Q&A | 'We knew this was a golden opportunity for us to return even stronger' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘We knew this was a golden opportunity for us to return even stronger’

David Watson on NML's bold redesign and the secret to developing a great museum brand
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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David Watson is executive director of audiences and media at NML
David Watson is executive director of audiences and media at NML National Museums Liverpool

National Museums Liverpool (NML) recently unveiled a new brand identity that will be used to unify its museum sites, products and commercial services. Created by the design studio SomeOne, the brand uses a wave motif, accompanied by the tagline “Never Dull”, to symbolise its revitalised energy and ambition as a public body.

Museums Journal caught up with David Watson, executive director of audiences and media, to find out more about the creative process behind the rebrand.

Why did you decide it was time for a brand redesign?

The brand was more than a decade old and while it’s served us well over the years it wasn’t fully embodying who we were and who we are becoming. It was also quite dated as a tool that was meant to set us apart and connect us with audiences at home in Liverpool, but also beyond.

We wanted to reinforce our position to be that of not just an organisation with venues which audiences will visit, but major visitor attractions that audiences want to keep visiting because of the extraordinary work that we continue to do – exploring the past, present and future. We also knew from feedback that we needed to show a clearer proposition to the business community, existing and potential funders, as well as partners and collaborators.

The new branding at the Museum of Liverpool National Museums Liverpool

Our masterbrand (NML), venue brands, product brand (House of Memories) and events brand (Hosted by National Museums Liverpool) were embedded well within the organisation but, over time, it became quite challenging to promote their identities without becoming confused, lost altogether and, in a lot of occurrences, ending up competing. It also wasn’t clear that our seven museums and galleries were part of the same service, and this is something we wanted to address.

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What were the main things you wanted the new branding to achieve?

We wanted to achieve a refined and stronger brand proposition that would respond to our new energised ambition and ultimately enable storytelling, in all its guises, to lead the way to excite, entertain and educate audiences.

Whilst it was a refresh in line with our updated strategic plan, mission and aims, we really wanted to ensure there was a strong concept behind our brand which would have resonance with all audiences and truly capture and embody our expertise, collections, audiences, and of course our ambition.

It was also important for us to unify our venues, products and services as many visitors and stakeholders didn’t know they all belonged to the same group.

What were the challenges of working on a project like this, particularly during Covid?

While it would have been very easy for us to pause the project as we got deeper into the pandemic, we decided to continue forward as it was a fundamental piece of work for the organisation, and key to unlocking and resolving so many things for us.

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Of course we knew it could have been disrupted further down the line; however, what happened in fact was that the pandemic afforded us the opportunity to focus even more on the project as everything else was slowing down around us. We didn’t let this extra time and ease of working online pass us by – using it to involve even more colleagues, external industry professionals, funders, and the public.

It was also becoming very clear by the time we hit mid-way in the project that the world was dramatically changing around us, and we were all being forced to look at who we were all going to be when we emerged from the pandemic. You only had to read the newspapers, watch TV and scour social channels to see and hear the debate about how organisations needed to think differently because we’d never return to the normal we once knew.

The wave motif is based around the theme of energy and uses the tagline 'never dull' National Museums Liverpool

It was particularly loud around how organisations like ours needing to re-think our offer, how we communicate our purpose and be able to make the case for more support, not only from funders but also the audiences.

We knew this was a golden opportunity for us to return even stronger and more united as an organisation, supported by a brand proposition that was authentic, powerful, bolder and braver than ever before.

There were absolutely some basic challenges in working remotely. It was difficult to visualise our spaces when you’ve not been in them for such a long time, or to remember specific assets or products if they’re not in front you, but you never forget the energy of the spaces, how they operate and how you feel when you’re in them exploring our amazing collections. 

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Was it difficult to find a design that works across all of NML's diverse sites?

There’s such a breadth of fascinating collections and experiences across NML’s seven museums and galleries, each with their own unique draw, so we did think it would be a challenge to find something that would work for all. Through the research and engagement with our colleagues, there was a real synergy and pull in the same direction across the board, with some key components standing out throughout.

The agency team helped to harness this and distil it into a key theme – energy – which is present in all that we do from the welcome at the door, the collections, our digital content, events and experiences, learning activities and exhibitions. It became the golden thread connecting everything and this was the perfect springboard that drove some of our creative decisions along with a brand strategy.

What is the thinking behind the wave motif and other design elements?

Our brand theme is that of energy. There is so much energy at NML, from what we care for daily to how visitors move around our spaces. The new brand aims to harness that energy, showcase it and utilise that energetic feeling and motivation to create our “story” and the point of connection with everything we do.

This energy translates into our symbol (wave) that forms part of our brandmarks and can be used standalone to amplify and animate our work. If you relook at the wave symbol it also scribes N M L, although that wasn’t the initial reason for choosing a wave as our brand symbol.

The design direction overall wasn’t selected just because it was visually strong, but for the deep and powerful meaning behind it; that we, as museums and galleries, are never dull, we’re jampacked with incredible objects, people, and stories from the past, present and future. All of it is connected by a powerful energy that can be felt, and this is what links every aspect of our work.

How has the redesign been received since you launched it?

We’ve had such a fantastic response from colleagues, partners, visitors and our peers. Interestingly we’ve also had lots of enquiries from other organisations embarking on similar projects who want to learn about our process – what they can perhaps utilise from our experience of undertaking this through the pandemic while maintaining high engagement, creativity and ultimately delivery.

“The new brand represents NML perfectly – loud, exciting, visible and edgy.”

“Absolutely love the new brand. Well done for being brave and making the change. ‘Never dull’ totally fits.

“Love the modern look and colour.”

“Love love love it. Never dull is a motto we should all live by.”

We’re just at the beginning of the journey and over the next few months we’ll continue to roll out our new approach. We wanted a brand that was living and breathing – that can evolve in new ways – the same as we do as an organisation.

What's the secret to developing a great museum brand?

Engaging with colleagues and wider stakeholders as much as possible is key to developing a brand that is not only great but authentic, connected and rooted in your organisation’s DNA, as well as that of your location.  

From the outset, our goal was to enable as many colleagues as possible to be involved in this whole process and, despite the pandemic suddenly dictating a need to work only online, the engagement and response from everyone was simply amazing. I would even go as far as saying perhaps even better than it would be in normal in-person circumstances. The conversations and ideas were rich, open and inspiring.

What none of us quite excepted was probably such a strong consensus when it came to what everyone felt worked, what didn’t, what we should change and how our new refreshed brand needed to evolve.

It’s also particularly important that the first conversations are not around what logo you’re going to have and what colours you’ll use but brand strategy. Those conversations around logo, colours, fonts etc. will come in good time but if you haven’t defined your brand essence, principles and values how can you truly reflect that creatively?

For example, if it’s the case you decide you’re an organisation with healing as its essence, you probably wouldn’t have a colour that included illuminous shades but perhaps a more calming, relaxing, and meditative pallet. So, all those creative choices derive from the brand strategy work. They shouldn’t really be discussed until you’ve gone some way to agreeing your essence and values.

Finally, I would say embrace and enjoy the process as much as you can. Not everyone will always agree but the process shouldn’t be painful – it should be exciting, insightful, and inspiring.

Join us in Liverpool this November

Brave New World: Conference 2021

Booking is now open for the MA’s annual conference, which takes place in Liverpool and online on 8-10 November. This year’s theme explores how museums can emerge stronger and continue their life-changing work in a post-pandemic world.

Book your place now

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