The brand, as a work in progress

When consumers don’t have to think about a purchase you know a brand is working its magic. For example, what Nike is and what Nike does, doesn’t need explaining.  I want Nike because I intuitively understand its benefits, and Nike – bless its heart – understands my aspirations. Nike and I have an emotional bond and, in this noisy, cluttered, over-communicated society, Nike knows that nurturing this sense of shared value means I’ll buy its products again and again.

It’s a practice that pays off for Nike: no wonder arts and cultural organizations covet brand-name status. By cultivating a distinctive brand – a unique view of itself and its position in the marketplace – art galleries, aquariums, museums can attract more visitors, sign up more members, and receive more donations, all because people take pride in associating with leaders.

Some do it well – just mention you’ve been to the Met, or the Smithsonian, to friends and watch them smile knowingly.  Your friends have gone beyond mere name recognition and have associated visiting these places with actual benefits. They understand the emotional bond.

Like any organization, the Art Gallery of Ontario also covets brand-name status. However, getting the brand the organization covets isn’t easy. So desperate, in fact, is the Art Gallery of Ontario for this magical formula that its judgment has been impaired: believing that an extensively refurbished building will be a panacea for the AGO brand, letting Frank Gehry’s work and status stand in for its own, and alienating one of its most devoted patrons.

There is no simple solution to branding, but one thing is certain: a building, like a logo, only goes so far in communicating the essence of a brand. This February, a symposium in New York City gathered museum leaders and architects to discuss how an institution becomes greater than its building. How, they wanted to learn, could architects better support the promise of the institution years after opening day? It is time they acknowledged that attractive buildings are only one piece of the puzzle.  Unfortunately, when decision-makers get swept up in the euphoria of big money and – according to symposium organizer, and the partner of branding agency Carbone Smolan, Ken Carbone – the euphoria of working with celebrity architects, the building gets mistaken for the whole puzzle.

The AGO has decided that to reach out to the mass marketplace and command attention, its brand will be Frank Gehry.  I hold nothing against Frank Gehry; he’s undeniably a brilliant architect. But the AGO is not about Frank Gehry. It isn’t Gehry’s job to take a broader view of what building a brand requires. He, like an advertising agency, is a tactical agent; he is supposed to take direction and execute.

But when a management team doesn’t have a handle on its organization’s identity, it transfers the authority for determining, building, and managing its brand to those tactical agents, and the cycle of dependency begins. And it seems that AGO chief executive Matthew Teitlebaum and his board of directors have done just that. They’re clearly in the dark about how to do it themselves.

Determining “who are we?” should be the sole responsibility of the organization, from boards and senior managers to employees and even committed volunteers – but not consultants. Without self-awareness, without a capacity to think, organizations become susceptible to ideas that don’t suit them. It’s like on the TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: although the fashion guinea pigs might look better, you can always tell when they don’t feel comfortable in their new and improved skin.

Building a brand is a long-term process – a work in progress that is never finished. There is no elixir, no magic formula. Branding via concrete, glass and steel gets you nowhere over the long term.

Thanks to philanthropist Joey Tanenbaum, the AGO already has a great building. It was his money that led to the AGO’s refurbishment a decade ago and, to date, he has given over $93 million in art and cash to the gallery. His generosity has extensively shored up the brand’s foundation—literally and figuratively—and indicated a promise for what the gallery would achieve over time.  His building blocks were a legacy.

This isn’t just about biting the hand that feeds you. To become a brand name the AGO desperately needs to be as innovative in thinking about how to communicate with its audience as they were at building a beautiful facility. You don’t build higher, or better, by removing stones from the foundation. In turning its back on Joey Tanenbaum’s work, the AGO has undermined its superstructure and its opportunity to build stronger emotional bonds with its constituents.  Maybe Teitlebaum didn’t know better, but his board and his fundraising team should have: it’s not how to treat a legacy.

(Originally posted 30 March 2004 in Knowledge Marketing Watch)

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