Social media and new digital channels ensure that our connected world is always evolving. Branding in the commercial environment is no longer about projecting a message to an audience, it is about connections between people. This is where the traditionally commercial role of branding and the role of libraries converge. Libraries are still about books, knowledge and ideas but both the format, the medium and the modes libraries work across have expanded exponentially. Embedded in this expansion are the ways in which the library connects with people and more importantly, the ways the library connects people-to-people, ideas-to-ideas, needs-to-needs. Advertising agencies are no longer isolated in silos working to a brief provided by a company CEO, they are getting into the shoes of a company and into the shoes of the customers, connecting networking, working across platforms, focusing their message, and co-creating with their clients.
This is where libraries have always been and where they are ideally placed to meet the needs of patrons in a connected world. For libraries, branding is an important piece to this puzzle and is an often neglected one. Branding a library is not about projecting a new modern face and it is not about sending the right message. The message is what libraries do. In this context, branding is about making connections between what people do and what libraries do. Libraries do things in society that no other organisation or system does. Libraries offer an experience, a collaborative space, an inspiration, and a story that no other physical or virtual space offers. Leveraging branding and marketing strategies offers useful insights into how libraries can make more authentic and meaningful connections within the community.
Some lessons from the world of marketing
Marketing companies no longer work from an ivory tower of creative prestige. Instead, successful companies get into the context of their clients to gather opinions, data, information about trends, institutional knowledge and values. In essence, they tune-in to their clients. A library’s first port of call is to challenge assumptions that may be driving what we do by gathering relevant information and data. Analyse circulation data, review usage of electronic resources, observe behaviour because what people do and what they self-report are often two different things, tweak the context and observe how behaviour changes, and of course, just ask. Student voice is critical but we are often not ready for honest answers – this needs to change. Important information that is often overlooked is research findings from the fields of marketing, behavioural sciences, neuro-science & learning, psychology, market data and technology developments. As librarians, we are said to be information specialists and as such, we should be modelling such skills in our own field by using information effectively to inform our practices.
2. Branding is about starting a conversation.
Libraries do not need to send a message to “promote” services or to sell the idea of books because if we truly believe in the power of libraries, we don’t need to sell anything, we just need to be in the conversation. This conversation can’t be fake or contrived, instead, the library needs an authentic voice embedded in the life of the school. To do this we need to take a networked, complex systems approach. It is not about the library itself but about what can happen in the virtual and physical spaces of the library – the connections to ideas and inspirations, the collaborations, and the social interactions. The library is not a destination, it is a platform.
3. Understanding the context through complex systems theory.
Being strategic means getting to know the complex systems that our libraries are a part of and finding the most effective ways to have the broadest impact on that system. Gathering information is vital and not falling for cheap visual promotional activities that have no sustained effect is another. Instead, connecting deeply with the community the library is a part of is critical. There are very few areas of a school that connect as broadly across the school community as the library does. The sporting facilities are the closest comparison so to be most effective in such a wide context, libraries need to get to know and get involved in the connections and networks within that context. This means being involved in curriculum development processes, meeting with school administration and most importantly connecting one-to-one with students.
4. Differentiating the library brand.
With a branding mindset, being strategic is about finding that idea that differentiates the library brand from other aspects of the community and finding that authentic voice. This could be in the form of stories from books, stories shared between individuals or stories of discovery and learning. There is no one answer to being strategic, because it depends on a vast array of factors that are inevitably part of a complex system. It may be a large scale physical library renovation, or it may be a meme spread on social networks or it may be a radical change to library scheduling. The key is to know what you are looking for and to be able to notice it when it happens in response to a change made.
5. Leveraging technology
To say that technology has changed branding is to hugely understate the matter. For example, we rarely see Red Bull advertisements on TV however it is a name that frequently pops up in our daily travels and experiences. It may be on the helmet of a extreme sports athlete or flashing across a screen on the frame of a mountain bike. The point is that technology has enabled Red Bull to become a story that is deeply embedded in connections with the aspirations and identity of individuals across the world. Technology similarly provides libraries with the opportunity to build a powerful and deep association with inspiration, ideas, innovation and collaboration. Connected and embedded library branding is subtle and can be a vital way to build these meaningful connections.
6. Building on the experience
Marketing now involves crafting an experience for consumers by crafting stories that consumers become a part of. Social media is often a key component of this but the most important feature of such a marketing campaign is that it is device and platform agnostic. It is often a quieter approach that cuts through the digital noise. It may be an idea or a perception. The library as a brand is already very strong and well regarded so as an idea it may not require loud promotion but what may have more impact is finding more connected ways of embedding the library experience throughout the school. A library logo may be a part of that experience, a comfortable beanbag after an exam, or a new release best-seller from Jeff Kinney may be another. The library has many brand assets and multiple stories to build from so rather than promote, libraries need to connect. A functional, current and relevant website is important. Clear and simple ways to connect electronically with library staff is another. Flexibility and adaptability is critical as is a clarity and clear boundaries when needed. This comes down to what we value most, and those things that define what libraries are and what libraries do. A well ordered and neat quiet library is a wonderful thing but not if it is at the expense of filling it with noisy, inquiring, energetic and engaged kids.
This post was inspired by an article in Computer Arts magazine titled “How to build a successful modern brand” by Tom May (May 2016, pp42-48). Despite the fact that a library operates in fundamentally different ways to a company or business, this does not mean we have nothing to learn from the commercial world. The approaches marketing companies employ provide us with valuable insights into how to connect with people in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them. They also help to highlight technological changes and shifts in global communications and information landscapes. Therefore, it is up to librarians to generate branding designs that accurately reflect the values, purposes and mission at the core of the library. Whether we like it or not, a school community will form a perception of the library so it is up to the librarians to become active participants in the forming of those perceptions.