The people who run museums have, over the past 20 years, learned to love the word "brand" – it's now seen as an essential tool for leadership. But behind the scenes, some curators remain suspicious. For many, brand is a dark force bringing control, conformity, corporatism and crassness. It's the B word. The BBC's brilliant self-referential comedy W1A, with its terrifying brand BBC consultant, serves to confirm the worst suspicions. Who's right?
If brand is what you stand for, then the truth is that there have always been museum brands. Institutions like the British Museum, the Met and the Prado have always had a strong identity: a reputation, following and clear expectations about what you'll find there. However, until recently, this tended to happen implicitly and organically; almost accidentally.
Three things have changed that. First, museology; the science and practice of organising, arranging and managing museums, has changed the emphasis from collections to audiences, and from objects to stories. Second, television and the internet have provided competition, and have led audiences to expect a much more vivid and interactive experience. Finally, governments have insisted that museums get better at attracting wider audiences, and at funding themselves.
All this has led cultural organisations, in various ways, to think more deeply about what they stand for, to manage their identity more deliberately, and to externalise it more clearly – both in the way they communicate and in the experience they offer visitors. It's a way for museums to win audiences and funding, to sign up partners and to unify and energise their own people.
Some have done this explicitly and conspicuously. Take Tate, which has clearly signalled since the turn of the millennium its drive to make art more accessible and more central to life. What about the National Trust, which has deftly switched its emphasis from properties to people, and since 2011 has had a brand director on its management team.
Others have adopted brand thinking less explicitly, but just as fundamentally. The British Museum, for instance, has become a national repository but a resource for the world, but tends not to talk much about its brand. Historic Royal Palaces has become a master storyteller, though it talks about its "identity" or even its "cause" rather than its brand.
So brand thinking is well established and the term "brand" is widely understood to mean much more than just logo. It's seen as a fundamental, even radical shaper of what a museum does, as well as what it looks like. It's a serious thing.
Yet there remains, across the cultural sector, a mistrust of the B word. It's true that branding done badly is dangerous, but branding itself is changing. Commercial organisations like GE see brand not as a control mechanism but as a way of sharing a sense of purpose and inspiring new creativity. Companies like Google welcome experimentation and variation, seeing its brand as a pattern of ideas, rather than a single monotonous message. A few businesses even see their brand as something their customers own, and welcome adoption and adaptation. All this is good news for even the most sceptical curator.
If you see branding as superficial, as something for the marketing people, as just a commercial gadget, you'd be right to oppose it. But branding taken seriously is a good thing. In the end, the fundamental role of brand in museums is not to dumb down, but to help scholarship reach more people. Few curators are against this.
Join our community of arts, culture and creative professionals by signing up free to the Guardian Culture Pros Network.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010