 

Marketing professionals, on the other hand, may want to think about developing experiences that are thought-provoking and unexpected. To some extent, taking bold actions that reflect the brand's values (e.g., Colin Kaepernick and Nike) can have a bigger impact on how the audience perceives the brand than a "feel-good" marketing strategy, even if those values challenge the audience. That's something we think marketers will have to become more comfortable with. 

Consider the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which is a sprawling space similar to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Customer research showed immigrants to the U.K. were coming to the museum because they wanted their kids to have a shared sense of culture and history with everyone else in the country, and to "fit in." That's an incredibly powerful brand that the V&A has developed for themselves seemingly inadvertently. Imagine feeling like you "belonged" just by visiting a museum. Imagine if a marketer could tap into something that powerful.

Pay Attention to 'Feelings'

Most museums aren't necessarily aware of the brand they've already created (most seem to have stumbled on their brand almost inadvertently), and they're most certainly not leveraging it to build real, authentic connections with their visitors or see how that brand affects what visitors want. More museums would benefit by getting better tuned in to the feelings that drive visitors to your institution, and focusing on reflecting those feelings back to them in the form of exhibits and the experiences they feature.

Brands could learn a few lessons from the way museums honestly grapple with issues that are pulsing through the cultural landscape. That means more honesty, more authenticity, more transparency to make up for lost ground. Also, brands need to be honest with consumers. Most marketers' gut instinct is to back away from this and instead try to focus on things that are easy, positive and fun. But in our increasingly polarized world, that starts to feel inauthentic.

Museums today are faced with the realization that it's imperative they think more deeply about their brand, while traditional marketers are currently reckoning with some of the same tough questions museums faced not too long ago: namely, why should anyone believe them? Not an easy question to answer, but one that, when answered honestly and approached with respect for consumers, offers brands the opportunity to make the same kind of authentic connections.

Profile picture for user Nathan Lachenmyer and Sadiya Akasha
Nathan Lachenmyer and Sadiya Akasha
Nathan Lachenmyer and Sadiya Akasha are co-founders of Sitara Systems.

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