Promises to Keep: Making Branding Work for Science Centers
Strategies for Tough Times
By Joyce Gardella
If I had to name the single most useful strategy in marketing, branding would be it. Brand as visual depictions representing various goods and services can be traced to the earliest civilizations. Brand as a marketing strategy first surfaced in the 1890s, when products of companies like Levi Strauss, Coca-Cola, Kodak, and Quaker Oats were seen to possess unique qualities the public desired.
The actual term “brand” entered the lexicon of business in the 1980s, which is when I first encountered it. As head of marketing for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), I worked closely with an ad agency, Young & Rubicam, that did pro bono work for the museum. They were developing an approach to what they called “brand science,” a strategy that could focus a client’s image to cut through the then-estimated 200 to 300 messages a day hitting the public. MSI was one of the first to apply the principles of brand science (not always successfully) to marketing informal science education experiences.
Gradually, a whole system of thinking developed around brand that made it less theoretical and more practical. Brand “value” began to be calculated in dollars, and today several Fortune 1000 companies have a bottom line that measures brand value in each quarter vs. the last quarter.
But the problem of message overload didn’t go away; instead, it grew. Today’s world explodes with messages. Advertising images and words inhabit every dimension and surface of our lives, from stadium scoreboards to the blades of inline skates to the back of grocery store receipts. Billboards and television and computer screens offer increasing numbers of messages simultaneously. According to a 1997–2000 study by Yankelovich & Partners, the number of advertising messages hitting people each day in major U.S. markets now exceeds 3,000.
We are all constantly sorting this “junk mail.” Bombarded with an endless flow of content, our minds seek the high ground of a known quantity, the thing we recognize and trust. For buyers and sellers alike, branding is the key to singling out products and services the market really wants.
The essence of what you do best
What exactly is brand? Businesses define it variously as a company’s
public identity, a strategic asset, a mental “box” (positive or
negative) in which the market places you. For practical use by
science centers, my definition is simple: Brand is the promise
that exists in the public’s mind about who you are and what you
Other terms extend the definition. Brand thinking helps focus the essence of what you are and do that is valuable and unique so you can make that promise. Brand awareness is achieved when the promise makes it onto the radar screen, when people recognize your name. Brand management is the work you do to shape and drive the promise, ideally honing it into something increasingly meaningful to your target audiences. And brand equity is the public capital, plus and minus, you accumulate in connection with your promise. It encompasses name awareness, real and perceived quality of product (the museum experience), loyalty, unique value, and associations.
But it’s the promise that comes first.
Museums are increasingly adopting the idea of brand. Recent growth in all areas of the leisure-time industry, from pure entertainment to informal education, has benefited our institutions, but it has also given us a vastly expanded “competitive set.” The prospect of a magic formula that will get visitors to spend their limited leisure time in your museum is appealing.
But before you plunk down your money for branding work, it’s important to know what this strategy can and can’t do for you. Here are six common myths about brand and the truths behind them:
1. We have to get a brand.
You already have a brand. If your community knows about you, if they have partaken of any experience or product you provide, then they already have a thought about you. That’s your brand. You may not like that thought, or you may want to change, improve, or sharpen it. Your success depends on managing it. But you can’t do anything until you know what that thought is.
What you need is data, both from the people who use you now and from those who should be using you (i.e., your next most likely audience). What do they see as your strengths? Your weaknesses? What would they like to have from you? What must they have? How are you doing, especially in regard to the must-haves?
2. Brand will solve our issues.
Brand doesn’t solve issues; it clarifies them. Brand thinking requires an institution to acquire a picture of its strengths and weaknesses, and then compare that view with the target public’s assessment of same. What you are looking for are core synergies to build on, and disconnects to remedy.
Ask yourselves this: Based on our current situation, what’s the promise we can make and keep? What is going to be the most relevant, the most important thing to our public, the thing they’re going to value and respond to most? The core of your best promise, your optimum brand right now, exists in your answer.
3. Brand is a great logo and slogan.
Certainly logo (the “mark”) and slogan are an expression of your core promise: Think of Nike’s swoosh and “Just Do It,” Coke’s bright red and “The Real Thing.” But some organizations leave it at that, spending a lot on what is essentially a cosmetic.
You may have noticed that logos and slogans come and go. The best tend to evolve as an organization’s brand thinking evolves. The rule is:If the thinking behind your mark/ slogan doesn’t help you make better decisions, if it doesn’t create tools staff can use to make their work day better, it isn’t brand thinking.
4. Brand needs to be big.
For a brief period, MSI used the slogan “We’re amazing!” The problem was, we weren’t. What we were doing was nice, but it wasn’t amazing. It was an overpromise. Every time we said it, we created a disconnect in people’s minds. MSI’s current slogan—”We’ve Got Fun Down to a Science”—more directly expresses what the museum is about.
Align your promise with what you can deliver, a thing people are compelled by, or at least value, and drive that forward. The Museum of Science in Boston (MOS) has had great success with “It’s Alive!” When we worked together to develop that mark/slogan, we knew it expressed a uniqueness about the MOS experience that the Boston metro area values. The museum uses the mark and slogan in everything it does, reminding people of that precious edge. Even better, proposed exhibits and programs are run through this filter. MOS knows it may be off-track if someone says, “It’s not alive!”
5. Brand will get people to like us.
People will like you to the extent that you are relevant and accessible. Are your experiences keyed to visitors’ interests and needs? When it comes to leisure time, needs often start with “having fun.” Are you accessible-even welcoming-physically, economically, and intellectually?
What brand does is help people know you, the ongoing institution, as opposed to you, the momentary address for the latest blockbuster. How many museums have launched a capital campaign only to find that their image is based on an exhibition that left years ago? They spent precious resources marketing a brand, but whose? Not theirs.
Brand thinking flips this equation. It makes each program, exhibit, and event an iteration of the museum’s ongoing promise, sharpening your image in people’s minds.
6. Brand belongs to marketing.
If your goal is a one-time visit, then you are in the business of selling, and marketing does create awareness. But if your goal is relationships, the kind that bring loyalty and continuing support, then brand thinking must permeate the organization. It begins on the floor, in the everyday choices of what you’re going to do and how you do it. Whether it’s an exhibit, a gala, a lecture, or a T-shirt, everyone on staff must ask the same question: Does this clarify or muddy our promise?
The future of brand
Brand science continues to evolve. In the information glut of the 21st century, brand loyalty is replacing brand awareness. The goal now is to cut through the picture in people’s minds to the emotion behind it.
This is good news for science centers. Our institutions are based on the joy of lifelong learning. We percolated up from the community’s need to be inspired as well as entertained. We hold science and technology and their achievements in trust for the public. We are about the best that humans have to offer.
People don’t always regard us that way. But in a post-September 11 world, that is our job. We can inspire visitors and give them hope for the future. Brand is a tool to help us break through “same old, same old” and bring our full force to a public that needs us more than ever.
Joyce Gardella is principal of the consulting firm Gardella & Associates, Watertown, Massachusetts.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.