When marketers think of learning new skills, they generally think of business schools, mid-career executive programs, workshops and business books. But very few marketers think of museums as places to learn from. Over the past two weeks, I have come to realise that museums can teach the marketing fraternity many exciting and relevant lessons. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I visited Mumbai’s oldest museum, the Dr Bhauji Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, located at Byculla. It was originally established in 1855 as the Victoria & Albert Museum and was later renamed after Dr Lad, whose vision ensured its establishment. The museum showcases the life and history of nineteenth century Mumbai, and the decorative arts of the city.

We were taken on a brief tour of it by a sprightly young girl, an archaeologist, who works at the museum. She was brilliant, as she narrated to us interesting and intriguing stories of each major exhibit. The story of how the larger-than-life statues of the Muses of Art and Science were created. The story of why five languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, English and Hebrew) were used at the base of these statues. The story of David Sassoon, leader of the Jewish community in Mumbai at that time. And some more.

Within an hour, and through viewing less than fifteen objects, we had virtually been told the entire story of British Mumbai of the 19th century. The history of its people, monuments, arts and sciences. This was such an enjoyable experience, and I wished to visit more museums. Such an opportunity presented itself soon after, when I had a few hours to myself during a recent visit to London.

Here, I decided to visit the British Museum, which has one of the greatest and most comprehensive collections in the world. Specifically, I chose to visit a special exhibition the Museum has put together, titled Germany: Memories of a Nation . This exhibition is a 600-year history of Germany, told through simple but powerful objects. Once again, within an hour, I got to see a range of artefacts belonging to various periods of European history. Unlike in Mumbai, I had no human guide to walk me through this exhibition, but the exhibits told their own stories. Small, easy-to-read story cards in large fonts vividly brought to life the stories of exhibits as diverse as the Berlin Wall, the Gutenberg printing press, the Bible of Martin Luther, and maps showing how the borders of the German nation have constantly shifted.

So what can marketers learn from visiting excellent museums such as these? Here are some initial thoughts.

The art of storytelling Great brands have traditionally told wonderful stories. Unfortunately, many modern marketers, schooled in the science of marketing, and data-driven approaches to consumer research or media planning, have forgotten the art of great storytelling. Museums remind us, and also teach us, how to tell powerful stories in a vivid, simple manner. The young girl who guided my wife and me through the Mumbai city museum, and the person who wrote out the superbly crafted story cards which I saw at the British Museum, are both master storytellers. Such captivating yet simple storytelling is what every marketer should attempt to do — through every advertisement, packaging design, website or tweet.

So many marketers tend to pack their brands with so much information that customers retain very little. For instance, look at most packs on supermarket shelves today, and you will see that they are crowded with incredible amounts of information. This is because we want our consumers to know everything, and we fear leaving out anything at all. But all this also confuses people, who eventually remember little or nothing. On the other hand, museums teach us that a few carefully chosen objects are quite adequate to tell a fascinating story.

Curation of content The new buzzword in marketing is ‘curation’ of content. This means putting together content for your brand through articles and blogs, advertisements, websites, videos on YouTube and a host of other emerging social media platforms. This collection of content then defines the brand to consumers.

Every marketer aspires to achieve excellent curation which can wonderfully engage his consumers with consistent yet exciting messages.

Now, the original and the best curators are not from the world of marketing, but are from museums.

These museum curators present content to accurately educate and inform their visitors.

Through expert curation, they reveal objects never seen before, or a fresh exciting connection between objects which has never been noticed before. The curation they do also navigates us in a manner that tells the story in one beautiful sweep.

Marketers should study the techniques used by curators of museums if they wish to build expertise in content curation themselves. All marketers wish to become customer centric, to deliver higher levels of customer delight. The best museums can teach us a lot about customer centricity, because they are incredibly visitor centric.

A visitor to the British Museum is greeted by an employee at an entry desk, who provides easy information about ongoing collections.

Most museums offer an easy-to-navigate audio guide, with several languages on offer. There are nice benches to sit on, if you are tired or wish to view a famous exhibit for a longer time.

Security guards at museums are increasingly dressed in friendly khakis and vests, rather than in police-like uniforms, because the latter take away from a positive experience.

Storyboards which describe exhibits, including the ones I saw at the British Museum, are written in much bigger labels and bold, easy-to-read fonts because visitors include many middle-aged and elderly people.

How many of our modern retail stores, advertisements or pack designs follow these simple principles of customer centricity ?

Cost-effective marketing Finally, museums teach us a lot about cost-effective, pull-based marketing. With very minimal advertising budgets, they still pull in millions of new and repeat visitors each year.

Both the museums I visited were full of people, unlike many retail stores I know. Studying how museums market themselves can hold rich rewards for all of us.

( Harish Bhat is the member of Group Executive Council, Tata Sons )

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