The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge's brand is on display in its entrance

What's in a museum brand?

Caroline Parry, 15.01.2018
A successful brand engages people in a meaningful way
Until quite recently, brand was a dirty word in the museum sector. It was something the corporate types in the commercial world did to introduce uniformity – it was not for the unique and scholarly world of museums.

While there are undoubtedly still some who struggle to hide their distaste at the word, branding has become an accepted and, indeed, necessary part of the museum world.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago there was must more resistance to the idea of branding,” says Keith Cooper, the client director at agency Dewynters, which works across the arts and heritage sector. “Now it feels like if you aren’t doing it, you are missing out.”

Michael Smith, the founder of agency Cog Design, which has worked on a number of museum brands including the Beany in Canterbury and the Dickens Museum in London, admits the word brand still has baggage, and conjures up an image of “men in bow ties and braces”.

“Branding is just a posh word for communication,” he says. “We try to remove it from our conversations completely and substitute it with the word ‘personality’.”

Digital age

Communication and accessibility has never been more important for museums. The rise of the internet and increasing competition for visitors from an ever-expanding range of entertainment and leisure activities, combined with funding cuts, means that museums have to work harder to engage and attract audiences.

“Brands are very important,” says Paul Brookes, the chief executive of the Box, a new £37m cultural centre being developed in Plymouth formed from the amalgamation of several different regional collections.

“It’s not an add-on; it’s all part of the communication of what you are about. A successful brand communicates and engages people in a meaningful way. It’s having a dialogue about what you do.”

The digital revolution has made this more important, Brookes adds.  “People want to know immediately what they are engaging with. Any institution that wishes to engage with an audience, even if it is essentially a research organisation, still has to communicate what it can offer.”

Beyond labels

Many people believe that brand simply refers to a logo, says Susie Stubbs, the managing director of Modern Designers, an agency that has worked on branding projects with Manchester Museum, Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth.

“The logo is just the visual articulation of the brand,” she explains. “The brand is not just the logo or the marketing or the advertising. It’s the museum’s core purpose.”

A museum is often defined by its collections, exhibitions and programme, says Dewynter’s Cooper.

“To create a brand you need to find something that allows different departments to have an identity within a framework,” he adds. “Whatever you come up with for the brand, however, it has to allow the organisation and its component parts to breath.”

When it is done well, and the museum’s core purpose is clearly defined and at its heart, the brand will become an integral part of the organisation. It will be used internally for engaging staff and across all visitor-facing touch points, from programming through to signage and labelling.

“The brand is the museum,” says Linda Stranks, the head of marketing and communication at the National Army Museum, London, which launched a new identity and website in January as part of its recent £23.75m redevelopment.

“It is not just about how you bring people to the museum. It is about the customer journey through the museum, it is about interpretation and display. It’s that feeling you get when you are in the museum.”

Income generation

A robust, confident brand can also help museums to boost income generation, says Corinne Estrada, the founder of Paris-based communications agency Agenda, which works with a number of major museums and art institutions.

“Museums must have a brand now to align with sponsors – because they are also brands. Big institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate, in London, attract sponsors because they have strong consumer brands of their own.”

Corporate brands and partners are looking to make personal connections with organisations, such as museums, and having a brand makes that easier for them, says Dan Cowdrill, a freelance commercial and corporate development consultant working with arts and heritage organisations

“It’s the first battle won,” he says. “Having that strong brand behind a museum is an assurance that it is a functioning, well- managed business. Corporate partners want to see that and be associated with it.”

It can also help when looking to diversify to develop additional revenue streams, such as venue hire.

“Venue hire can be profitable quite quickly if a museum has the right kind of space, such as an empty gallery,” Cowdrill says. “That’s where having a brand is important.”

Multiple personalities

For larger organisations with multiple venues, museum sub-brands and satellite locations, such as standalone retail offers, having an instantly recognisable brand is key to the success of those venues. But there must be flexibility.

“The parent brand is the core brand,” says Modern Designers’ Stubbs. “For an organisation that has multiple venues, such as Tate, each needs to reflect the parent’s core values but there needs to be enough flexibility for each also to have its own identity and personality.
“That’s actually really hard to get right – there’s a very fine line between flexibility and a brand that ends up in a bit of a mess. To get it right you need constant vigilance and a commitment to reviewing communications on a regular basis.”

Having that flexibility also allows a museum to expand its physical location into new areas, says Estrada.

“The big success now is in creating a place such as the Southbank Centre or the La Monnaie de Paris,” she adds.

La Monnaie is the home of the French mint but, over recent years, it has also become an arts space. It opened a contemporary art museum in 2014 and, in September, reopened with a museum dedicated to currency – Musee 11 Conti.

It also has exhibition space with a calendar of events, a three Michelin star restaurant, a cafe for brunch and cocktails, and retail space. “It is a place to gather, “Estrada adds. “Not just a museum.”


The test of a museum brand’s success and effectiveness remains visitor numbers. Not just to a physical site, but also to social media platforms and a museum’s website or sites.

Brookes says that online is the best place to start if a brand is struggling with low levels of awareness. “Is [your website] clearly communicating what the museum does? Is the design clear? Does the online message reflect the experience? Does the experience live up to visitors’ expectations?

“If you can get that right then it should work otherwise it is time to ask internally why you are not able to communicate what you do.”

Too often a brand is reviewed once every 10 years but, in reality, it needs constant care and attention, ideally led by an internal brand champion, says Stubbs. “It needs to be someone with a fluent understanding of branding, who is senior enough to have some clout within an organisations.

Audience are always evolving and it’s absolutely essential that a brand evolves with them, Stubbs adds.

“If museums keep investing in their brand, then they won’t need rip that brand up a few years down the line and start again.”


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Seoyoung Kim
Curator, Kingston Museum and Heritage Service
23.03.2018, 09:53
Branding is equally important for small regional museums where identity could often be difficult to be defined due to various practical libations (e.g. budget, resources etc)