Colonial Knowledge Products

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I make most of my museum visits during holidays, which means I get to visit an institution just once or, at best, infrequently. That makes me like about 70% of all visitors to the Smithsonian Institution, and like about 60% of visitors to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The downside for most museums is that once I’ve left, they have little or no opportunity to establish an ongoing connection with me. Most lack an arsenal of effective tools that will keep me interested in their work, nurture me as a member, and turn me into a donor.

I wanted to say a few words this month about a museum that does an especially good job of captivating its audience and cultivating strong connections to visitors after they’ve left: Colonial Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg is a historical village like no other in America. As the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780, its homes, taverns, and legislature are where the American ideals of liberty, independence, and personal freedom were first debated by Virginian sons such as Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, men who went on to greater fame and prominence as America’s Founding Fathers.

After the capital was moved to Richmond, Williamsburg became a quiet, forgotten country town. So forgotten, in fact, that by the early twentieth century it appeared much as it had in the eighteenth; one could walk its streets and see glimpses of America during its colonial apogee. Ultimately, this benign “neglect,” this lack of progress, saved the town. A single, visionary preacher who made that walk, and was inspired, was able to convince a billionaire – J.D. Rockefeller Jr. – that he could educate Americans about their history by restoring the town. This year Colonial Williamsburg celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of its rebirth as the “world’s largest outdoor living history museum.”

Restoring Colonial Williamsburg enabled Americans to see their country at the time of its birth. So great, so immediate was their success at launching this mission – to engage, inform, and inspire people to learn about the people, the place, and the events that shaped America – that in 1934 president Franklin D. Roosevelt commented “The atmosphere of a whole glorious chapter in our history has been recaptured.”

Colonial Williamsburg’s success owes much to its ability to hit the patriotic button in Americans. But what is more crucial to its enduring prosperity is that people stay connected with this thriving, living museum through some very imaginative thinking from the people behind the scenes at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Foundation is the private, not-for-profit educational institution that manages the old town. It receives no regular state or federal funding. Without these dependable sources that lull most institutions into complacency, the Foundation has had to think creatively about its approach to marketing.

Creativity is especially important if you’re trying to market history because for most people history is an afterthought. I think the eyes of lesser marketers would glaze-over if they were tasked with developing a marketing plan to present the stories, words, and music of eighteenth century Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg promotes its identity with high quality restoration and interpretation making the town’s history seem vibrant and immediate. And they have complimented that work by developing and marketing a wide variety of products that define the colonial experience for Americans. By adopting an almost limitless definition of what a knowledge product can be, the Foundation’s marketing efforts have made the town a highly appealing tourist destination, made its educational mission very successful, and forged a brand that has become synonymous with this period of history.

They started by selling copies of plates and furniture that appear in the town’s homes; recently they licensed the blueprints of 18 buildings that, though adapted for modern use, are based on historic Colonial Williamsburg houses. There are now 4,000 licensed products for sale. Williamsburg retailers – in on-site stores, by mail order catalog, or online – can supply the authentic moldings, door hardware, paint, lighting fixtures, even the front gate and the perfect furnishings. Imagine, only Colonial Williamsburg offers authentic eighteenth century living with twenty-first century conveniences!

It is John Rockefeller, incidentally, who is credited for originating the licensing program: when informed that tableware in the newly refurbished Raleigh Tavern would have to use a modern commercial pattern, Rockefeller commissioned Wedgwood to reproduce chinaware from fragments that had been excavated on site. Then he suggested that “the purpose of education might be furthered by the sale of this ware” to the public. The first catalogue of these wares was mailed in 1937 – “to maintain contact with visitors to Colonial Williamsburg…”

For those who want to balance the material experience with a cerebral experience, there is Colonial Williamsburg, the Foundation’s quarterly journal. A full-fledged popular history magazine since 1984, it is published to illuminate and give full context to Williamsburg’s historic life, and to provide readers with news and information about programs, current research, and events related to this period in history.

Colonial Williamsburg isn’t alone in pursuing this kind of venture – nonprofits have, in increasing numbers, been licensing products to raise revenue and public awareness – but Williamsburg does it best. Its licensing program, which dates to 1930, is the oldest, largest, and most lucrative museum-licensing program in the world. In 1999, it reportedly earned $9.5 million in licensing fees from nearly $100 million in sales of retail goods. By comparison, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art earned only $4 million in fees.

Museums let us look into the past to remind ourselves of who we are. Like the most appealing of museums, Colonial Williamsburg is a life-size treasure chest – but in this case, visitors can take the treasure chest home, an experience that repeatedly reminds them about who they are and about their personal connection to Colonial Williamsburg and American history.

Non-profits risk becoming lost in the clutter unless they look for creative ways to promote their name. Not every museum is a Met, a Guggenheim, a Smithsonian…or a Colonial Williamsburg. But the knowledge products produced by these institutions – unique and well-differentiated – provide excellent examples of how any museum can effectively communicate its expertise and thereby raise awareness, promote visitor loyalty and, best of all, financially support operations, research and education programs.

A successful brand aims to “own” a category. Failing that, it should try to “own” a segment of the category. No organization can claim to “own” American history, but Williamsburg has staked a claim on the late colonial period. The knowledge products of Colonial Williamsburg – meaningful, substantive, and accessible – have allowed the town to become one of American history’s defining brands.
(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, September 2001)


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