The Mistaken Museum: human branding and embracing our flaws


What do museums do when they make a mistake? How about when they’re criticized?  I’m not just referring to the small, quiet mistakes that few notice but the big, publicly seen, socially awkward, potentially really damaging ones too.

chipotlecomp2Many for-profit, big business companies have picked up on the human brands trend, recognizing the importance of a less polished, more real personality. Consumers are demonstrating that they don’t expect perfection from brands, but they do expect (and embrace) grace under fire, humbleness, and honesty. Insistence on more human qualities in brands appears to be fed by the raw honesty and immediacy available through online culture. There’s transparency there. Even if brands don’t willingly expose their flaws, they’re likely to be found out anyway. (Think about the seemingly endless array of reviews, leaks, and ratings.)

Just 1 in 4 consumers think companies are working hard to solve the social and environmental challenges of our times, while 4 out of 5 expect companies to be actively involved in promoting individual and collective wellbeing (Havas Media, November 2011).

Museums have an opportunity here, with many of our missions and values linked precisely to what consumers seek but rarely find.

So here’s a thought for our field…

Flawlessness is an illusion. It’s time to be vulnerable.

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of risk-taking and innovation in museums. Maybe the biggest risk we can take and the most innovative thing we can do is to become more honest– with our audiences and ourselves.

Our visitors (and our non-visitors) are smart and savvy consumers. 68% trust reviews more when they see both good and bad scores, while 30% suspect censorship or faked reviews if their aren’t any negative comments or reviews (, January 2012). What’s more, shoppers who seek bad reviews convert 67% more than the average consumer (, January 2012).

Springwise recently did a trendbriefing on this idea, termed “flawsome.” Sure, the term is absolutely cringe-worthy, but strengthening genuine connections between consumers and brands has real implications for museums.

Online reviews and the real-time feedback offered through social networks have provided us with a new (and incredibly usable) data source. It’s like we get to be in our visitors’ (our members’, our communities’) heads. They’re inviting us into their lives in really amazing, personal ways. It’s up to us to be good guests.

Instead of fearing feedback, we can listen, respond, and integrate.

Why not:

-have a running feed on your website (or on your museum floor) of what people are saying about you on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and TripAdvisor?

-designate “tweet seats” during programs and events?

-embrace and even play up negative comments, stereotypes, and dislikes?

-encourage unedited public comments onsite and online?

reward your patrons for their honest feedback, even if it’s less than glowing?

If (and almost assuredly when) our public calls us out about something we’ve done wrong or could have done better, we can own it and handle it with transparency, dignity, and humility. In fact, there are even creative ways to convert fails and flaws to respect, visits, and loyalty.

“Flawesomeness,” though definitely a trend, appears to have quickly become an essential standard for brand success.

How will you embrace your flaws (and expose your museum)?


3 Responses to “The Mistaken Museum: human branding and embracing our flaws”

  1. josh joseph

    Terrific blog and appreciate the many links to the trendbriefing, among others. May seem like a bit of semantics, but also think there’s much more opportunity for people to open up and engage in conversations about “mistakes” versus “failures.” The latter has been trendy but is probably limited…it’s one thing to be vulnerable, but failing (unfortunately) often carries a lot more baggage. Cheers, josh

    • Kathleen Tinworth

      Thanks for reading Josh. I couldn’t agree more with your distinction between mistakes and failures! Well put. I’d love an example from your work (or someone else’s) where a conversation about mistakes led to something innovative or new. Thanks again!

  2. Gwen

    It’s okay to make mistakes, at least the museums are trying their best to correct it. I still love going to museums.


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