Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Branding and the astronomer royal

I've been given responsibility for two other projects related to Massar, and have been asked to draw the three together, still distinct but working to a common plan. This has got me thinking about brands and identity, and surfaced a painful memory from my last days at the Science Museum.

At a meeting of the Board of Trustees I had to present the trading company's business plan (of which I was CEO). It was not a good time. Two of the company's businesses were going to come in way behind forecast so the numbers were not good. I was at loggerheads with the Science museum's Director, Lindsay Sharp, about who actually ran the company - I thought as CEO I did, he thought he did, and meddled continually. It was clear that the company chairman, a superficially charming but unpleasant banker named Martin Smith, was siding with Lindsay rather than me, and my future prospects didn't look good. So I was feeling a bit vulnerable at this Board meeting anyway.

At on point Board questions touched on the Science Museum brand. It was important, someone said, that the work of the trading company did not prejudice the good name of the Science Museum. I replied that the trading company depended to a large extent on the Science Museum brand, it was our strongest selling point, and far from wanting to put it at risk we probably spent more time thinking about it and protecting it than the museum itself did.

To which one Trustee, Sir Martin Rees the Astronomer Royal and a highly respected scientific figure, said loudly and bluntly: "that's a really facile remark". It was clearly not meant as a compliment, and I thought (and still think) it was inaccurate, arrogant, rude and cowardly of him to make it. The conventions of these Board meetings are that staff don't get into a slanging match with Trustees, so the opportunity to challenge him was not open to me. It seemed like gratuitous rudeness from a privileged position - the mark of a small man.

He was not just rude, he was wrong. In all my time at the Science Museum I never found anyone outside the trading company actually thinking in a structured way about what the Science Museum stood for, what it represented, how its values should be articulated internally and externally, what standards it had. There were two pieces of work done on Science Museum editorial standards, one on housestyle and one on editorial independence (from interference by sponsors) and both were done by the trading company. I never found anything in writing produced by museum staff themselves.

Most Science Museum staff, like most museum staff I have ever worked with, took the ethos of the institution they worked for entirely for granted. A gradual accumulation of experience of the institution's ways plus a liberal dash of their own prejudices and desires gave them in time a self-made picture of the character of the place they worked, just as one gets to know a friend, or enemy, over the years. In many cases it led to a "le musee, ce'st moi" attitude, especially amongst curators, where a there was a strong belief that they alone could embody the true spirit of the institution. [This, by the way, is what I suspect was in the mind of Martin Rees: how could mere business people presume to understand the museum better than the scientific curators?] It was a process of selective osmosis. It was just understood, wasn't it?

Of course it wasn't. None of this was ever codified, or challenged, or agreed. Leaving it all vague and unspoken was the easy way out, and of course has led on many occasions to those clashes of cultures for which museums are famous. Curators vs Management. Collections vs Public. Money vs Mission. Highbrow vs Lowbrow, or Dumbing Down. It can also lead to some fairly awful lapses in standard. At the time of this Board meeting the Science Museum's own Antenna website was putting out some truly terrible, trite, unbalanced features, which in my opinion made the museum look amateur, lightweight and partial. A piece on the London congestion charge could have been taken word for word from a GLA press release. But the museum was self-policing, so this was either okay because the museum was doing it, or else no-one even thought to patrol the quality on the website.

For business purposes, a brand can't be taken for granted. It's an asset which has to be nurtured and planned like any other. It can't be presented as one thing by one person and as another by someone else, depending on their convenience. Principles and values, what a company stands for, are the fixed points that sustain you when the going gets tough or complex. The brand, in my view, has to be actively managed if it is to be of value, and if you can't articulate it, then managing it is impossible. That's what the trading company was attending to with the Science Museum brand. It enabled us to charge premium prices for our services, and gave us a way in to almost any company. For us it was a precious jewel, which we had no intention of devaluing. I don't think Sir Martin Rees had any conception of this then, and probably doesn't now. His rudeness still rankles.


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