Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Who are you?

I hold strong impressions from the walls of the underground in London (and other cities), a fundamental platform for one to keep up-to-date with the city’s cultural offer. Now, imagine what would happen if all those cultural organizations, competing among themselves and with other entities for people’s attention, did not consider carefully their visual identity so that they would stand out immediately and make a connection both with interested and especially distracted individuals.

We tend to associate the word ‘brand’ to a logo, but it’s much more than that. A brand is who a cultural institution is. Or rather, a set of impressions in people’s heads as to who that institution is: its contents, vision, aspirations, principles, ideals and the causes it defends. A good brand knows the importance of managing those impressions, works on that on a permanent basis and leaves nothing to chance. It also understands the importance of asserting and reinforcing those impressions at every point of contact with the people.

The logo is the visual representation of the brand, its face. When well managed, it immediately identifies the institution, it transmits and reinforces the characteristics of its personality. This is why it is an important element in making a brand stronger and this is also why its application should not be neglected or considered secondary or even optional. Can you imagine a person without a face? How would one relate to that person?

Thus, either one is in the tube or in a bus, a poster promoting an exhibition or performance at, let’s say the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Natural History Museum or the Southbank Centre, is instantly recognized. It’s through the logo and the graphic design in general that cultural institutions mark their presence and mark their territory in the streets, a highly competitive platform, since the attention span is truly limited and quite often the distance from where publicity is viewed really long. This same logo and graphic design is then applied on all promotional material (leaflets, postcards, exterior banners, invitations, tickets, stationary) and platforms (website, social media). It’s by paying attention at all the details on every touch point that good cultural brands build relationships and optimize their communication with people.

From London to Penafiel, in northern Portugal, the town’s Municipal Museum has been doing a very good job in the field of communications and marketing. Having seriously invested in the creation of a distinctive brand and respective visual identity from the outset, the Museu Municipal de Penafiel has certainly defined its personality and territory. From the museum facade to all promotional materials, the ticket and even the email signature, one cannot miss who the invitation is from... And although the municipality, in an effort to cut costs, decided to put an end to the collaboration with the graphic designer, the museum realized how important it is to continue defending and promoting its brand, so they are doing their best to be faithful to the initial spirit and idea.

Another interesting example in Portugal is that of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. A huge institution, and a huge brand, composed by a number of different sub-brands (its museums, its music programme and various other programmes and initiatives). The Foundation recently changed its logo. I truly liked the new one from the first moment. Liking it came easy... It somehow kept a visual connection to the 50-year-old (?) previous logo, but it has got a fresh and contemporary flair. I also considered very brave the option to drop “Calouste” or even “Fundação” from the name, as one has to admit that everyone just says “Gulbenkian” (alhough the option is not applied to every version of the logo and programme, and it’s not clear what the criteria is...).

What I find rather problematic about the new logo is its application and the way I believe it makes the Foundation’s communication with the outside world less efficient. I understand that the idea is that the logo should somehow “float” when applied in promotional materials. So it doesn’t appear on the top or at the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. When one sees posters in the street, ir rarely stands out, it's little expressive, one has to look for it to understand who the invitation is from. Depending on the background (some Gulbenkian initiatives usually use photos, others illustration), the logo might be more or less discreet, when it actually doesn’t disappear all  together (the National Opera of Greece has taken a similar option regarding the position of its logo, but its format is different, so its application becomes more efficient – see the last slide in the presentation above). There were times I wondered whether the background was chosen so that the logo might look better. An additional problem, I find, is that it also obliges to repeat  in writing, on the same material, “Calouste Gulbenkian Foundatio”, while the name also and inevitably appears when the website is mentioned as well. The name Gulbenkian may, thus, appear three times on the same poster (when, usually, the logo and website URL are enough).

What prompted this whole essay on logos and visual identity, though, was this ticket. Those more informed will know that this is a temporary exhibition at a major portuguese national museum. Which is nowhere to be found....

This is a permanent issue in the general communication of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, particularly in what involves partnerships in the presentation of temporary exhinitions, but also due to the subordination of all national museums to their tutelage, which imposes (I still can’t figure out why...) that their logo must appear small, in the footer, where one usually expects and finds the logos of supporting institutions. Thus, considering this latest exhibition - the ticket being an extreme example of complete elimination of the museum’s identity -, one sees posters in the street or picks up the leaflet and hardly identifies the promoter and host. When at the museum, one can pick up some more leaflets, of a different design, and has to make a real effort to understand that they are presenting smaller temporary exhibitions at the museum (one of them actually makes us think that the exhibition is in Madrid...). If people have to look so hard, they won’t look at all, the message doesn’t pass. And if the museum doesn’t affirm its position as promoter, organizer, host, it will be considered by many as simply a venue for exhibitions.

It’s enough for each one of us to consider his relationship to his favourite brands – commercial, cultural, etc. – to realise that what has been discussed here is no detail. Clear and efficient communication is fundamental for cultural organizations in cretaing and asserting their personality and in building a lasting relationship with people. Plus, the fact that people have got a lot where to choose from makes it even more urgent to consider these issues as professionally and thoroughly as possible.

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