V&A Podcast - Branding the Museum
Season 1, episode 2
Damien Whitmore, Director of Public Affairs and Programming at the V&A and Wally Olins, one of the world's leading innovators in brand management demonstrate that brand is more than simply a logo. It is the personality and DNA of an organisation. They explore how the V&A uses its brand across all its activities, from visitor experience to exhibition design, from scholarly research to the offer in the café, and how the core values it represents are the uniting purpose behind everything that the Museum does.
Duration - 25.22
(GA:) Welcome to the V&A podcast: bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Muse the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson, head of research at the V&A. In this episode we will be talking about branding the museum. The V&A is a vast collection of cultural treasures, paintings and sculpture, furniture and silver, prints and photography, we have literally millions of examples of the world’s creativity under our care. But nothing is more important to the museum than its own brand. That word sometimes is understood just as a corporate logo, but it’s much, much, more than that. When we talk about the brand of the V&A, we mean the public face of the museum, the character that we present to the world. Here to discuss the V&A brand is Damien Whitmore, Director of Programming for the museum. We’re also joined by Wally Olins, Chairman of Saffron Brand Consultants. He has created identities for countless institutions and companies over the years, not to mention cities, regions, and even whole countries. So Damien, and Wally, welcome to the V&A podcast.
(DW and WO:) Thank you.
(GA:) Damien, I thought we would start by talking about the concept of branding. What does branding mean to you, what does that word mean?
(DW:) I first came across the word brand when I was working at the Tate, in the 1990s, and we were busy constructing Tate Modern. And I think what we realised was that we were not just building a new building, but we were actually creating a new way of experiencing art. And what we realised was it wasn’t about getting a new logo or new identity for these new things we were creating, we had to find a new way of working and thinking and presenting what we did. And that’s when I first met Wally’s colleagues at Wolff Olins, who began to talk about the Tate having a brand, having an attitude. That brand is about experience, it’s the ‘how’ you present art, how you experience art, and what you say about it. and I went ahead and completely rebranded the Tate as a way of thinking about and looking at art, and then came to the V&A. And that coincided with the huge launch of digital, so that people could now experience the V&A in buildings and online. And just reinforced again, at the V&A and Tate, as brands, ways of talking about culture.
(GA:) So for you branding is quite big - it runs into literally every aspect of what the institution does?
(DW:) Brand for me is the DNA, it’s how we behave with each other, it’s how we behave with our public, it’s how we look, talk, speak, present, it’s everything that we do. My question to staff all the time is: ‘What’s V&A about this?’
(GA:) So Wally, what about you, you’ve been working in branding for a long, long time.
(Wally Olins:) Forever!(Laughter)
(GA:) So what does the word mean to you?
(WO:) I was actually working in branding before it was called branding. It was called, if it was called anything, a corporate identity, or image, or something of that kind. Fundamentally, an organisation, any organisation, has a personality, it has a core idea, just as every individual has, and the brand is the way in which that is represented to everyone and everything with whom it comes into contact. So the environment in which you live is part of the brand, the product you make is part of the brand, the way you behave is part of the brand, and the way you communicate is part of the brand. And all of that is, if you like, synthesised in what people call the logo, the symbol, and what it looks like. So if you look at, for the sake of the argument, the symbol of the Red Cross, which is amongst the most famous brands in the world. What you see when you look at the Red Cross itself, is not simply the Red Cross, but you see and you feel everything that lies behind the Red Cross. Which is to do with an organisation that is totally neutral, and totally vulnerable to anybody or anything, and because of its total neutrality and vulnerability, it has become in a sense invulnerable. All that presents itself in the idea that you see when you look at that symbol.
(GA:) So, this is a very powerful idea, obviously. When you bring it to a museum what changes? What’s particular about trying to brand a cultural institution, a heritage institution, like a museum?
(WO:) There’s an issue around the word brand for many people who are not commercially minded, or commercially pushed. Many people in heritage organisations, many people in charities, many people in NGOs, think of the word brand in terms of commercialisation and somehow or other making it cheaper. So one of the major issues is to explain that, in, so far from making it cheaper, what you are doing, what you are attempting to do, is make it clearer to understand and more available to an audience which otherwise wouldn’t go near it. So the issue of what people feel inside the organisation is very important. The second issue is, what makes this institution different from other institutions? Why is the V&A so different from any other museum or gallery? There are things about it, not just its collection, but where it is, what it represents, how it presents itself, all of which are quite different and need to be emphasised in relation to other museums, maybe in the same city, maybe in other cities. So, finding out what it is, and getting people inside the organisation to agree that that is what it is, to understand what it is and say yes I agree with you, if they do, is absolutely key, because if they don’t believe in the brand nobody will.
(GA:) So Damien, the obvious question is, what is the V&A brand? How would you define it?
(DW:) I, I’m really struck by what Wally just said about staff and brand, and my first priority when I arrived at the V&A, ten years ago, was to really get the staff thinking about the V&A as one organisation. Because the fact is it was several different departments, infighting, with different bits doing different things all of the time, there was no centre, there was no V&A. And I think people felt like they worked for the sculpture department or the fashion department. So my first job with the consultants was to say, ‘right, well, what links all of our departments? What is the one thing that the V&A is about?’ And we went back to our founding purpose, which was: ‘we are here to inspire creativity’. Our knowledge, our collections, are there for you, me, Wally, Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, to come and look, and be inspired to create, that’s so powerful, so meaningful, and I think creativity, and inspiring creativity is what the V&A is all about. There are other things about the V&A being a world leader. I mean, come on, it’s a wonderful museum, great collections, great curators, it’s number one in the world of its kind. It’s also, it’s contemporary, we have to talk about the past and the present in a contemporary way. So all of those things, I think, are part of the V&A brand. I tend to use the word when I lecture, the word purpose, rather than brand. I think Wally’s right; there’s sensitivities in some museums about the word brand. You can just… you don’t have to use it, I use the word purpose. Well, ‘what is the V&A called? It’s the V&A. What is it? A great museum of art and design. What is its purpose? To inspire creativity in everybody.’ Once you’ve, once you’ve got that, you’ve got that coherence internally, suddenly… externally it makes sense to people. You know, suddenly we, we knew who we were, we knew what we did, we knew how we did it, we also knew what we didn’t do. Suddenly our visitor figures, quadrupled, tripled, doubled, suddenly the press changed, because the V&A knew who it was, and how it did it.
(GA:) So maybe you can give us a few concrete examples of this? How do you apply the brand on a day-by-day basis? Because this is a really big picture, how do you actually get it done?
(DW:) OK, I will give you a really good example actually. So part of my job is commissioning the exhibitions program, and over a three year period I need exhibitions about fashion, performance, photography, contemporary, graphics, furniture. So a curator will come to me and say ‘here’s my idea’, and I will ask them three questions. The first question is, ‘what’s V&A about this?’ Meaning, is it on brand, is it about creative process, is it world class. ‘What’s the big idea?’ That’s absolutely at the core of what Wally’s company and others like it try to get to. And the third is, ‘who is this for?’ So you know, also questions like, well, look at our café, is it on brand? Do we have the right kind of offer? Are we using the right architects to create our new galleries? does our website look and feel right? Are we behaving on brand? Are we being creative, are we being world class, are we being contemporary? All of that stuff just holds it all together.
(GA:) So Wally, when you look at the V&A as an outsider but somebody very interested in design, interested in the museum sector, how do you see the V&A’s brand as opposed to others in the sector?
(WO:) I don’t want to flatter Damien, but I do think it’s the best museum brand around. I think Tate is also extremely good. it happens to be the case, by some kind of serendipitous process, that Britain does have the best museums, in terms of the way in which they present themselves, that I know of anywhere. There are other museums that have artefacts and objects, which are quite as good, but I don’t know of any museum in other countries that presents itself quite in the same way. As Damien said, there is a clear idea behind it, there’s a clear idea behind what it stands for, and it presents that idea in everything that it does. There are a number of museums in Britain, and I don’t propose to name them, that do not have that idea, that are very, very good museums, but they are not quite clear what they’re there for.
(GA:) So when you approach a museum lets say or another client, what is it that you say to them? What kind of conversation do you have to find out what that brand is?
(WO:) Well you can’t just have one conversation; you have to have several conversations with several people at different levels. You have to talk to people internally, and you have to talk to people externally. Damien’s point about fragmentation is key. There are, in every organisation, and museums are no exception, there are separate fragments, there are separate bits that think of themselves as quite different from the whole, and have their own different audiences, and their own different ways of doing things, and are very worried that the idea of creating one personality for the organisation is somehow going to disturb their position. So that issue of fragmentation has to be dealt with. You have to look at what people outside the organisation, outside the museum, feel about it as it now stands. You have to see where the opportunities are, where its strengths are, and where it can move, and you get that from talking to the people both inside and outside. Fundamentally of course, what’s in the museum, the objects in the museum, and what’s there, are key to the way in which you present what’s available.
(GA:) Damien, does that ring true for you? Because we have, not only of course our main site in South Kensington, but we also have The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, we are about to have a new museum in Dundee, the V&A at Dundee. How do we achieve a brand that encompasses all these elements?
(DW:) Yeah. I am going to flatter Wally, because you mentioned the Tate and the V&A, and they are both brands where we’ve used Wolff Olins, which is Wally’s company, and in a sense used Wally’s framework for developing the brand, and for repairing the brand, and making it really powerful. And there’s something about that incredibly simple and elegant Wolff Olins process, about the big idea. What’s the big idea? And the values that, and I guess I am a graduate in it now, and I can go to any museum in the world, and walk in there, and in five minutes have done the: what’s the big idea? What are the values? I’ve almost sorted it. And I think that’s why Tate’s very strong, because the idea’s very compelling, and why the V&A is so strong, because inspiring creativity is so fundamental and so important. Brands change, they have to evolve, I mean, I think that’s really key.
(WO:) They change as the world changes…
(DW:) As the world changes, yes.
(WO:) In a sense they have to, in order to stay… this is lampedusa, this is the leopard. In order to stay the same they have to change, because if you don’t change you end up like the Boy Scouts or the Salvation Army, you look a bit funny, you just look a bit funny.
(WO:) So, of course brands have to evolve, but finding out what the brand is, what it’s about, means that wherever you are, whether you are in Dundee, or whether you are in London, or whether you are in Bethnal Green, the Museum of Childhood, you are representing the same idea in a different environment and maybe with different objects, but it is the same idea.
(DW:) And to move that even further on, museums are no longer buildings. I mean most people experience the V&A now, online, in Tel Aviv or Johannesburg, or they read our magazine, they listen to this podcast. And so as museums are changing, what you realise is, it’s even more important to cherish and develop the brand. I mean, in a sense, we’ve stopped being content collectors, and we’ve become our own content creators now. We make TV programs, we make radio programs, we make magazines, we make shows that tour around the world. So that brand, that reputation, that way of, that attitude, that way of speaking about culture is really, really key. So… for me it’s about helping the brand to evolve, to support what the museum wants to do. It isn’t, I think some people think that brands will be a straitjacket, that, you know, we can’t be creative, we can’t be individualist. But actually I think that brand is a tool, it’s a kind of tool kit to help you be more creative.
(GA:) So Wally, what about that issue of evolution? How do you make a brand that’s both strong enough to be identifiable, but also flexible enough to change over time?
(WO:) Well if you look at, let’s leave aside museums for a moment, if you look at very, very successful brands in all kinds of different worlds you can see how they stay the same, but they continue to evolve. A good example of this, an example that I quite often use, is a car company, Renault. It’s a hundred years old that company, more than a hundred years old, and its position within France, and its position within the world has not really changed over the last hundred years or so, but the product has changed, obviously, totally. The way in which the product presents itself has changed totally, and even the logo, which remains that little diamond, if you look at what it was a hundred years ago, and if you look at it today, you can see that although it is fundamentally the same, it has evolved over time. The company understands its position in the world, and in order to stay in that position it keeps on evolving in everything it does.
(GA:) But it has to have certain principles that it holds fast to, no matter what the circumstances are.
(WO:) Absolutely, you have to be very clear about what it is you stand for, and if you are not clear what you stand for then you wallow around all over the place, you try and do too many things at the same time, and worst of all you allow the different bits of the organisation to do what they want to do so that there is no coherent whole.
(DW:) I think brands have to be true.
(WO:) True, Authentic.
(DW:) I think that’s really key, and I think if they are not they become fake very quickly, and the way you stay true is by doing what you do.
(GA:) Because the audience can sniff out a fake brand.
(WO:) Today, authenticity, being real, is valued more, and more, and more, because people don’t any longer know what is real and what is not real. I mean you buy, staying with cars for a moment, you buy a French or a Japanese car and it may be built in Slovakia or the bits may come from heaven knows where. So the idea that what you’ve got, whatever it is, is real, is true, is authentic, is local, like beer now, everything, craft beer, all that is a manifestation of people’s desire… to go for authenticity if they can find it.
(DW:) And right now Glenn, we are sitting on a kind of marriage of two very authentic brands, the V&A and David Bowie. And I was actually thinking, why has [the exhibition David Bowie Is] been so successful? And I think it’s because he feels authentic. People believe he’s an artist and it feels authentic, and the V&A doing it, the two together, is incredibly powerful. And that’s why I think it has been so successful.
(GA:) So do you feel that David Bowie, as a subject, matches our brand in some way?
(DW:) Yeah, well I think what we’ve done with Bowie is to look at creative process. This isn’t a music exhibition; this is an exhibition about a man who created multiple identities, who borrowed from fashion and photography, and art and all sorts of things to construct these identities. and what you see in the exhibition is the thinking and the process behind all of those things. How do you get from David Bowie’s bedroom to Aladdin Sane? And I think that’s what the V&A is all about. But it had to have been done at the V&A, it couldn’t have been done at Harrods. It’s the marriage of the two, have made it, I think, have made it the show of the decade. It’s the world-beater.
(GA:) I’m glad you mentioned that comparison between the museum and Harrods, a commercial space, because I wanted to ask you both about the criticisms that are often lodged against people in your field, which is that you’re spin doctors, or that you’re involved in something fundamentally superficial. We’ve already talked about this idea of authenticity, but what would you say to somebody that said ‘well you are only manufacturing authenticity, you are actually just creating an impression of authenticity, but this is just stagecraft, it’s just a kind of special effect’?
(WO:) I think there are two or three observations to make here. First I think it is unfortunately the case that a large number of people felt that museums were their own personal property. So the, if you like, the populism of the museum has encouraged a number of people to sneer at it. Of course the incredible success of making art more available, is another way of looking at it. I think that if you look at the way in which museums, the V&A, Tate, there are a number that have done this, have created a world in which everybody wants to go to a museum, would have been absolutely inconceivable even as recently as thirty years ago, twenty years ago. So that is a major issue. There is a second issue, which is that museums and galleries of this kind do have a number of functions, they are multi functional. One of the things that they do is welcome people, they are in fact a form of entertainment and instruction, but they are also places of research and knowledge. It is very important that these issues are balanced, and it’s not surprising that the people who are in the research and knowledge, ground breaking areas inside museums, should feel a bit affronted that their position is not as strong as it once was. So you’ve got a series of internal issues here, but putting it bluntly, people in NGOs, and charities, and museums, who talk about brand sneeringly, are very snobby and silly.
(DW:) Mm. My sense is that the brand is actually contributes towards scholarly research. David Bowie is a scholarly show. As was Hollywood Costume - we had two of the worlds leading scholars working on that exhibition. It’s as scholarly as our Russian silver exhibition [Treasures of the Royal Courts]. Making scholarship a part of the brand has just reinforced, I think, the role of research in the organisation. What it’s done I think though is to, in a sense expose the research teams and curators to the outside world more, and its to get them thinking about it, to say look you’ve done this research, share it. I’m not interested in dumbing down. I’m interested in wising up. I think, you know, the more people that come to museums the better. They will make new demands on us, that’s great.
(WO:) I absolutely agree with that.
(DW:) But I’ve never seen brand in any way linked to spinning or anything, because as programmer for the V&A part of my job in protecting the brand, is to do more niche exhibitions. You know, we have to have these smaller, really scholarly shows, as well as Bowie, because the V&A’s brand is so precious and so important.
(WO:) I think the point that Damien made earlier around creativity is absolutely key. There is no suggestion that the work that is produced by the great museums of the world, because it is popular, is necessarily… in some way less imaginative, and less powerful, and less knowledgeable than the work that’s being produced, for smaller audiences. The key of creativity, the key of showing people what has been, and what can be, and how it can be interpreted in so many ways, and the David Bowie exhibition is one of them, is absolutely vital, if you are going to help to find a world, create a world, which is more aware of itself, and more aware of the things that are going on around it. These are very, very, very fundamental issues.
(GA:) Perhaps we could close by talking about one last thing, which is the changing nature of this field. There’s of course the huge transformation that has happened as a result of the digital environment, there’s also the fact that museums, as well as other kinds of institutions, now working in increasingly global situations. So we do have people paying attention to us from halfway around the world. Wally, can you tell us a little bit about your perspective on this, as somebody who has been in this business for such a long time. What do you think is happening now, that’s disrupting and changing this business, and what do you foresee in the future?
(WO:) I think that globalisation is a very interesting word, and it’s a very interesting phenomenon. The implication behind globalisation is homogenisation, that the world becomes one airport shopping mall. But the reality is, because of increasing tourism, because of the increasing demand of every country, of every place, to have more and more direct investment, because everybody wants more tourism, because everybody wants to be more successful, everybody is competing with everybody else far more than they ever did before. So, the idea of made in Italy, or made in Germany, or made in France, which was always quite important, has become much more important. The idea that I am, in order to win, going to have to become more prosperous than you to demonstrate who I am, means that what actually is happening is that the world is becoming, at the same time as it is becoming more homogenous, it is also emphasising heterogeneity, at the same time, and it is a very curious and strange phenomenon, but it is so. So you will get Prague trying very hard to be more Prague than it otherwise would be if it didn’t have to try so hard to compete with lets say Vienna. I have been speaking with cities, of whom most people in the world have never heard, who are desperate to get more foreign direct investment, and more tourism, and they want to have made in x, y, z, written on them so they think they can earn more money out of it. It’s happening.
(GA:) So everyone needs a unique selling point in a global economy.
(WO:) Everyone’s trying harder.
(DW:) I think we are very lucky, and we should be very grateful to [V&A founder] Henry Cole for inspiring creativity, because actually it seems to me that you can do that in London, in Rio De Janeiro, in Tel Aviv, in Johannesburg, same process but completely different results, and I think that’s why the V&A can operate in different territories, still be true to itself, but produce very different things.
(GA:) So you think that the reason we are so ‘future-proof ‘if you like, the reason that we will still be here in fifty or one hundred years being inspiring, is that our history actually acts as a foundation for that.
(DW:) I think it’s an anchor, and I think creativity is so important, and will be even more important in future years, and it’s great that the V&A owns it.
(WO:) There’s one other thing - and I agree entirely with that - organisations like the V&A represent for the world the best that is in Britain. That is what people look for when they think of Britain, and that’s why the V&A serves such a huge global purpose for this country.
(GA:) Ok, well thank you both very much for this discussion. I think we’ve come to something essential and really true about the museum, not only about the way we think about ourselves, but also the way that we are viewed from the outside.I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this episode of the V&A podcast, and I hope that you will join us again for the next episode. The V&A podcast: bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
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The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com