Five Years at the Imperial War Museum
Marketing As Mission
“Tell the truth, but make the truth interesting.”
- Ogilvy on Advertising
February 2022 brought an end to a five-year stint heading marketing at Imperial War Museums. It’s a family of museums in the UK that focus on people’s experience of war and conflict since it was founded in 1917 as a response to the First World War.
It comprises five museums — IWM North in Manchester; Churchill War Rooms in London; HMS Belfast, a Second World War cruiser moored on the River Thames; IWM Duxford — Europe's largest air museum, once a Second World War airbase; and the flagship Imperial War Museum in London.
I don’t think it’s controversial to describe IWM as an “underdog” national museum. It has a niche subject matter that makes for a rewarding — but certainly not entertaining — Saturday afternoon.
IWM is the biggest and best war museum in the world, its collection spans millions of objects, documents and works of art. But the fundamental challenge is asking people to engage with some of the most troubling dimensions of humanity and history.¹
To do that we had to generate demand for our subject matter, as opposed to simply advertising what we had to offer. We had to create a need that didn’t exist previously in order to broaden the customer base for the museums.
The strategy was to generate interest in modern and contemporary conflict history among a mix of target audiences. The tactical objective was to show those people why war and conflict was so important to their lives — even today.
In most museum marketing you’ll come across, certainly in London, marketing and advertising — particularly out-of-home advertising — will simply “signpost” exhibitions.
Here’s an example of three recent posters.
They’re all the same — a picture of an object in the exhibition, a logo, the sponsor(s). Maybe they’ll push the boat out and include a strapline for the exhibition.
The best museum ads have clear branding and some punchy graphic design, the worst of them are illegible from a few paces.
With these signpost-style ads, all these museums are simply saying “hello” to their usual audience, letting them know there’s an exhibition on. They’ll spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to do so.
But what about audience development? What about reaching people who aren’t already interested in the offer?
The surrealism poster above is great for surrealism fans, and I’m sure people attended the exhibition in droves. But how many people did this poster convert to Surrealism?
If I know little or nothing about modern art, what does this poster teach me about surrealism that will make me intrigued enough to visit?
It seems that’s not a priority for the marketing, and that’s fine (but a great shame).²
At IWM we needed to convert people otherwise not predisposed to our difficult content.
To stimulate demand, we put the museum’s mission — to increase the public understanding of war and conflict — at the heart of our marketing.
That mission is beautifully simple, and such simplicity concentrates minds. It’s a cause too, one that engenders passion and commitment.
And so our strategy was two-pronged. We’d stimulate demand steered by our mission.
In terms of branding and audiences, we were already in a good position thanks to the great work of my predecessor and colleagues. It was a matter of building on what had already done.
Brand is usually associated with designs, colour schemes and typefaces, and often seen as a disingenuous gloss over a company’s real business (think, for example, of BP’s $211m greenwashed makeover with a yellow and green “helios” logo).
But for Imperial War Museums, brand and mission are aligned — practically interchangeable. The brand cuts to the very essence — the ethos and mission — of the organisation.
Its mission, that simple statement above, is a core from which all else — from shop products to exhibitions — emanates.
By doing advertising and marketing, we had an audience of millions. It would be a shame not to enthrall, move, educate or inspire them, wouldn’t it?
We positioned our marketing and advertising as “the thin end of the wedge” when it comes to the public understanding of war and conflict.
As people engage with our advertising and come to the museums, they ascend a slope of understanding. In this way, our advertising and marketing was fully integrated into the mission of the museum — to increase understanding.
Research shows that poster advertising generally has about three seconds to communicate a message. Our approach was to teach people a nugget of the exhibition’s subject matter in an arresting and concise manner with a call to action to come in and learn more.
David Ogilvy wrote, “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”
This attitude was gospel to us. We didn’t want to be creative for the sake of being creative, we didn’t want novelties. We certainly didn’t want to play clever to the kind of media-savvy metropolitan audiences that would attend museums regardless.
We had clear objectives and targets. We took a forensic approach. Sometimes I thought it’d be appropriate to wear laboratory coats in the office.
Confronting people with our subject matter simply wouldn’t work. The tactics we chose were to sweeten the pill, taking the subject matter from obtuse and ironic angles, but nevertheless challenge the audiences we wanted to attract.
Let’s take an example — our campaign raising awareness of the conflict in Yemen in 2019 (tragically, this horrific war is still grinding on in 2022).
One of the tragedies of the civil war in Yemen, and most other conflicts, is that the cost of food and other essentials skyrocket. It was an important dimension of the conflict covered in a superb exhibition at IWM North in Manchester.
In Yemen, at least at the time of the exhibition, there was no major shortage of food, it was simply so expensive it was out of reach. Even in towns and cities unaffected by fighting, people were (are) suffering immensely for all the economic problems that civil war entails.
To teach people about this largely unknown but significant contributor of the tragedy in Yemen, we didn’t want to run adverts with pictures of suffering children. We didn’t want to compete with humanitarian charities, and we didn’t want to recycle that kind of imagery. People don’t visit museums as an act of compassion, they visit to learn something.
Instead, we ran a spoof supermarket price-war campaign — “Price (of) War” — with all the clichés that come with these adverts. We showed people just how much everyday items of food or drink would cost them if we applied Yemen levels of inflation. Box of eggs? £20. A takeaway coffee? £50.
We put an “unaffordable vending machine” in the middle of Manchester Piccadilly Station. It was full of cheap and sweet delights that we wouldn’t normally think twice about buying but at astonishing civil war prices. It made people stop and think.
The brilliant agency we worked with (Dog, Cat and Mouse) helped us realise this core idea across all media. Our Spotify audio ad had to be heard to be believed that it was an ad for a museum exhibition.
And so it was with other exhibitions. For the most part, the approaches, themes, and, ultimately, the ideas were generated by team members and based on solid research.
For our campaign for the museum’s brave and powerful exploration of the Syria conflict, we wanted to focus on Syria being the first “Post-Truth” conflict.
The media was flooded with information about the war, yet people felt bewildered and unsure of what or who to believe.
The “unique selling point” of the exhibition — apart from being a museum exhibition about a live conflict (an astounding achievement in itself) — was that the museum was an impartial forum and a platform for debate around Syria.
We sold the exhibition by turning the camera on the public itself and asking people in the street to tell us basic facts about the war. Most were either unable or unclear, despite the rolling news and social media coverage of the horrible events.
We pushed the relevance and pertinence of everything we had to market. For a campaign to advertise the new (and brilliant) Second World War Galleries in 2021, we produced adverts showing a diverse group of twenty-first century Londoners taking shelter in the London Underground as Londoners did, generations before them, during the Blitz.
To mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we took the museum to the public. Placing learning hubs in two major London train stations (thanks to Space and People, who donated the spaces to us), which included a life-size model of a Spitfire in London Bridge Station.
Even our unchanging and most “historical” offers were made relevant, even compelling. When Boris Johnson won a landslide election victory in 2019, we ran a front-page ad on the Evening Standard for our visitor attraction and museum, the Churchill War Rooms, right underneath the splash showing Johnson outside Number 10 Downing Street.
If you want to learn a thing or two about leadership — political or otherwise — try the War Rooms, where Winston Churchill and his war cabinet planned the allied fightback as bombers flew over their heads.
When we marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall in 2019 we wanted to educate people under 40 about the significance of an event that epitomised the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The comms, digital and marketing narrative was framed around an intervention on scrap sections of the wall, shipped from Berlin, by the street artists Stik and Thierry Noir (the first artist to paint on the Wall, famously appearing in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire).
By working with these artists, we spoke in the language of young people. We showed that at a time that walls were being built around the world to separate people — in New Mexico, and on the eastern frontiers of Europe — the wreckage of the Berlin Wall was an enduring symbol of hope and unity.
Again, we were trying to increase the public understanding of war and conflict in a way that was concise, relevant and relatable to contemporary life. We were telling the truth about what we had to offer, but making it interesting to the people we wanted to connect with.
There’s a military saying, “amateurs study tactics and professionals study logistics.”
“Logistics” are the fundamental thing to get right in marketing. We had solid project management (Scrum) in place, investment in skills — including a “library” of marketing theory books, a thrifty and conscientious culture, and efficient workflows and meeting structures.
It’s logistics like these — the supply lines of creativity and effectiveness — that helped us punch above our weight.
It goes without saying that I cannot — and will not — take the credit for all this. All this work was a product of a small, hardworking team and some of our partners in agencies and suppliers.
All these ideas — and the immense effort involved in realising them — bubbled up from individuals who were passionate about making marketing more than just selling, committed to a completely unique approach.
Marketing can often be seen as a service in a business, simply “raising awareness” for programmes. But the team at IWM were positioned at the spearhead of these programmes — actively changing public awareness of war and conflict.
So, did it work?
A lack of necessary technology made it impossible to demonstrate the incremental difference the marketing made (“incremental” here means the additional customers and revenue attributable to marketing alone).
But a number of factors pointed to a big difference. Museum surveys showed a changing make-up of audiences, wider public surveys showed changed attitudes to our brand.
Taking publicly available data of museum attendance figures (source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA)) shows IWM outperformed a number of high-profile non-art museums in the years since 2016.
We took a clutch of attractions and museums as an index and looked at performance since 2010 and 2016. We had fantastic results in comparative and absolute terms with bringing in adult audiences, both new and returning.
Of course, it’s difficult to separate this success from the appeal of the programming, and that’s the final point: our marketing operation was part of a holistic, root and branch effort that integrated programmes, education, PR and marketing.
We played a crucial role in the research and development, but we benefitted hugely from an experimental culture from the top down, an institutional willingness to engage in contemporary issues, and being able to avoid the stultifying bureaucracy you often find in big organisations.
Open, accountable and transparent museums tell our collective story. When they function as impartial platforms for debate and dialogue around that collective story as it evolves, their importance to democracy cannot be understated.
The Imperial War Museums show that our lives are enmeshed in history. History isn’t a series of events partitioned by time and geography, but a continuum that we all live through. There’s a seamless connection between our world and the world of the people who gaze out at us from black and white photographs in the collection.
Our world is a product of the decisions people made in previous generations — decisions to make war, or peace — and what we think about and do with those decisions. The mission was to make no judgements — impartiality is sacrosanct — but to increase understanding.
In Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Galleries you enter to the sound of the Polish countryside, the sound of bird calls and wind rushes in the swaying crops and copses of trees.
It’s in this countryside that ordinary people were led out to be shot in the first campaigns of mass murder. There are mangled shell casings of the execution squads’ bullets taken from the soil that grows wheat and vegetables. The land itself forgets, but people’s lives are profoundly shaped by these events. Communities are shaped by the scar tissue of history.
Our work was “the thin end of the wedge” — the start of the journey. It was the kindle of enlightenment — a moment of passing reflection in the cacophony of a commuter’s trip, or the upward swipe of the Twitter feed, or the ad break in the sitcom.
It is all for this. This moment. This lump in the throat as you gaze over the smiling faces of people who had no idea of the shadow fate had cast over them. People whose stories need to be told, so that we may understand.
The mission was simple. But profoundly important.
¹ But, of course, also some of the best human characteristics like courage and compassion.
² All major museums have audience development projects to help ensure their audience growth and diversity, usually through activities and programmes — including education and events. It just seems a shame that for most museums advertising is not a part of that. While thousands of people may walk into a museum, millions will see its advertising.