Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It’s time to define a new brand for libraries. Let’s make sure it leaves people soaring, not snoring.

I’ve always studied other professional fields as a means to try and understand the profession of librarianship and the future of the field. In particular, I’m interested in looking at points in the history of a business and reviewing where mistakes have been made from which we might learn valuable lessons.   You undoubtedly already know some of the most famous examples. Theodore Levitt wrote a classic piece on this topic for the Harvard Business Review in 1960 called “Marketing Myopia” in which he refers to examples such as:  railroads which didn’t understand they were in the transportation business; Hollywood, which thought it was in the movie business instead of the entertainment business; and numerous other smaller examples that existed at that point in history.  

In more recent times, we’ve seen the cycle repeated by a long and impressive list of those who apparently chose to ignore history, including the music industry thinking they were in the record or CD business rather than the music business and Polaroid and Kodak thinking they were in the film/camera business rather than the photography business.

Today, as I listen and read about our profession of librarianship, I have a deep gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach when it comes to the issue of branding.  All too often I find the parallels between the examples just mentioned and what I see the librarians doing in shaping the perceptions of our users about librarianship.  The result could have a major impact on the future of our profession.  It’s important to remember that, for most of those businesses that didn’t truly understand where they added value for their customers, there was not a positive ending.   

So, when it comes to librarianship, what am I specifically talking about?  Librarians’ continued belief and acceptance of “books” as their brand.   When I originally read OCLC’s 2010 Perceptions report, it stated:  
“In 2005, most Americans (69%) said “books” is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the library. In 2010, even more, 75% believe that the library brand is books.” 
I have to say my discontent took firm root at that point. That report went on to say: 
“Brands are hard to change, almost impossible for a brand as strong as libraries—in an environment where saving money on books is even more valued by consumers.” 
Recently, OCLC issued a very interesting new report titled: “At a Tipping Point; Education, Learning and Libraries” which deals, in part, with this topic again. 

This new report says: 
“Our 2014 research tells us that the library brand remains firmly grounded as the “book” brand. In fact, from 2005 to 2014, the perception of the book brand has cemented. Sixty-nine percent (69%) of online users indicated that their first thought of a library was “books” in 2005, 75% in both 2010 and 2014.”
Very significantly, the new report also states: 
“How concerned should we be about the library brand? The answer must be tied to how significantly we believe the context in which libraries will operate in the future will change.” 
“Brands are not impressions held in isolation. Brands are attitudes informed and shaped by the context in which they operate. Shifting needs shift brands—often faster than any change in the brand product itself.”
I would argue that the context in which libraries operate today has already changed dramatically and certainly will continue to do so into the future.  For me, the key in the above is “shifting needs shift brands”, because that statement gives us the keys to the passageway to redefine our brand.

This OCLC report contains some extremely important observations about branding, how it is formed and what it takes to change it.   For instance, it notes: 
"The library brand, “books” has solidified” and that Campus Libraries are now known as “a place to get work done”.   “Libraries have a context challenge, a brand category problem. Relevance is determined by perceptions, not products, not services, not reality.”….  “The library brand is too strongly associated with books, a category that both library users and non-users perceive to be less relevant with the rise of the Web, mobile information and e-books.”… “Strong enduring brands remain relevant by creating and promoting clear differentiators that match the consumer needs while retaining congruency with the expectations of the brand.”
Exactly!  Differentiators that match needs and relevance are determined by perceptions, which are something we can and should define.   Now note that I don't believe that OCLC is saying we should adopt the perception of "a place to get work done" as the library brand.  They didn't say that.  But I do think we should apply some critical analysis to what they're telling us here.  We need to ask some very important questions.   For instance: 1) In digesting the perception, have we really thought about what our users/members are telling us? 2) What is it they are working on?  Is the perception just an indicator of that larger reality? 4) How do we take that perception and turn it into a brand that inspires people to use the resources and services of libraries? 

Frankly, if we just accept the new perception (a place to get work done) as a brand, I'd find it as lacking as the old one (books).  This was underscored for me this week when Library Journal printed a column about the new Amazon Lending Library announcement.  It noted (emphasis is mine):  
“This massive amount of press attention is not only discussing a new service—and who knows how it will turn out—but more importantly, they rarely mention libraries and what they offer,” said Gary Price, editor of LJ infoDOCKET. “So, it’s as much [a point of concern] about mindshare and relevance as it is about a new Amazon service.”
Of course, he’s absolutely right.  Let’s understand though, that this question of mindshare and relevance is as much our fault as librarians as it is anyone’s.  Historically, we simply have not actively defined the perception or the brand to be about anything but printed books.  Think about it.  We use books in our advertisements. If our discovery tools have a browse function, we tend to use visual representations of the book spines (why do we continue to think browsing spines is an easy thing to do?!?) or we use the book covers.  Why?  Why not use audio clips from the authors or photography to give a portrayal of what a work is about? Now, if we let ourselves be defined by the latest findings about users perceptions as a place to get work done, we'll leave our users snoring rather than soaring.

Let’s pause for a moment and put some foundations in place for the rest of this discussion about branding.

As many of you will know if you regularly read this blog or hear me speak, I’m a huge fan of David Lankes work: “The Atlas of New Librarianship”.  One of the many things I so like about this work is the mission statement for librarians, which states: 
“The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.”  
It is simple, clear, and compelling and creates a firm foundation for us to use in creating a new brand.  Now, let’s disassemble that statement just a bit by looking at some definitions of some of the key words used in it (from dictionary.com): 

Mission:  any important task or duty that is assigned, allotted, or self-imposed

Knowledge:  acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudition

Creation: the act of producing or causing to exist

While we’re at it, let’s add in this definition:

Book:  a handwritten or printed work of fiction or nonfiction.

Now, using those definitions, my take on Lankes’ mission statement is that we, as librarians, take it as our duty and our responsibility to help people produce knowledge through the investigation and use of facts, truths and principles.   Nowhere in there do I find it stated that we must do this only via printed or handwritten works.  

Let me be clear; I love books and I deeply believe in them as a medium.  However, I realize that they are not the only medium for creating and conveying knowledge.  While simple, we must realize this reality in defining a new brand for our profession.  Our new brand must reach out and extend across all the mediums used in conveying existing knowledge and must embrace all people across all societies in order to expose them to the value of librarianship in creating new knowledge.

When changing a brand, marketing experts will often talk about the need to ensure that it aligns with the way the organization operates.  OCLC, as noted above, stated: “retaining congruency with the expectations of the brand”.  Which makes sense.  The users/members of your library want to see that you and your organization walk the talk.  Which, given the knowledge creation approach, is totally consistent with what we see actually happening in many of the leading libraries today. Collaborative learning areas, maker spaces, innovation hubs and visualization tools are all examples of a new dimension of knowledge creation that goes well beyond just reading books.  

At the same time, a new brand needs to be catchy and memorable.  Forbes magazine did a wonderful summary that reminds us of some of the brands that fall into this category.  The following is a subset of those mentioned in that article:

  • The Ultimate Driving Machine (BMW)
  • Just Do It. (Nike)
  • Don’t Leave home Without It.  (American Express)
  • Got Milk? (California Milk Processor Board)
  • Think different (Apple)
  • A diamond is forever (DeBeers)
  • It takes a lickin’, but keeps on tickin’.  (Timex)
  • A mind is a terrible thing to waste (UNCF).
  • We bring good things to life.  (GE)
  • When you care enough to send the very best. (Hallmark)

We need, we really must, find a new brand that encompasses that kind of thinking and stickiness.  In London, they call Libraries “Idea Stores”.  I like that.  

While not offering it as a brand, I heard David Lankes give a talk in Florida in which he said libraries should use the word “Question” instead of “Read”.  I also thought that was great because it would cause people to not just accept, but to dig into what interests them, to challenge themselves to learn and to create new knowledge as a result.  

I’ll offer some other possibilities as a continuing step in the community thought process about library branding:  

  • Libraries: A time to know, a time to grow.
  • We feed hungry minds at the Library
  • Growing requires knowing.
  • The world’s best brain food: Libraries.
  • Creating knowledge? The Library has what you need.
  • Your Library: Come grow your mind.
  • Share to grow.  (Contributed by: )

Ok, those probably still need a lot of work but you’ve got to agree they’re more inspiring than: “A place to get work done”.  Furthermore, they focus on the result rather than the process.  Maybe what OCLC could do for us is create a competition inviting both end-users of libraries and librarians to submit branding ideas and then pick the best one.  

Our brand is critically important to our future.  Let’s be sure it defines librarianship accurately, is congruent with user needs, is compelling and, most importantly, that it is inspiring.