Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thoughts on the Voodoo Art that is Branding

Many established arts organizations are finding themselves in the position of having to reinvent tried and true business models to adapt to the ever changing economic landscape. Diane Ragsdale, Associate Program Officer for the Mellon Foundation, offers a well thought out paper on this subject entitled Recreating Fine Arts Institutions. Although I don't agree with all of her arguments, I believe she outlines the overall dilemma very well.

So, what do most organizations do in this situation? They bring in a branding firm to slap a new coat of paint on the organization by creating revamped messaging rules, visual systems and logos. In guiding a couple of these rebranding projects myself, I have learned the following:

1. You can slap a little lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. Rebranding begins with artistic strategy. If an organization truly wants to address significant business or perceptual issues, it must do so with the product first. It doesn't matter how savy a branding firm is, if you don't reposition your artistic strategy, there is no reason to rebrand. In working on the rebranding campaign for Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater, I believe this was handled in an excellent fashion by our artistic staff. The senior artistic staff members drafted an artistic plan that clearly outlined where we were, and where we wanted to go. It was a shift from a traditional regional theater model toward becoming a national center for the production, presentation, study and development of American Theater. Once given this clearly defined goal and the artistic strategies to achieve it, the rest of the rebranding process could officially kick off.

2. Say what you want, but your customers will tell you your brand. Have you ever noticed a clear disconnect between the official corporate messaging from a company and your perception of the same company? An example of this can be found in a blog post that I wrote about Hyatt Regency in 2007. Hyatt Regency corporate communications boast that they go above and beyond in customer service, but as you can see, that wasn't my experience. No matter what you say, your brand lives in the minds of your customers. We can craft the best messaging campaigns in the world, but it will not matter if we don't deliver. What we deliver on will become our brand.

3. Brand strategy can be crafted by marketing, but its success is determined by everyone. Think of the people who actually execute your brand -- front line sales associates who process orders; artists who develop the product your customers will experience; the parking attendant who most likely will be the first person to greet your patrons on the evening of their performance; the concessions staff who has to process a vast amount of orders in a very limited amount of time. And then think of the amount of time that a Marketing Director generally interacts directly with patrons. It's time to get over ourselves...brand strategy will live or die by the people who represent you on the front lines, not the pretty new colors you have selected for the organization.

All of this is to say that I do believe that messaging and visual systems are critical in conveying a brand, however they are not the most important factors in developing a brand identity. Artistic strategy and the day to day execution of your brand promises will always outrank the look and feel of any brand.