A few weeks ago I went on holiday to Portugal with my family. On the way out the flight was delayed by five and a half hours. We took it in good spirits but when it came time to board the plane the man in front of us was obviously rather annoyed and said to the stewardess “I hope you’re going to feed us on this flight”. The lady replied “well sir, there will be food but you’ll have to feed yourself”.

And really my message to you today about marketing your heritage organisation is just this – there is food on this flight, but like the miserable old flyer from Liverpool airport you’ll have to feed yourselves. In other words, the marketing tools are there, but are you going to use them?

A lot of people in not for profit organisations, including the history sector, bury their head in the sand and ignore branding, hoping it will go away but we can’t – and shouldn’t – hide. The benefits of branding are too important to ignore: more visitors, more fundraising pounds, more visibility and more political support.

If we can forge emotional connections to mundane consumer goods like washing powder, we can definitely make our past relevant and get people excited about it.

You don’t need me to tell you there’s growing pressure on each of you to do just that. Not for profit organisations, generally, are beginning to understand the importance of their 'brand'.

So what is a brand? Essentially it’s a culmination of a range of experiences and emotions that people associate with your organisation – whether that be good, bad or indifferent.

You are in control of your brand because you can control the majority of factors that influence it... for example you can control the experience visitors to your museum have by making it as relevant and enjoyable as possible. You can control perceptions of your brand through being precious about how your logo, advertising and marketing materials, etc, reflect you.

As part of the leisure industry you’re in a fiercely competitive market and you need to fight for attention. If you fail to project a clearly defined image of who you are, and what you represent, you’ll be doomed to anonymity – fewer visitors and less money.

Let’s think about it from the public’s point of view – why should they care about you? It’s been drilled into me since I was a kid that museums were ‘special’, but unfortunately attention isn’t a given. Unless you’re prepared to make a large and public effort to explain why people should visit your museum rather than the local cinema, for example, you won’t get any attention – it’s as simple as that.

But you are in a very strong position, because even though competition for attention is fierce, museums do occupy a large and meaningful place in people’s minds. And living in such an historically rich country as Great Britain, you’re uniquely positioned to enter into a relationship with people, to challenge their thinking, and to develop the community’s understanding and interest in the history of where they live.

You know things other organisations don’t. You ‘own’ something of great importance. The public want to hear what you have to offer. So what it really comes down to is are you telling them?'. If so ‘What are you telling them?’ and ‘how are you telling them?’

If you’re willing to accept the challenge and engage your audience in a meaningful dialogue this is a hell of an opportunity for you.

In a nutshell, you have to ‘feed yourselves’.

1. Understand what makes you special and what you have to offer. This is a process which you need to do internally, and it shouldn’t be limited to the marketing department – ask all departments, they’re part of the organisation too.

2. Have a marketing communications plan that builds your brand and strengthens your proposition. You know what makes you special and what you have to offer. But does your design agency? It’s key that they understand this, else how can their design represent your brand values and achieve what you want it to achieve?

If they don’t understand the bigger picture you run the risk of each job being treated as a separate project with no sideways glance to the long-term objective of what you’re trying to achieve, and this is dangerous. It’s like knitting without consideration to what you’re making i.e. each line looks fine – no dropped stitches and very neat – but after a while what you’re left with is just a whole lot of knitting and nobody really understands what it is or what to use it for.

3. Be open-minded about how to communicate with your audience. Organisations have to rise above the sameness of everyone else. They have to find creative ways to express their unique attributes – to promote an image of themselves that is vital, relevant, and meaningful, to generate a sense among community members that they are part of something special.

Thinking differently is hard work. This is what you pay your design and marketing agencies for – not just to think creatively about design but to think creatively about what format your communications should take.

Creativity of design. Unless you want to be seen like everyone else don’t neglect the power of design in reflecting your unique personality. Design invokes emotional
connections to your organisation and – positive or negative – this has a great bearing on the strength of your brand.

Be brave. Give your creative agencies the opportunity to be bold – if they’re good at what they do you won’t be disappointed. Don’t underestimate how effective it will be at grabbing the attention of your audience.

Be open-minded in how you communicate. I’ve had experience of working with a lot of successful brands and if there’s one thing they have in common it’s their understanding of the power of on-going communication with their audience. Engaging your customers in a relevant and meaningful dialogue will directly influence footfall through your museum. If people want to be kept informed of what’s going on in their museum, tell them.

To do this successfully you have to treat your customers as individuals, with individual needs and interests... different people want different things from your museum. If you can talk to your audience as individuals, about what they actually want to know rather than a blanket message, you’ll be much more successful at increasing your visitor numbers.

It’s also important you communicate with them in whatever way they’re most receptive to listening. Maybe that’s advertising, direct mail, text messaging, email, podcasting – or probably a combination (different channels at different times). If your design and marketing agency don’t offer support for new media technologies just see me afterwards as liquid will be able to help you out with this.

A museum expends a great deal of energy trying to attract an audience and present itself as appealing, relevant and vital. If people visit once, the museum wants them to keep coming back for more. If it can maintain a connection with its audience between visits, it will be able to build a real community while reinforcing the museum's identity. Properly executed, maintaining an ongoing dialogue with your audience will help them to become connected to the museum’s programs. For children, this emotional link to the museum will often be maintained through their adult years.

So, to finish off then, if you know what makes you special and what you have to offer; if you’re bold in your communication style; and are committed to ongoing communication with your audience, you have a very good chance of developing an extraordinary identity, establishing communities that want to stay connected with your work and ultimately increasing your visitor numbers.

So, now you know what’s on the menu, are you going to feed yourself?