The race for attention from cultural consumers is tough, and cultural institutions today are in fierce competition, with an increasing range of experience-oriented attractions designed to win the public’s favour. A faithful crowd of visitors is reserved for the select few, and for most it is no longer enough to have, for example, quality art on the walls. These days, visitors also demand delicious food and shopping – a total experience. Therefore, many cultural institutions must now balance art and business to justify their existence to owners, politicians, foundations and citizens. 

What role does the identity of a museum, gallery, concert hall, festival, etc. play in this game? And what is essential to keep in mind when creating, developing, and refining such identities?

In May we organised a morning session on cultural identities, and one of the challenges that the participants mentioned was the fragmentation of the cultural scene. Today, most museums have a design shop, a fancy restaurant and some creative activities for the kids. However, as many other companies and institutions are offering many of the same elements, is there then a risk of diluting the experience instead of strengthening it? Are we all of a sudden competing with, for instance, shopping malls like Fisketorvet during a school holiday?

Your identity is the only true sustainable competitive advantage

Since more and more organisations are competing for our free time, we need to look for sustainable competitive advantages. The purpose of identity work is to create the strongest foundation for developing a strategy that endures. An invented identity is not authentic, nor is it a sustainable competitive advantage, as it can easily be copied. Identity, in this context, is for us the answers to the following questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us unique?

But does this in itself ensure a competitive advantage? No, the insights you gain by answering these questions must be put rightfully into play in order to ensure your relevance in the market and hence to achieve a competitive advantage. Furthermore, we always keep a business goal or commercial target in mind when working with identities, including when it comes to cultural institutions. Now, more than ever, these institutions are competing heavily in everything from shopping malls, cinemas, Netflix and other cultural offers. Identity work, together with the prime commercial target for the strategy period, forms a solid and sustainable foundation for the development of a strategic plan. Without that link between purpose and goal, the exercise creates no value in the long run.

When we work with identity, we always start with an inside-out perspective before we turn our attention to the market. It’s about discovering the identity – not inventing it. Therefore, when we work with museums, etc., we always partner up with the client and often involve a broad range of stakeholders ranging, for instance, from the municipality to carefully selected people from the art world. IDna Group’s CEO Anne-Mette Højland adds: “When the partner and selected stakeholder are so deeply involved in the process, there are less surprises along the way – everything is obvious, as it comes from their own world. It gives a completely different buy-in”.

The visual aspect – designing for culture

Designing for cultural organisations is often a little different compared to other work. In these institutions, the visual language is a well-known and loved instrument, to some extent making it easier to go far rather early in the process. And often, the people involved in the process are very passionate about their work, thus creating a special energy that goes into the project.

Just as in the strategic phase, we also begin from an inside-out perspective when designing. And again, we then turn our sight outwards, in order for us to gain a solid level of knowledge of where the identity is going to live. For some cultural identities, the battle is to be fought in the streets (as we experienced with the Republique Theatre identity), and for others, the playing field could perhaps be more digital.

Working with cultural institutions can furthermore add “obstructions”, as they often have several parallel identities due to seasons, different shows, exhibitions, artists, etc. “Therefore, we often develop identity systems for our cultural clients, creating room for unfolding the identity at multiple levels”, says Per Madsen, Creative director at IDna Group. “The thing is, is that we need to elevate individual elements while elevating the entire institution, that can be challenging”, Per Madsen continues.

“Our design was not just a visual design. It worked so strongly as corporate design – a design that visually expressed both our culture, our vision and the way our audience saw us – that it was constantly a benchmark for us.”

Hc Gimbel, former CEO at Republique Now, head of finance and administration at Aalborg Theatre

Applicable to all of our design work is that we start with ‘Why’. “When working together with our clients, we strive to always know their purpose, goal and overall strategy for us to be able to transform this visually. When we are creating a visual identity, we are merely translating the strategy into a visual language – you can call it a conceptual translation and amplification of the purpose and strategy”, says Per Madsen.

When done right, the visual identity can both emphasise and enhance the core message from the organisation and be a guiding star in decision-making. As one of our former partners expressed it, when speaking of the visual identity for Republique Theatre: “Our design was not just a visual design. It worked so strongly as corporate design – a design that visually expressed both our culture, our vision and the way our audience saw us – that it was constantly a benchmark for us.”. (Hc Gimbel, former CEO at Republique Now, head of finance and administration at Aalborg Theatre).

At IDna Group, we have a long history of both creating and working with cultural brands and identities. Read about our strategy work for Willumsens’s Museum here, and see some of our cultural identities below:

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