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Published: March 15, 2001.


Building museum brands for the next generation: Web sites that reach and keep young people

Margot Wallace, Columbia College, USA


Just marketing a museum isn't good enough any more. With increased competition among museums as culture destinations, each must distinguish itself from the others. That's branding, and all good marketers are doing it. Using the Web only for virtual visits and information is under-utilizing it. The Web is, in fact, a powerful branding tool. For young people especially, the spontaneity and flash of the Web not only sells museums in general, but brands individual museums specifically. Effective Web sites, like all marketing media, utilize consistent images and copy to communicate their brand. Logo, theme line, type face, layout format, design motifs, color, icons, and tone of voice are among the features that must be deployed throughout the Web site to make it coherent, easy to navigate, and fun for young people. The artwork featured on the opening pages helps portray the museum's brand image, and could determine how long, if at all, a young visitor stops at the site. Appropriateness of the museum store items offered online affects whether young people will literally buy the museum's image and add their names to its database. The brand image must continue through sticky features such as the calendar, promotions, and links so those youthful surfers make the connection between Web site and actual museum, and start the conversion to repeat visitor, advocate, and member. This study,was conducted in October-November, 2000, examines college students' reactions to a range of art museum Web sites and the brand images they reflect. A different random sample of ten art museum Web sites were given to each of fifty college students. Students were asked to navigate the ten sites and select two that communicate a meaningful brand identity based on a checklist of features such as Web site architecture, copy, design, typography, color, audio, logo, and other iconography. The students also participated in small focus groups to further probe the strength of the Web sites' and museums' brand images. It is anticipated that the study will produce examples of effectively branded museum Web sites and a list of Web site branding tools that any museum marketer can adapt.


Just marketing a museum isn't good enough any more. With increased interest in museums as culture destinations, each must distinguish itself from the others. That's branding. Creating an identity and recognition is a challenge for all successful marketers, for-profit and not. Few museums have gone beyond generic category sell, Thomas Krens's Guggenheim and Mikhail Piotrovsky's Hermitage being conspicuous exceptions.

The importance of museum Web sites to branding is just beginning to signal our attention. Two years ago Dr. Michael Shapiro at an International Intellectual Property Conference cautioned Web developers about everything from logos on every site page to domain names. The recent approval of dot-mus finally allows museums to brand their site addresses. Now the task is to present the content in a way that indelibly identifies the whole site, page by page, and goes beyond the generic presentation of art and information.

This paper will review three art museum branding studies, all exploratory, conducted among college age students. It will demonstrate how Web developers might evaluate young peoples' interest and involvement vis-a-vis the construction of a marketing-effective Web site. Study #1investigates young people's understanding of art museum branding as a concept. In Study #2, college students evaluate actual art museum Web sites. Study #3, on art museum gift stores, offers some tangential insights. The information from these studies allows for informed examination of the Web site as the powerful branding tool it can be. It will indicate Web site features that aid branding, and black holes that obliterate branding. Although these studies all concentrate on art museums, the findings have significance for other museums whose branding, by nature of their category specificity, is more easily achieved.

For young people, the museum visitor of the future, the spontaneity and flash of the Web not only sells museums in general, but brands individual museums specifically. Effective Web sites, like all marketing media, utilize consistent images and copy to communicate their brand. Logo, theme line, typeface, layout format, design motifs, color, icons, and tone of voice are among the features that must be deployed throughout the Web site to make it coherent, easy to navigate and fun for young people. The brand image must continue through sticky features such as the calendar, promotions, and links so those youthful surfers make the connection between Web site and actual museum, and start the conversion to repeat visitor, advocate, and member.

Beyond the specifics of a well-branded Web site is the architecture. Young people require structure with their novelty. They need guidance and respond to clear goals and well-marked paths. A well-constructed, easily navigable Web site must never be compromised by high design.

Branding is easier said than done. It's difficult to stick with a consistent message. One needs only remember the box-office public relations events that reap enormous traffic, but bear no relation to the personality or mission of the museum. With all the technological bells and whistles available to Web designers, it's tempting to stray off message. To evaluate the success of your branding effort on the Web, it helps to remember the benefits of branding: Identity, recognition, familiarity, and justification. These product features are important to all consumers, and especially to younger ones.


Last October, four groups of college students were given assignments to assess their understanding of "museum branding." A different format, each relevant to the particular class and presumably the students taking the class, was given to each of the four groups to forestall any communications bias. One of the four groups used the Web as a resource. The concepts were discussed in class. A facilitator returned to each classroom one week later to learn how well each group had processed the concept.


Group #1: Written assignment with Web research

Group #2: Lecture

Group #3: Visual assignment

Group #4: Team assignment

Group #1 an Advertising Writing class, was asked to research one museum Web site from a list of five, and then write five taglines for an ad for that museum.

Group #2, was given a lecture, with overheads, by an outside presenter. This was a class of marketing students in Not-For-Profit Marketing.

Group #3, a class focusing on the Art Director/Copywriter Team, was given a visual assignment: sketch visual signatures of either the Art Institute of Chicago or the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Group #4, the Culture of Advertising class, heard the same overhead lecture as the marketing class, but was then split into small teams of four to develop a brand image for either the Art Institute of Chicago or the Museum of Contemporary Art.

With each group, the presenter returned one week later and asked students to respond in writing to the prompt: "What is museum branding? You may use examples to explain your answer."

Assessing the concept of art museum branding: some conclusions

Despite the expected divergence in the groups' articulation of the concept of museum branding, all groups retained a good grasp of the concept one week later. All but a few individual students could describe branding in some detail. They demonstrated comfort with the topic and a lively interest in image, personality, and identity, the results of effective branding. When one realizes the importance of identity to young people, the value of branding becomes even more significant in marketing to them.


The Advertising Writing class answered with reference to specific museums, and gave examples of branding.

One would expect verbal people, who were given a verbal assignment, to write expressively. It is clear that having the richness of the Web as a resource sparked their creativity. It should be noted that in the computer lab where they worked they talked easily with each other. Young people thrive on group interactivity, a communication which can be simulated on the Web.

The Not-For-Profit Marketing class, who had heard just a lecture, condensed the concept into neat paragraphs and bullet points. They understood the concept perfectly and did not have to search for words to describe it. They did not give examples. Marketing students can be expected to be orderly in their thinking. But their writing conveyed some passion for the subject. They seemed to have absorbed the personality and image of art museums as a category.

The Art Direction students, who had been asked to design museum logos or illustrations, were the least comprehensive in their written understanding one week earlier. Art directors are by definition non-verbal, but their diffidence was surprising. If in any lesson can be drawn from such a small sample it is to remember the limitations of graphics in creating anything more than a flash awareness. This is especially important when developing a Web site, where narrative is essential to bringing meaning to the visuals.

The Advertising Culture class, which had worked in teams, wrote the most abundant answers. Many took advantage of the opportunity to cite examples. They showed a comprehensive memory of the assignment and reveled in relating it. Again, the give-and-take of conversation, which can be replicated in an interactive Web site, is critical to generating and retaining interest among young people.


Although the classroom dynamic can positively or negatively affect results, there was a consistent positive response to art museum branding. Young people understand the concept of branding. It is familiar to them. They are comfortable, if not intimate, with art museums. They are engaged by the different images and personalities of museums to which they can relate. They are a cohort for whom affinity is important.



In late November, 2000, a selected group of seven students was assigned a list of eight art museum Web sites and asked to visit them all, then select two to analyze carefully.

The sites were chosen to meet several criteria:

  • Large enough for extensive navigation
  • Well-known and lesser known names
  • Prestigious enough to be a valid tourist attraction in a city a student might be visiting

Participants were given a checklist to follow as they visited each site. This was done as much to help them navigate the site, as it was to elicit specific responses. Students are selective users of the Web; until shown, they don't know how to plumb a new site productively.

Sites visited

Museum of Contemporary

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Fine Art, Boston

High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Guggenheim Museum, New York:

Strong Museum, Rochester, NY

Chicago Historical Society

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Checklist for visiting sites

Identify which aspects of this site:

  1. Inform
  2. Interact
  3. Entertain
  4. Keep the visitor for 5 clicks
  5. Collect names
  6. Sell something
  7. Interconnect -- have hyperlinks to appropriate sites
  8. What did you like about the graphics?
  9. Was the copy/text easy to understand? Examples.
  10. What did you like about the site? Be specific.
  11. What didn't you like?
  12. What's the image of each?

Verbal topline results

Clutter is anathema to students. They like sites that present visuals and text in easy-to-absorb portions.

Long copy strains the MTV generation's attention span.

Links allow young people to explore and learn on their own terms.

Membership solicitations and the gift store offers should not be too blatant. Students are willing to spend money, but they like to discover purchases.

College age students like art.

Clutter is intimidating and demeaning. Young people don't need much handholding in navigating through a site.

Without referencing the names of the specific museums, here are some of the participants' initial verbatim comments:

"You're going to a museum site on purpose, you don't need to be told where to go."

"I like all the pictures on the home page. I know where to go next.

"I knew I couldn't get through it all."

[to the question, isn't busy-ness exciting and fun] "No!".

"Upcoming event description [on the home page] is too long. I'll read about it if I want."

"I can't sit in a movie over two hours."

"People are going to visit these sites for the pictures and to get info on events ... they don't want a lot of garble."

"Nothing long winded just informative."

"The writing on the site is all very conversational in nature. It has the feel of looking at a friends webpage."

"Museums should act like museum, whatever your image."

"They tried too hard to get everyone involved...avoided the hard-core audience."

"... missing the character, no museumness."

"More art, less talk."

"... should have the air of sophistication ... lose it by giving too much information."

"... it was friendly, neighborhood, informative, here are the artists, now they're in your living room."

"They kept trying to sell me things."

When asked their first impression of the Web site:

"...the artsy pictures."

"... different cultures with pictures."

"...[sketched visuals]

"... full gallery to view on-line."

"... very attractive pictures.."

Written survey results

When the students evaluated the individual sites of their choice, according to the checklist, they became more forgiving and positively critical. Once committed to the site, and involved as a visitor not a surfer, they found more features to like. They were also more thoughtful in their criticisms.

Informative aspects of site.

They liked information on future exhibitions and graphic calendars for upcoming events. They noted address and directions. "What's New" sections were noted as helpful for repeat viewers. They like reading about the artists and the history of the museum. One liked reading the press releases, and one liked the gift store information.


Once introduced to the concept of sitting at a site for a few minutes, interactivity caught on, if done well.

"Plain" or "boring" home pages discourage additional clicks. Interactivity should be encouraged from the beginning. One student had trouble figuring out how to enter the site from what was to him a splash page.

One students recommended "a 'random' key, brining up a random piece of art ...this would be a way for those who don't know much about art to browse the collection without being intimidated."

"They are so could actually spend hours going through ... galleries, read up on specific artists, or shop around in the museum gift shop."

Entertainment value

Again, once young people understand the concept of visiting as opposed to surfing, Web sites become fun.

"It has the feel of looking at a friends web page."

"The sites are very entertaining will all they offer ... with every click of the bottom there is another great picture or artwork for the viewer."

"I personally was entertained by the constantly moving images."

Five Clicks.

This is probably the easiest metric to establish and evaluate, as well as perhaps the most important. Not only can observational research watch for clicks, and electronics count clicks, researchers can ask young people to remain on the site for five clicks and survey their interest-to-boredom level, which this research did. Clean graphics and brief copy are two ways to lead young people into repeated clicks. No single page in a site should try to show or tell too much. And all pages should load quickly.

"With every click of the button, there is another great picture or artwork for the viewer."

"It took a long time for the front page to load. However, there is a lot of stuff on the site, and much of it is targeted to me."

"It's a large site, so it would take quite a while to go through all of the ... information offered, so that's another plus."

Collect names

Free stuff and student-oriented materials are welcomed by young people. They also like to give their opinions. It's important to remember that they don't get much mail of their own.

"It also offers 'Stir It Up,' a student membership program which collects names, addresses, and email addresses.

"You can purchase tickets on-line."

"...allowed me to fill in a sheet stating my name e-mail address, and my interests in the museum."

Sell something.

Young people like to make purchases. One male considered on-line shopping as entertainment.

"You can buy tickets on-line."

"One could actually spend hours going through ... Internet galleries ... read[ing] up on specific artists, or shop[ping] around in the museum gift shop."

"I liked the student information page enough to give them my email address and consider a membership to the museum."


If appropriate to the museum, hyperlinks and links within the site were enjoyed by the participants.

"The links were interesting and on topic to the site ... for example, one featured an article written about ...graffiti artists."

"...where to get information on artists ... who do not have a exhibit at the museum to being able to buy artsy things via the mail from unaffiliated stores."


Visuals are subjective for young people, and difficult to articulate. Students may use non-complex words like "plain," or "fun," but they have exposed to the best designers in everything from CD covers to fashion ads, and they appreciate color and good design.

"A clear sense of their image is done by visuals, their set up, and their easy-to-read text mannerisms."

"It's for a museum, so it's obviously very visually captivating."


Once into a site, the visitors understood each one's message. They liked the depth of information. They enjoyed the variety. They learned.

"I plan on visiting the site again to digest it all."


The artwork, the information, the versatility, the fun of clicking around. Students found museum web sites to be treasure troves, as one hopes they would find the bricks and mortar venues to be.

"I liked the fact that they were connected to the community"

"The sites were very entertaining."

"They are loaded with information, everything from their day-to-day schedule,

to ...current exhibits, to the history and experience of the museum itself."

"...showed how to get involved with activities going on in the museum ... dining, online shop, school, collections..."

" me letting me sign up for information."


With the exception of some technological download glitches, there were minimal dislikes. Young people, who love to critique anything, found little to disassemble in museum Web sites. They might have liked more information, or more visuals, but these were seen as quibbles, not problems.

"Needs more copy on background and history."

"What I don't like about the sites was menial and minimal."

"I couldn't print the pictures."

"I found the artwork search intimidating, and the store page was rather pointless since you couldn't order online."


Brand image, though understood by young people, is easier to create themselves than to find in the real world. The more sophisticated found personality and image in specific sites, presumably the ones they selected.

"What I like ... was their use of text... letter styles that were contemporary as the museum itself."

"One can sense a specific voice behind the letters..."

"They have been able to portray something that other museums seemed to lack, and that's 'personality.'

"We get the sense of the ... fun and versatility by the way that things are more child-like."

"... sophisticatedness ... not only great visuals of their artwork, but the way they set their pages up."

Application of findings

At this point the group can suggest a Web site to critique according to the checklist.


Young people are charmed by museum Web sites. After they are introduced to them they will probe them in both depth and breadth. Minority students may need special encouragement to visit museum Web sites. According to some studies, minority young people may not have experienced museums, due to high cost and unavailability, and therefore be intimidated by them. The college students in this study like art museums and they like art. They are willing to buy from the museum stores, order the museum literature, and even join where affordable. They like information and they enjoy seeking it on their own terms, engaging in the do-it-yourself-learning that the Web is superior at providing. They recognize image and personality -- branding, -- when they see it, although they don't seem to see it in very many sites.

Because of young people's willingness to explore art museum Web sites, there are many ways to evaluate their degree of interest. The honor system visit and report study, outlined here, worked well. One-on-one interviews would produce additional insights. Electronic audits would reach a large audience.

It is important to assess duration of visits to, and stickiness (repeat visits), of the site. The impact of involvement adds greatly to brand building. The more customers stay with a product, the more they learn about and accept its brand. Since studies show that most actual museum visitors spend only 20 minutes in a museum, Web visits acquire more importance.



How museum visitors view the museum store relates only to the on-line shopping portion of museum Web sites. However, the depth of involvement and interest in museum stores was so pronounced, it bears a closer look.

This focus group research was conducted in August 2000, among museum visitors of all ages. One of four groups was a student group. Participants were accepted if they had visited a museum within five years. They were asked about their store experiences, and shown purchases from three different Chicago museums, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Terra Museum of American Art.


Without exception, all visitors remembered fondly and in detail their store experience. Highlights:

  • summarized clearly the museum, exhibits, and occasion for visit
  • recalled their purchases, whom they were for, how they were used.
  • associated their purchases with the mission and content of the museum.
  • thought of museum in terms of what they purchased
  • communicated their museum experience to others through the purchases
  • returned to the store to make additional purchases
  • identified individual museums ( from a list of museums) by items shown them
  • commented vigorously on the museum store shopping bag (a proven branding tool).


Human beings love to acquire and have done so since the acquisition of the first apple. Ownership makes the intangible tangible. Purchases bring experiences home. To impress the brand mage of a museum on a visitor, one need only place an object on his or her coffee table.

Special consideration should be given to the gift and purchasing features of a museum Web site.


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