by Lauren Kingsley
Joyce Gardella is Principal of Gardella & Associates, a firm dedicated to providing nonprofit organizations with the tools they need to successfully engage their communities and generate support for the institution. The Cultural and Financial Management class, taught by Marjorie Schwarzer, was honored to welcome Ms. Gardella as a guest speaker on March 3, 2015. Prior to her presentation, I interviewed Ms. Gardella and learned a great deal about her philosophy that an institution must first know itself in order to be able to communicate its essence to the outside world. Following is a summary of our conversation. —Lauren Kingsley
Joyce Gardella has vast experience in the field. From January 2007 to June 2012, she served as Director of Marketing & Communications for the Exploratorium. In preparation for the opening of its new facility, she led the institution’s first full branding campaign and audience development effort, securing strategic partnerships for the new location while increasing attendance at the former site. Gardella has also served as VP/Marketing for Boston’s Museum of Science and Chief Marketing Officer at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry and the Brookfield Zoo. Given the overabundance of messages that people receive on a regular basis, the public tends to dismiss challenging ideas before they have been truly considered. Gardella’s goal while at the Exploratorium was to position the museum “in front of that confrontation, in order to jive the message with the experience.” Gardella believes that the Exploratorium challenges people in productive and positive ways. However, such an ambitious and interactive space presents obstacles. She recalled children being engaged in experimental installations, with their parents standing back, not knowing how to engage, and even finding the challenge off-putting. A marketing objective was then to create messaging that would help the public overcome their fear of engagement while it was still subconscious. Gardella believes that one of the most extraordinary things about the Exploratorium is that it fosters the innate talent and curiosity in each of us and gives people confidence in their own ability to explore. I asked Gardella about what it means to have a “brand” and why developing a brand is so important for a museum. She responded that the term “brand” can be confusing and daunting, and that museums sometimes feel that their fulfillment of programmatic needs is sufficient. However, if a museum fails to effectively reach its audiences, then the programming standing alone does not succeed in realizing the organization’s mission. As Gardella sees it, a brand is a promise that an institution makes to the public, and to the people who are going to use or support its services. Developing a strong brand also serves as a foundation for a communicative relationship with donors and staff, and for the decisions that are made on a daily basis. A good brand statement should result in a common language and focus, reminding the staff what they are striving to accomplish through their work. When asked about trends emerging in the field, Gardella said that many institutions are struggling with external practicality. Some organizations are pushing quantity of message, creating a multitude of messages going in many directions through various channels, resulting in the overall promise losing impact or becoming lost. Gardella stressed that, if an organization is failing to live up to the promise it has made, then the message takes on a hollow quality; this is spotted very quickly in the marketplace. When a museum announces a new exhibition and all of its messaging is around that single show, it merely communicates to the public about a one-time experience—it must not fail to involve each of the organization’s activities in the bigger picture. All advertising and communications efforts must be connected to the institution’s mission and the essence of the museum experience to create a cohesive and lasting promise that can penetrate awareness. We discussed developments in the technology sector and the simultaneously positive and negative impacts they are having on nonprofit marketing today. Gardella warned that organizations are projecting 50+ messages every month and, in order to avoid coming across as disparate sound bites, messages must be rooted in the true spirit of the organization. Of course, technology helps to get the message out, but sheer quantity can work to atomize a brand. However, she added that utilizing these advancements might also be empowering and open up many new opportunities and markets. Museums and other cultural and educational nonprofits are often surprised to hear that they need to focus more on marketing. Gardella and I discussed why this is the case and she offered an insightful perspective. Museums are sometimes under the impression that they have succeeded because they are fulfilling their programmatic obligations and, therefore, they do not feel the need to invest in marketing. However, they are missing the fact that they must become part of the life of their audiences and embed their promise in the community to ensure long-term sustainability. Oftentimes, staff members feel that the communications department takes ownership of marketing strategies. However, Gardella believes that these strategies must be a collaborative effort with the exhibitions, education, visitor services and programming staff because these areas are the heart of the institutional experience and critical to developing its outward identity. Organizations tend to underestimate how they subconsciously push messages. In today’s world, they must consider whether their messages are effectively fostering discussion and engagement in the public sphere. Finally, it is important to remember that marketing is not about a one-time transaction or response, but rather about building a relationship and serving a real need. Above all, an organization must be able to hone in on what qualities it possesses that resonate with the community and help to make it truly unique, set apart from other institutions. People in society today are devoting their attention to more things than ever before. Just because you have someone’s attention now, does not mean you are going to have it in the future. Therefore, communications strategies must begin with relevance to the audience, and be part of an organization’s long-term strategic planning process. Gardella recommends developing a branding promise as an umbrella that resonates both within the organization and externally with its audiences, and then creating audience-specific iterations of that promise. In conclusion, Gardella firmly believes that the museum field is an inspiring one, with truly transformative potential. Marketing for cultural institutions can be challenging, but it is also highly rewarding. Some museums do not realize at first why they need a marketing team, but that is precisely why they need a marketing team! Marketing identifies and highlights the organization’s activities and helps connect the world to what a museum has to offer. Gardella feels fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with so many amazing institutions. After all, she said “museums are the good news in our society.”
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.