How a Museum Re-Branded Itself to Boost Visitors by 600% (Case Study)

The New Museum of Contemporary Art, founded as a forward-looking, show-what’s not shown-elsewhere art museum in 1977, recently re-opened in a striking new building on the Bowery, a blossoming section of downtown Manhattan.

Here’s how the New Museum designed and launched a new brand concurrently with the headline-grabbing opening of its new, dynamic custom-built home base. In introducing a brand brilliantly based on the concept and shape of the new building, the Museum moved from back of mind to top of mind, capturing a significant level of attention and acclaim.

NOTE: Take a look at the new building, a stack of boxes – which look as if they can shift – designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa/SANAA.

The Challenge

Although the New Museum is the only museum in New York City dedicated exclusively to presenting contemporary art from around the world, most people just didn’t know it. It had fallen from the public eye after an initial decade or so of attention.

Karen Wong, the New Museum’s Director of External Affairs, recalls how the Museum was sometimes confused with uptown’s Neue Galerie (German and Austrian art), but, in most cases, wasn’t recognized at all. “A museum lacking visitors and support is far less than it could be,” says Wong.

Wong attributes this lack of awareness to the plethora of NYC cultural institutions, and the New Museum’s lack of its own long-term home (the Museum had been in a couple of different downtown locations over the years).

Another contributing factor to the museum’s obscurity has to be the challenge of an arts institution claiming “new” in its name. That may have made sense for a finite period of time – like the 70s when the museum opened – but doesn’t ring true as a long term focus. In fact, its reminiscent of the tourist-oriented shops near the Empire State Building featuring huge signs that read “Going Out of Business Sale – Buy Now.” These shops never close and the signs never change. The New Museum name in itself likely generated the same kind of skepticism.

Despite these challenges, and perhaps because of them, Wong and other New Museum leaders were determined to make the most of the Museum’s 30th anniversary, and of its new home, the first ever museum to be built from the ground up in downtown Manhattan. These are the steps they took to do so, with a striking new brand.

Step One: Clearly Define the Branding Process

The process began with the formation of a Marketing Committee comprised of board members who met regularly with Wong and Museum Director Lisa Phillips. The committee was “charged with directing and approving the overall strategy regarding creative approach for branding and the roll out,” says Wong.

One of their first decisions was to split the brand development process into two parts: The brand development itself, followed by the brand rollout strategy and execution.

The entire New Museum team was informed and involved in the process, through Wong and other committee members. There’s no better way to ensure the multiple perspectives and cross-organizational buy-in critical to branding success. Wong credits the galvanization of the entire staff to contribute to Phillips (the Museum’s “visionary director”), and their dedication to “the Museum’s outstanding curatorial talent and a hotly anticipated new building.”

Step Two: Craft a Detailed, Realistic RFP and Select a Firm

Next, a comprehensive RFP was crafted and distributed to several branding firms. Once finalists were selected, they presented to the marketing committee who selected Wolff Olins. Remember that an in-person meeting is a must to ensure personalities and outlooks will mesh; as developing a brand is an emotional, teeth-gnashing process. You want to start out feeling confident in your branding firm or consultant, and excited about the process.

Wong recalls that, “over the course of the next 18 months, the agency “stewarded a typical re-branding process including an analysis of the museum’s history, and its present and future goals. Sessions focused on what our institution stood for, our unique approach and tone of voice.”

Step Three: Design an Authentic, Engaging New Brand, Logo and Tagline

Wolff Olins advised that the new brand be based on the four words – “new art, new ideas” – “that comprised the Museum’s founding core principle 30 years ago, and remain its greatest adventure and challenge,” says Wong.

The firm moved on to develop several logo concepts, with the final approach approved in mid-2006. This strikingly simple, easy-to-digest and use logo is the centerpiece of the museum’s new graphic identity, and echoes the profile of the new building.

“The New Museum brand in itself is a metaphor of the institution; the words “New” and “Museum” currently bracket the institution’s address. But these three lines can be switched out for exhibition titles, phrases or other content, making the logo as evolutionary as our exhibits,” says Wong. “As a five line ‘stacked’ mark, it mirrors conceptually the zigzags of our building. The building’s shape is a natural herald of our vision.”

The application of the brand to the articulation of the Museum’s mission statement (New Art. New Ideas.) is superb; an inarguable example of ‘less is more.

And so, the New Museum made the concept of new art as integral to its home and its brand as to its curatorial focus. That’s authenticity.

Step Four: Shape and Execute Brand Roll Out and Museum Re-launch

The Plan

The Museum’s marketing committee had the brand in hand, but needed a thoughtful, innovative approach to roll out. Once again, since this was really “the” roll out, the choice of marketing firm had to be right.

“The launch campaign was critical. We weren’t only announcing an opening date, we were announcing a new address, and a new brand and logo to an audience only marginally aware of our existence,” recalls Wong.

After an extensive RFP process, Wong brought finalists to the committee who selected Droga 5. From the beginning, the choice was clearly the right one.

Droga 5 exploited the building’s silhouette as the core image of the opening launch campaign. “The results were memorable and iconic; the New Museum was open and the new building was taking on the status of a NYC cultural landmark,” says Wong.

The first step was to ensure members were given special treatment – as they should be – receiving the first invites to rejoin and be a key part of the opening festivities.

The Marketing Mix

Droga 5 rolled out this image in just the right way, focusing a narrow budget on well-defined target audiences so the marketing spend generated maximum returns. “New Yorkers are bombarded with visual information and the city is one of the most competitive advertising centers in the world,” says Wong. “So we focused our paid advertising on very specific audiences to make a real impact.”

“Given the very strong mark of our new brand, it was important to spotlight our name, address and building in a manner that was clutter-free. With our limited dollars and aggressive corporate sponsorship, the marketing campaign’s media buys became a complicated matrix of out-of-home, print and online advertising to announce the opening of the Museum,” she says.

“Most of the messaging was delivered in an eight-week period, four weeks before and four weeks after we opened (December 1, 2007). Our campaign reached between two to three million people with an impression rate (estimated number of times an ad could appear to a very targeted audience) of 16 times per person.”

Website and Corporate Sponsorship

The redesigned website, deployed a week before the Museum re-opened, was another key marketing strategy. And the marketing festivities came to a head with Target-sponsored “30 Free Hours” on opening day, when the New Museum remained open for 30 continuous hours – free to the public – to celebrate its 30th anniversary.”

Paid Media

Wong and colleagues focused on online advertising since it delivers timely content to targeted audiences more effectively than other media. Banner ads were placed on the New York Times(NYT) Web site on days when the Museum was able to buy all NYT banner ads.

Costly print ad placement was used judiciously. The major buy was an advertorial (an ad that resembles editorial content) in the NYT “year of ideas” annual magazine. Review the print ad and Web banners here.

Print and online advertising campaigns were complemented by creative billboard ads in nearby downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, and bus ads on selected subways and bus lines. Take a look at these billboards, tongue-in-cheek but serious at the same time and showcasing that dramatic building silhouette – definitely worth a second look.

Earned Media

These strategies, in addition to an intense media relations effort, generated a combo of paid and editorial coverage rarely seen in the nonprofit arena. Wong saw a 400% increase in earned media coverage over the last major news period (December 2004-March 2005, the museum’s most popular show till now).

The Results

Wong and colleagues are pleased with the launch impact, although data is still slim at this point. But here’s how the launch results line up against stats from the four-month period during the hugely popular show in 2004/2005:

  • Visitors: Up 600%
  • New Members: Up 400%

Wong is pleased to see “what a difference a year makes,” and looks forward to continual evolution marketing-wise.

Wrap Up: The Getting Attention Critique

The branding and marketing strategy processes were right on target.
What’s impressive is how thoughtfully New Museum leadership integrated branding into the building process (which had to have been a thrilling but nerve-wracking period). Most importantly, they recognized the importance of scheduling enough time to do it right and, knowing how many approval glitches there are with branding, began work over three years prior to launch.

As a result, the Museum was rewarded with extremely successful processes and products on the brand development and roll-out fronts. In addition, says Wong, “we were lucky to work with superior consultants who raised the bar, making the experience exciting and fun.”

Although audience research up front could have made the impact even stronger.
Although the branding budget was much higher than the New Museum’s norm, it didn’t allow for audience research to develop or test the brand concepts. I recommend that audience research always be incorporated into the branding process, even if that means you have to make cuts elsewhere. Otherwise, your organization is talking to itself.

But now the Museum is communicating more actively with its audiences.
The New Museum has started to capture audience input by encouraging visitors to complete “talk to us” cards at the Visitor Services desk. Recent suggestions range from “a request for a bike rack on the sidewalk outside the museum, to exhibition ideas,” says Wong.

Most importantly, suggestions are summarized, circulated among staff members *and* responded to. That’s just the right way to learn from your audiences, and let them know how much you value them.

All brand elements – from the narrative to the graphic – were thought through carefully, and are standing the test of time.
I was struck with delight at the brevity and power of the Museum’s mission statement (New Art, New Ideas). Its logo too is strikingly original.

In response to my query on the challenges of making a five-line stacked logo work (e.g. on letterhead), Wong reviewed her testing strategy. She’s had to take two lines out in a couple of situations, and write the Museum’s name out on exhibit catalog spines, but otherwise the logo has been easy to integrate into various design projects. Just take a look at the bag here, a premium for new members.

The Museum is poised to carry its brand forward.
Wong is right on target in her commitment to brand consistency. She’s watching closely to ensure that the opening-motivated “big bump” of attention doesn’t die, while she re-focuses marketing on the Museum’s “innovative exhibitions and other programming.”

But the strongest indicator of the New Museum’s brand victory is the energy and enthusiasm its staff continues to bring to the process. Now, bolstered by ongoing audience feedback, the Museum is strongly positioned to maintain its place in the minds and hearts of museum-going (and -supporting) New Yorkers and beyond.