Culture as a brand – arts institutions and brand strategy

In a report (in French), released in 2006 to the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry, Maurice Lévy and Jean-Pierre Jouyet have highlighted the need to value brands of which cultural institutions are the custodians.

The major cultural institutions which dream the world dream have economic potential to create new revenue.

In their report, they have emphasized the value of the intangible. Wealth and growth are not to be found in the concrete, but the abstract. They are not in hardware but in immaterial.

Who better than the cultural world can bring this immaterial wealth? Is branding important to make a difference? To increase its own resources? How to implement it without derailing?

Omnivorous Public, Omnipresent Competition

Consider a central element in any strategy of a cultural institution: the public.
In the postmodern context in which it operates, the consumer is:

  • individualist: new technologies (image, sound, etc.) enable him to assert his tastes, to express his own personal opinions. His choices will be based on aspirations, his personal existential projects. In fact, he is an active consumer (a consum’actor). What he consumes determines who he is.
  • constantly confronted with the intangible: products (music, for example) and services are dematerialized, abstract concepts valued: wellness, emotion, pleasure (just look at a commercial break). Imagination is also very present and the boundary between reality and fiction is sometimes thin (virtual reality, video games, reality TV …).
  • moving: mobility is everywhere: obviously physical but also virtual (with all connected devices: phones, tablets, watches …), professional … The public is in a permanent emergency (although paradoxically his free time increases more more)
  • over-informed and over-biased: information reaching him is more complex, richer than before. Solicitations / stimuli he receives are more numerous, in a world dominated by mass communication. Competition is particularly fierce in the sector of culture and leisure where the cultural institution needs to communicate more and more.

As a consequence: the public is now increasingly “omnivorous” and scholarly -entertaining opposition – popular vs elitist – tends to disappear. Many cultural “dissonant” profiles have appeared. Being able to move from a public cultural “classic” outings (opera, museums …) to so-called cultural “entertaining” products (night clubs, video games, television, sports events …). Public also seeks a personalized often dematerialized access to culture. And, in fact, expectations for cultural consumption are several: when he goes to a museum, he is looking for an aesthetic emotion, but also entertainment, escape …
The post-modern man being pressed, he wants to live intensely these cultural experiences. He looks for immersion, wants to “stick together” with the experience. In a museum, visitors will see an exhibition, but also have a coffee, buy a book or a branded product, find some activities for their children … Paradoxically this individualistic consumer researches the social bond and the membership of a community (this is the case, for example, of public festivals).

Marketing and culture: a necessary marriage?

Marketing in the cultural field is scary … Culture and Communication has already raised the subject. But let’s go back on what may frighten arts professionals. Marketing does not mean to”sell anything at any price by any means,” but to create a confidence and trust relationship with its public, its partners, for sustainable profit. It provides the means to achieve a goal, to carry out a project. And so that said Dominique Bourgeon-Renault:

Marketing can be defined as the set of tools available to an organization to raise the share of its public, behaviors helping to achieving its corporate objectives.

In the above-mentioned context (increased competition, demanding consum’actor …), it is important for cultural professionals to stand, to fight to exist, to understand the expectations of their audience, to satisfy their demands. Finally, they need to bring forward their intangible values when looking for sponsors and patrons so they can interact as equals with their financial partners while remaining demanding. These economic, artistic or social objectives are sometimes in competition …
How to reconcile them? Is branding a response?

What is a cultural brand?

As we have seen, both abstract and immaterial are very present in our society today. And the consumer first seeks to satisfy his personal aspirations. The brand offers its audience a meaning goal. It is its ability to make sense, to make a promise that builds its value.
Because brand is key, an intangible asset that can be sold and bought. Thus the Louvre has rented its mark for thirty years in Abu Dhabi. The Guggenheim Foundation has sold its franchise in Bilbao. Two projects, albeit contested, but which reflect the value that can take a cultural brand.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao –

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao –

But selling one’s brand is not the only objective: it can strengthen the institution in its relations with a partner. Thus since 2013, the brand “Opéra de Paris” has been declined on clothes and perfumes (designed by Christian Lacroix), in association with the fashion brand “Petit Bateau”. The stated goal? Boosting the Opera’s own resources , but also protecting a mark that has already been used for commercial purposes.

This approach is part of the mission of enhancing the intangible heritage which falls to public institutions. We are responsible for a strong brand, a public image of international dimension and a cultural heritage of the highest order. We will ensure that all our partners convey the values ​​that make the Opéra de paris the largest cultural institution it is today.
Christophe Tardieu, Deputy Director of the Opéra de paris

The brand is a promise, a “contract” with the public: it guarantees him certain qualities, values ​​to which he can relate to. It gives meaning to the product. If this promise is kept, it provides fidelity and public confidence in this brand.
Some voices, for example, are critizing the strategy of the Guggenheim Foundation, renamed by some “Mc Guggenheim”: questionable social policy choices,  exhibitions challenged as too commercial. For these people the Foundation has gone too far; has broke its contract with the public.

In 2000, The Tate Modern has decided to position itself as a competitor of Harrods in the minds of its audience to benefit from the boom of Eurostar. It has set up thematic / transchronological exhibits that have met with great success. This “contract” with the public means also to offer a complete experience to the public: exhibitions, boutique, catering, social interactions… For the brand determines the sum of all experiences and the meeting points with its audience. This has led to the launch of Tate Media.

We are a major player in contemporary art, we do exhibitions lasting twelve weeks. After? Nothing. This requires the creation of contents (…) that one can then distribute…
Will Gompertz, head of Tate Media at Tate Modern

Turbine Hall - Tate Modern / <a href="">Shutterstock</a>

Turbine Hall – Tate Modern / Shutterstock

A trademark enables the construction of a world, a psycholigical and/or fictional universe. A brand strategy will help to organize these elements in order to create meaning, an attractive story relevant to the public. This should be articulated with concrete benefits (or manifestations of the brand).

Our goal is to make the museum [MoMA NDLR[ a place of experience: a gym for the mind, a school for the heart, a sensory experience, cerebral, emotional and spiritual.
Kim Mitchell, MoMa

Finally, without its public, the brand is nothing. With it, it conveys a coherent image, focusing its attention by synergy messages. It offers him a meaning without denying. The branding project has to be solid to prevent cronyist programming only to meet the demand. Through its events (exhibitions, programming, communications, shop, restaurant …), the brand’s logic should blend with that of the public it serves. It does not have to meet the public expectations via a hardware offering. But through a storytelling. Ackownledgment of its public (but also its competition) is at the heart of a brand strategy. This is what gives it its force, its differentiation, its magnetism.

Cultural brand and self-financing

Looking for patrons does not mean to reach out hoping the mite. Developing a brand strategy can overcome this logic and help to build a “win-win” partnership relationship. Why? Because companies also need the arts, their rich sense proposals, their values, their imagination and creativity.
Therefore, a museum, theater or any other institution that develops a storytelling may choose its partners according to its compatibility / complementarity with its values. But, it also need to keep in mind that an institution can develop credibility with fair dialogue with its partners. As a consequence, luxury companies have moved closer to contemporary art. This is the case of the LVMH group (ordering Murakami for Vuitton, sponsoring exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou …). The names and the values to which the arts institution associates itself also keeps building its identity.
Cultural brand, as we have seen, can be exploited in various ways. Many museums have understood and highlighted branded products or their derivatives “icons” (The Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Orsay Impressionists, Hieronymus Bosch at the Prado Museum).
But cannot this excessive commercialization damage the image of a cultural institution?

A brand … Yes, but a cultural brand. Do not go astray

How not to go astray? First of all, the institution must know its identity. All cultural institutions can not be the Louvre, the Tate Modern and the Opéra de Paris. Instead of getting lost, of being wrong, it is possible to set up a credible original and relevant project to which one’s public agrees.
The Louvre welcomes around 8 million visitors a year. Who can compete with such “machine”?

Louvre Museum / <a href=">Shutterstock</a>

Louvre Museum / Shutterstock

The question cannot be there. But rather: how can we be different from the Louvre? Can we live a global experience, an artistic emotion other than the middle of a huge crowd? That cannot it be against-productive futures?
A brand can also propose a project against the trend, occupy a niche. How? By highlighting the extraordinary nature of a cultural site, its quietness, its human scale, its social area, bringing together the public … No need to push the process to the extreme

Branding is an undeniable asset to cope with changes in society and cultural institutions, a way to meet the current challenges (existing, evolving, self-financing) by:

  • building a sense of horizon in which the public can project his aspirations, his questions …
  • materializing the contract “with the public” in a consistent and honest way without being misled and falling into patronage.

To build one’s sustainably, one must built it without “selling his soul”, without falling into demagogy. For this, one must keep in mind the primacy of its artistic, educational or cultural project as the main asset of its brand.

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