Lyndel King and Shelly Regan are marketing pals. But only Regan is a marketing professional; she is president of Yamamoto, a Minneapolis marketing agency. King, meanwhile, is director of the Weisman Art Museum (WAM) on the campus of the University of Minnesota. King has been so influenced by a rebranding exercise she did with Regan a few years ago that she and Regan have gone on to teach other museum directors – some as far away as Uruguay, Armenia, and Turkey – about marketing and branding. We asked the two of them to tell us why marketing savvy is so important for museums today.
You two got together when WAM was preparing to open an 8,100-square-foot expansion to its iconic Frank Gehry building in 2010. Why?
LK: We were on the verge of becoming a new institution in a certain sense. It just seemed the right time to think about marketing issues. So we went through a branding exercise with Shelly and Yamamoto and learned an incredible amount. I was wary –we aren’t a for-profit business, so I was a little dubious about this branding stuff. It turned out to be one of the best things that we had ever done.
What did you learn from the rebranding process?
LK: The most important thing for us was clarifying who we are and how we want to present ourselves to the public. How we train our staff, how staff interact with visitors, how we write wall text, what kind of staff we hire, how we work together – other things that you don’t think of as part of branding. Branding influences a lot of internal and external decisions. “Let’s do a new logo” is only a tiny part of what branding is about.
What brand issues confront museums today?
LK: Museums have, in spite of everything, come off as elitist, only for the ultra-sophisticated; museums have been working very hard to counter that.
SR: Museums have to focus on understanding their difference and communicating that difference, and understand that as part of running the organization well. It can’t be a secondary or tertiary thought. It’s got to be primary, in terms of executive directors and museum teams. Every day you have to be able to understand and articulate the value you provide – because if you don’t, you will become unnecessary. To the extent that we all believe that art and culture and the idea of what is elevated through museums is essential, its very essential nature needs to be protected.
Who do museums compete with today?
SR: It’s not that you are simply in competition with other museums or other arts organizations of whatever ilk. You’re in competition with soccer games and TV and shopping and living. Life in general is much more complex and much more demanding. The competitive set is really very diverse in this particular segment.
LK: Our competition is shopping malls, sporting events, hanging out at the park, going for a bike ride.
Many museums are trying to reach millennials. Because you’re on a college campus, they’re WAM’s primary audience. What tips do you have for other museums?
LK: Millennials go to events because they have friends to go with them. They like to go with their friends and have a good time. If they do have a good time and learn something, they’ll come back. We try to listen to young people, making ourselves approachable and attractive, treating them right. No long, boring slide lectures; we aim to be more interactive. The WAM student group advises us and also plans a certain number of programs. They invite the students into the museum as a good place to study and encourage them to take a tour for a study break. Maybe they’ll come back just to look at the art sometime.
We aim to break down that museum stereotype: We offer special events for students that involve food and music. We have sidewalk yoga in front of the museum – a lot of unconventional things. The other thing we do is work with faculty members to assign students to come here. Here’s an example: The fashion design department puts on a fashion event every spring featuring student designers inspired by our collection. It’s a big event here at the museum. The student group organizes this.
The two of you have volunteered your time to work with other museum directors, some far away. How does your message translate to museums overseas?
SR: The core of what we’re doing is trying to make sure museum directors have appropriate marketing 101 tools, to really shine a light on what mastery of marketing can do to help elevate the value of the museum, to help connect the museum more directly to its current stakeholders, as well as to increase the audience for the museums’ offerings. They are hungry for this type of conversation and understanding.
Has working on branding for WAM improved other aspects of the museum?
LK: The other things that branding helped with – mission, vision, brand personality, taking us though these exercises in ways that weren’t pedantic – are things we’d been arguing about for years. The process helped us come to agreement. So we came up with a vision that art should be a central part of the human experience. It helped us think through a lot of things.