Ok, so I’m totally going to admit when I’m wrong but in my defense it wasn’t my fault. I got my MLIS at San Jose State when all they could talk about is branding and how important it is to brand your libraries and I went into library school after managing a heavily branded retail chain. In fact I was so enamored with the idea of branding libraries that I wrote all of these posts about it.
But then, I had my interview at the library system I currently work at and I spent exactly 5 minutes in a room with Martin Gomez and realized everything I thought about branding libraries was absolute crap. While I could never even dream to express what he said to me as eloquently as he did in those five minutes, and it’s taken me years to come to terms and process what he said to me, I am going to write about why I now think I was so wrong.
1) What is the goal with branding?
The first thing I started to think about after that interview was, well… What problem are we trying to fix with branding? Basically, I think that branding allows marketing the available services, programs, and materials, at your libraries to be easier and centralized and that’s really about it. If that’s a library’s goal then that’s fine, I get it. Branding is all about marketing. But if someone thinks it’s going to do much beyond that, then I’m wondering what other problems they think it’s going to solve. Please comment below on this one as I’d like to hear from you.
2) How many people go to multiple libraries in the system?
This, I think is a critical question. Because one of the arguments I hear in favor of branding is that a library is trying to show that when someone walks into a library they know that they are in such-and-such library system. But, if a library system finds that a very low number of patrons go to multiple branches throughout the system, then maybe this isn’t that big of a concern after all?
3) Part of a consortium?
A problem I see with a branding a library as part of a larger consortium is that there are libraries in the consortium that are actually part of another library system and aren’t branded the same. Are they branding themselves as something different? I find that they typically are. This is probably not a problem if we look into the concern above, but in our area in the bay, we do see a lot of patron crossover from nearby library systems and they all have different services available (which I think they should). My question here is, do people really care that they are in this library system or the next or do they care that they can use their library card?
4) Critical mass of libraries with the same brand or at least using the same card?
This brings me to this thought. If library systems aren’t branding themselves alike across the board, then do we have a critical mass of libraries necessary to create a brand? Brands like Starbucks work because they are so wide spread that wherever you go in the country (and the world) you can easily recognize it and know that you can get a venti mocha that will taste pretty consistent with the last place you got it. In the case of libraries, are enough libraries offering enough of the same services that what is available is easily recognizable? Probably not.
5) Same services available?
I would argue that for many library systems, offering the same services from system to system (or even branch to branch) would not be a great idea since so many communities need such different services and programs. A rural library doesn’t serve the same function as an urban library in a lot of ways and so branding them both the same by offering the same services wouldn’t work out. This is also why, when I’m overseas and visit a Kentucky Fried Chicken, the menu is slightly different than it is in the states. Sometimes, it’s better and more profitable to be different and give out what people want instead of what we want to provide.
6) Looking the same
Well, that Kentucky Fried Chicken looks the same as the ones here in the states! Once again, I would argue that this only works because there is so much crossover of customers from store to store at KFC and would refer you back to numbers 2, 3, and 4 on this list. There are enough people moving from store to store around the county, the fact that a more common or easily accessible currency is used that allows that movement (money) as compared to library cards, and that there is a critical mass of outlets offering the same or similar goods and services.
But here is where I think Branding is right. If a library system serves a small enough or similar enough community of users that they typically want or need the same services and programs etc… that there is a large enough crossover of patrons between the library system’s branches who are not also using a number of other libraries in the area or that the use of those libraries would not dilute the brand they are trying to create. And of course, that the cost of trying to rebrand every library is far lower than the benefits. I’ve only seen 2 public library systems where I would argue that this occurs.
One the other hand, sometimes I wonder if many libraries are already branded? I’ve been to many libraries around the country that are branded as community libraries. They are branded separate and distinct to the community they serve even though they are part of the same library system. Maybe building community libraries and branding them as the library that serves their community is the way to go. In which case, it is simply the library’s role to serve their community and provide what their community wants and needs. Or, maybe to REALLY stand out from the crowd you shouldn’t brand your library like every other company?