Branding Unbecoming: The Metropolitan Museum of Art is Making a Mistake
Karen Schnelwar, Head of Strategy, Pearlfisher New York
Museums are sacred places. They showcase and celebrate our culture, the established and the emerging. We go there to see things and to feel things. In our virtual world, they’re among the last bastions of tangibility, civility and reflection.
Museums are also brands, and in this day and age they must be brand savvy.
With its new brand new identity—currently shared as a core logo, soon to be released as a full identity system on March 1st—the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on the verge of making a major mistake.
The new logo is, in a word, unbecoming.
Of all the museums, in all the cities, in all the world, the The Metropolitan Museum of Art shines. It sits gracefully and graciously on Fifth Avenue, housing a vast, spectacular and encyclopedic collection. It’s prestigious, but not pretentious; it’s elevated, but not arrogant; it’s accessible but not common. It welcomes the world, but it’s a New Yorker’s neighbor and friend. For this New Yorker, it’s home almost every weekend.
The Met’s current brand identity has been in use since the early 1970s, but it shows no sign of age or fatigue. Its core mark is iconic, elegant, and storied; it’s based on a sketch from the museum’s collection by an associate of Leonardo DaVinci. The core mark is beautiful and interesting, a study in typography, art, and architecture. The corresponding visual system is brilliant; clean typography wraps cleverly around corners, and, at will, can highlight “The Met” from within its longer, more formal name. The identity is timeless and elegant, inviting and inclusive—just like the brand, just like the museum.
In sharp contrast, the new brand identity is unfit, unpleasing and uncomfortable.
It dispenses with formality, doing away with “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” and simply—simplistically—stating: The Met. No doubt this is the institution’s go-to nickname, but that is not how you sign your checks or register to vote. It’s a forced casualness that is drastically off-brand, no doubt a populist way to seem more “inviting” and “attract Millennial audiences” and probably, sadly, to seem cool. It fails. (It also invites confusion with The Metropolitan Opera, whose ingenious new identity solves their version of the naming dilemma with characteristic wit and elegance.)
The Met’s new typography is highly problematic. Why squish letterforms in a museum known for its extensive collections and gracious spaces? At its most populated, the museum seldom feels crowded. At its loudest, voices dissolve into the stratosphere of its lovely tall ceilings, and quiet to an almost sacred hush.
Why force ligatures, and why create so many of them? Both of the three letter words—THE MET—share two similar characters, and yet there is no attempt at harmony or symmetry. The mark is not simple, but the result is simply unpleasant.
A brand is, of course, more than a logo, but a logo must work as hard as possible to represent the brand. It’s a brand’s first “hello” to the world, and it should say something appropriately reflective. What on earth is this trying to say? Yo, what’s up? It’s glib.
No doubt, time marches on, and not everything can or should stay the same. And this is an important time of change for the Met, as the museum moves a chunk of its modern and contemporary collections to the iconic Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, the Brutalist (but lovable) former home of the Whitney. That entity will soon be christened the Met Breuer, a smart move and a lovely branding decision. And what about the Cloisters, the member of the museum family, the dignified neighbor to the north? Arguably, this new informal identity feels beneath that important member of the portfolio when it’s likely to live above it as a brand.
So at this important and interesting time, does this new logo really reflect what the museum wants to say about itself as a whole? Is this the face it wants to project to the world? As a potential alternative, perhaps the Met Breuer can have an identity that flexes more modern but feels familial, while The Metropolitan Museum of Art can retain what has been working so beautifully for so long.
In branding projects, it’s about the journey and the destination—taking stakeholders along with you as you make recommendations. In this case, somewhere along the way they lost sight of what their brand is all about, and they created something unfit for service.
In this vein, successful branding efforts must take all audiences along with them, not take a loved brand away. Sadly this does the latter.
The museum issued a statement that criticism is inevitable because change is difficult, but in this case there’s criticism because it’s the wrong change. Many New York museums have changed their identities in recent years—The Whitney, The Jewish Museum, to name just a few—and those were met largely with much-deserved praise.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art will always shine, and its collection and experience will always take your breath away. Going forward, it will be doing this in spite of its unbecoming new brand identity.
Originally published by Ad Age.