View from the C-Suite: Lori Davison on building the ROM’s POV

As the museum responds to cultural shifts, the marketer wants to build a brand that matches its new role in the world.


What is the role of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in the twenty-first century?

The storied institution, founded more than a century ago, is a national landmark museum, a field research institute and an “international leader in new discoveries.” Its strength lies in helping shape visitors’ understanding of the artistic, cultural and natural world around them.

Like most world-class museums, however, the ROM has traditionally articulated its purpose intellectually, says Lori Davison, chief marketing and communications officer. But the modern world is fundamentally more complex, and therefore the ROM requires a more emotionally engaging and dynamic voice.

“Museums’ long-standing strengths – their collections, destination buildings, original research, and scholarly authority – remain essential,” notes the ROM, in a document outlining its new ten-year strategic plan. “But alone, they are no longer enough.”

That’s where Davison comes in. As the ROM undertakes a years-long transformation, the former SickKids Foundation head marketer wants to change the tone in which it tackles the issues of the day, making it more of an active participant in cultural conversations, with a POV and a strong brand – as opposed to simply being a trusted observer.

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The ROM has ambitious plans in place for the next several years. What do you hope to accomplish with the brand? 

The overarching vision is to turn the museum into a more outward-facing institution. The brand will play a role in helping realize that vision on a number of different fronts.

One is to ignite greater voltage around the ROM at the level of the brand. There’s been a lot of effort and resources put into promoting exhibitions that we’ve hosted on more of a one-off basis, rather than promoting the institution overall. So putting more effort into dimensionalizing the brand and creating a stronger voice for it in the marketplace.

Bird_GalleryOur goal is also to become a lot more central to the cultural conversation. What that means is not just being thought of as an entity that documents the past, but also one that has a point of view on the present.

There are a number of topics around art and culture and nature – the intersecting disciplines of the ROM – that have a lot of relevance. [...] The ROM can have a credible voice on topics like [climate change] partly because of our deep knowledge, but also because museums are a trusted source of knowledge in an environment where that is lacking more and more every day.

There are also topics like racial justice, where history of art can teach us a lot of lessons about racial inequity and racial justice. We host exhibitions on topics like that in provocative ways – we’ve had exhibitions about the Holocaust – that invite critical thought on these issues. It’s about bringing people closer to our history, but also asking them to reflect on the present in the context of that history and to think about the future.

How do you strike a balance between inviting critical thought by being provocative and remaining a trusted, impartial source of information? Because even though something like climate change or racial justice should not be controversial, unfortunately it still is at times. 

The role of a museum is more to curate an experience that allows people to arrive at their own conclusion. It’s more about bringing in the artists, the scientists, the points of view or the cultural artifacts that tell a story. What we’re trying to do is to create an outcome from that experience for you, that makes you reflect differently on how you feel about climate change. It could be an exhibition about great whales.

We’re informing you about aspects of extinction or the struggles of whales that have to do with climate change. And then you come away with a new feeling of empathy for the whales, with a new feeling of accountability or personal responsibility around that topic. But we’re not preaching to you. We’re trying to illuminate something for you that you might not have thought of before.

How will you know if your efforts are paying off? 

We have the opportunity to do some benchmarking around general perceptions of the role of museums in the cultural conversation – to what degree are we and other museums thought of as passive participants? – and to get a good understanding of what our starting point is. Over time, as we find interesting and innovative ways to inject ourselves into those different conversations, we will watch how we can move the needle.

One thing that’s happening in the museum world that will help with this is the digitization of experiences – the degree to which the virtual museum can be pushed out to all corners of Ontario and beyond. That’s another way for us to extend our reach and help people start to see us as an entity that’s participating in the conversation, rather than just a place people come to learn.

Is it fair to assume the pandemic has accelerated the latter?  

The whole notion of the virtual museum is now coming to life in a way that was envisioned for quite a while, but has become a necessity [for the entire sector]. So I think we’re seeing – definitely at the ROM – an acceleration of some strategies that were already in development. It’s a whole new world for the sector at large.

ROM - First PeoplesAs part of the strategic plan, the ROM wants to revitalize its physical campus and engage more meaningfully with Indigenous communities. Will you be involved in those aspects of the plan? 

From where brand and communications intersect with those things, absolutely. There are leaders at the ROM who develop learning programs. But we work with them to promote those programs, to package them, to turn them into digital assets that can be shared more broadly.

In the case of Indigenous learning, we know there’s a huge gap in content for Ontario school teachers – there’s a real appetite for that information and that stream of learning, but also a real gap. For example, we’ve recently launched a virtual field trip, which is an opportunity for classrooms to interact with ROM educators – and Indigenous programming is central to that. We also have a program around Indigenous voices that we push out through social media and create Facebook Live events around. My team is connected to activating that subject matter and getting innovative about how we can get it into as many brains as possible, basically.

In addition to working with BT/A as AOR for individual exhibitions, last week the ROM appointed Broken Heart Love Affair as masterbrand AOR. What did BHLA bring to the pitch that impressed you? 

First of all, I want to mention that I recused myself from the process. I wasn’t on the panel that selected the agency. When we put out the RFP, a lot of agency partners stepped up, and I wanted to make sure it was an even process.

But I’m told they did an extraordinary job of demonstrating how their past experience on various other brands would be hugely relevant to what we are trying to get done. The selection panel came away with clarity around what could be accomplished for a brand like ours. It was a powerful presentation – they actually wrote a love letter to the ROM.

BHLA CCO Denise Rossetto has spoken about bringing a more emotional approach to the brand. What opportunity do you see in that regard? 

There’s a lot of love for the ROM in the city of Toronto. It’s one of those “love brands” for people who are really committed to the museum. But the way it expresses itself feels very intellectual in a lot of ways. I don’t think the other dimension of the brand has been articulated, or that we’ve made people feel that side of the story. The ROM is a very trusted, competent institution. But there’s a warmth and humanity that’s contained within it that hasn’t been expressed on a brand level yet. That definitely is the opportunity.

Gallery_of_the_Age_of_MammalsAre there any museums in the world that stand out to you as models of what can be accomplished in this space? 

To be honest, one of the things that attracted me to this role is that I don’t see that. That’s where this opportunity gets really exciting. There are great museums in the world, obviously. We look at the Tate Modern, Smithsonian and some of the great museums in Canada that have a beautiful visual identity, but there’s not necessarily a disruptive or memorable brand idea at the core of them. For me, [the opportunity is] wide open to be a brand that disrupts the sector in that way.

You’re expected to be at least partially involved in helping to curate some of the content put on by the museum. Has your vision for what makes an impactful museum experience been shaped by personal experience? 

There are two museum experiences in my life that were transformative. One was at the Tate Modern in London, going through the Damien Hirst exhibition, probably five or six years ago. The notion of interdisciplinary is really interesting to me, and that was the full-on extreme of that notion and the connection between art, nature and culture – there was a room full of live butterflies that had been there [since their] chrysalis [life stage that now flew] around the room landing in your hair. Just the scale and ambition of it was unbelievable to me, and all of the emotional resonance of it and the way it made you reflect on your own humanity. It was humbling. You came out feeling differently about your place in the world as a human being.

The other one was at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. That’s going back quite a ways, but that changed me forever. Those are just two examples of personal experience that helped me believe museums can actually change the way you think – permanently.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. 

Images courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.