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Applying a Disciplined Brand Approach: An Interview with Spenser Thompson

By Dan Bostrom posted 01-04-2021 14:37

Applying a Disciplined Brand Approach: An Interview with Spenser Thompson
By Melissa Fraser-Arnott

Spenser Thompson, MLIS.
Spenser Thompson, MLIS.

Discovering your library’s brand is a key component of developing your library marketing strategy. Spenser Thompson, MLIS published an article entitled “A Disciplined Brand Approach to Marketing Libraries” in 2018 in the Marketing Libraries Journal. This article defines brand and outlines a process through which Libraries can define their brand and use that branding to create a focused marketing program. We interviewed Spenser to learn more about his approach. He has worked for a for-profit library software company in marketing, Research Libraries group (now part of OCLC), and a university in San Francisco. He is a freelance writer, librarian, and marketing consultant living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You discuss brands and organizational identity in your article. What is the difference between a library’s brand and its identity?

Brands and identities are related. A brand is much narrower than an organizational identity. The brand is a single idea that can be used to describe what the library is all about. The goal of the disciplined brand approach is to work down to one idea that is powerful enough to get people to use the library more or donate money.

When working toward discovering your brand idea, you need to consider the whole. Review all of the things that you do and all of the things that are great about your library. The word or idea that you choose to describe your library has to be true and not just aspirational. You have to be able to back up what you’ve chosen as your brand with services, behaviors, social media campaigns and so forth.

You mentioned in your article that brands are discovered over time. Do you recommend that libraries undertake multiple branding discovery exercises over time to see if staff conceptions of the library brand have evolved?

If you do the process right, then you only need to go through the process once. A good brand idea should be enduring. It can last 20, 30, or 40 years. A broad enough idea like innovation, freedom, partner can work as services change—as long as your marketplace still values it. Think about “we bring good things to life”, GE’s slogan for such a long time. A library could take that as their idea too - “Enlivening.” Products radically different but a lovely idea.

You can keep using a brand until it stops working. There are some other triggers that will prompt a rebranding exercise. A change in leadership may prompt a review of the library’s brand. If the institution hires someone who is technology focused, you need to unpack the idea of technology—how is it not a “thing”. You may not be able to “sell” an idea to a director who is fundamentally about another idea.

You also talked about developing services as a result of landing on a brand idea in the article. What did you mean?

When you discover your library’s brand, you can even change or add services to align with it. The process I talk about in the paper can be a gateway to changing the library product not just boiling it down to something. As a marketing person it is great to imagine this is as a “Discovery” process! When you know what your brand is, you can bundle your services under your idea. The “disciplined” part of the disciplined brand approach requires emerge with only one idea. If the services you are offering don’t align with your brand idea—and you love your idea and your users might also. Something abstract can be something concrete. This is answering a question like, how do we align what we are doing with the wonderful idea of happiness or “getting ahead.” Although you live in the day to day of precision or detail or service, you can take a deep breath and think about how what you are promoting relates to your big idea.

You can ask a question like “what can we do to give people more freedom that we are not already doing.”

How can libraries enhance staff investment in the library’s brand?

Because the library’s brand is discovered through discussions with staff, the process is designed to build staff buy-in. The brand that you select should align with the library’s culture. You can’t invent a culture that doesn’t already exist in your library. Because library staff contributed to identifying the brand and making the brand, it belongs to them and you shouldn’t have to enforce it. I like talking about the idea of “fun” because it provides a relief [in both senses of the word] from the “serious” culture of some libraries. I insist that librarians are fun and that bodes well for the brand exercises. If your institution or your library is not fun—even if that is what freshmen or young adults respond to—don’t try to be it.

This approach isn’t meant to be another theoretical strategy discussion session—a long drawn-out process. I think that might kill the energy and actually detract from getting to one idea. You can draw pictures. The process can be, I suppose and I hope, fun. The process of narrowing down what that one idea might be fun, but does not disrespects staff’s intelligence or seriousness of the mission.

What role do library leaders play in the disciplined brand approach?

Anything that leaders do to lead will support a library’s branding and marketing process. There are a few areas in the disciplined brand approach to marketing where strong leadership is needed.

What do you mean by disciplined?

It isn’t easy to be disciplined. Choosing a single word or idea to represent the Library’s endeavor means asking people to narrow down. People come to branding discovery processes with multiple ideas about what their library does and what is most important. This filtering process means that many library branding ideas won’t be accepted. You need strong leadership to support this process. The leader needs to consider the roles of egos in selecting the library’s brand as ideas are removed in the discussion process. Getting from many ideas or many self-conceptions is part of the discipline. Not everyone is happy at the end and that can be good to some degree.

What’s the outcome and how do you measure it?

In this process you need to go through all of these ideas and think about what will make sense when you communicate with to library patrons or users. You need to choose one idea to represent the library’s brand and this idea has to make sense for your funders. You may have a range of clients who may have different ideas about what your library’s services and approach should be—faculty, parents, “fiends” of the library--but you need to choose a brand that is going to be supported by the people who are giving your library money. If you say that marketing is about “making money”-which it is—although the library may measure it in metrics such as “usage” or “surveys.” It’s still exchangeable—you hope—with money. Your brand has to align with your funder’s vision. You are in the odd position of Microsoft, which can be hated by end users but embraced by your institution! Having an idea, like creativity (which Microsoft seems to be leaning toward) may be in fact not what businesses want when they buy software. Obviously, you can push the point I am making too far.

How do you convince people that the idea you chose is your brand?

If you did it right, they will light up! Hopefully it has to be “true enough” or flexible enough to work.

What do you mean by the same products being able to support the same idea?

First, by product I mean anything: library events, content, databases, instruction and so on. For example, the use of computers in libraries can support different brand ideas. A library whose brand focuses on “tradition” may emphasize the long history of a library incorporating computer technologies into their practices. A library whose brand is innovation would instead talk about their 3D printer or drone delivery. Even though it is the same library! You are asking my emergency question for marketers at libraries: Who are we talking to and why do they care?

What other roles are needed to support the disciplined brand approach to marketing?

There are many sides to marketing and each of these sides involve different people and approaches. There is a creative side to marketing. You need creative people who can create marketing materials. You might need others for execution and timetables.

I don't talk about social media in the article, but you need to see what librarians at your library are doing with social media and just go with it--if it meets the brand "stress tests" I mention in the article. I am not talking about a feed of announcements! What are their personalities? Brands are attached to people even though they are ideas. If someone is a "techie" that could become a brand idea? Are they "cool"? And critically is that idea "worth something" to the library and its users? Marketing is going to emerge from marketing places all the time in any organization. This can be a plus.

What are other organizational issues?

Hiring is everything. Hire people who can be creative and conceptual. Also hire people who support your library’s brand. Your staff is a great source of creativity. Keep your eyes open for opportunities for creativity and allow people to try out ideas. Brands can be organic and not “imposed” which I talked about before. Marketing is about people, as much as I hammer home things that seem “merely” conceptual.

I have changed my mind in some ways since I wrote the paper. There are so many awesome things being done in marketing, they just need to attach to an idea that works. You are not starting ex nihilo and that is a good thing. As they say in the psychology world you are always communicating something.

Going through the process in my paper will help make branding and marketing fun – or at least palatable, which can be a win(!), -- for library staff. It will also help people to look beyond their daily tasks at how their work supports the library’s brand and how the library’s work is viewed by users. Involving your library staff and treating brand development as an investment will help to sustain your marketing efforts.

You cautioned against marketing libraries in general vs marketing the library you work in. How do you recommend library staff differentiate their specific library from other libraries that their clients may have used in the past?

There are organizations that are working to advocate for libraries in general. The ALA’s job is to sell libraries and they are good at it. They develop materials to promote libraries and distribute library campaign posters. Leave this generic library marketing to them because they are in the world of getting funding and telling a huge story. The “Libraries Transform” campaign is brilliant. Think of how exciting, flexible, and huge the idea of transformation is! Then any library service can be explained as a conduit. Also, people don’t even have to know what the library does to support transformation to get it, in their own minds. They could use it for 20 years.

This is getting too conceptual but I hope I’ve brought you along with me to some degree. But will it play in Peoria? as the old Hollywood joke goes? Is the idea too sophisticated or irrelevant as much as we – the people that made the marketing -- like it? That gets to the point I make in the paper is that you win when your organization and audience value the same idea, deeply.

The point is you always need to think about the idea that you want to send about your particular library. This message needs to align with your library’s slice of services in your community-- and how your brand and vision align with those of your library’s funders. All of the elements of your library’s brand, including what you put up in your library space, needs to support your individual library’s brand. Simply put is your community college library in Arizona the same as the library at a huge institution in Massachusetts.

What steps should a library take if they determine that a proposed marketing effort does not align with their brand?

This will happen. People veer back into their existing idea especially ones that will say out loud that they “hate” the campaign. Hopefully it is ingrained and accepted and will be if you did it right. If there is buy-in the brand should be incorporated into conversations all over the library to help staff see the connection between their work and the library’s brand. One of the things I didn’t mention in the article is to make a one-page brand guide and simply ask if your budding marketers have considered it or how can what they have - in terms of “product” - go into that umbrella.

Do you have final thoughts on library brand development that you would like to share?

My paper talks about an approach to brand development that can be as high quality as going out and spending a lot of money. It can be done in-house without the cost of hiring an external consultant—and spending 6 months trying to explain to an outsider what a library is, what your library stands for and so on. They will come back at you with books that look like birds and columns guaranteed. Or a cartoon image with a “hair bun” (It happened.) Are these images you paid an agency to license related to what you think is valuable? Will the staff hate the new brand idea and dump it in two weeks?

Second, the goal is not to inflict a marketing concept on staff, any more than you would a “company culture,” that benefits the owners, instead it should be energizing. It should help library staff to articulate the value that they bring to clients through their diverse products and services through a single word or idea. A brand sets the tone.


Melissa Fraser-Arnott.

Melissa Fraser-Arnott is the Co-Chair of the Leadership and Management Division’s Marketing Section. She is the Chief of Integrated Reference Services at the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada. Melissa has a PhD from the SJSU-QUT Gateway PhD Program and an MLIS from the University of Western Ontario.