I have continued discussions with my team about Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. It ties into another of my favorite books, The Cycle, by Michael M. Kaiser. I mentioned The Cycle in an earlier blog post. A central theme for Kaiser is the idea of institutional marketing, a distinct concept from what we normally think of when we use the word “marketing.”

When we think about marketing, we usually think about what Kaiser calls programmatic marketing, the transactional pitch to come to an event, or buy a ticket, or log on to an online program. While Kaiser admits programmatic marketing is critical, he chooses to focus instead on institutional marketing, the hallmark of his cycle.

Too few arts organizations produce work year-round, and even fewer can make each presentation a cause célèbre. As a result, arts organizations need to create excitement beyond the programming itself. They need to make major announcements, mount high-profile galas, participate in major political and civic events, pursue aggressive public relations campaigns, and develop joint ventures with other visible institutions. I call this activity institutional marketing, distinguishing it from the programmatic marketing needed to attract earned income from ticket buyers, students, diners, shoppers, etc.

The Cycle, Michael M. Kaiser, p. 47

This notion of institutional marketing has been top-of-mind for me lately as we approach fuller operations in the library after the passing of the pandemic. While the library as an institution may be forced to focus its priorities, I think that there are tremendous opportunities for library operations moving forward. One of those opportunities is in how the library plans its programs; another is how it forms its partnerships with community organizations. Everything should be built to market the library and its services to the community.

As we are reading Start With Why, some principles really jump off the page. A lot of what Sinek discusses in the earlier parts of the book has to do with an organization’s values (its WHY), and how an organization, when embodying those values, can connect with its target audience. The key is authenticity. You can’t fake authenticity; you have to live it. And the core of Sinek’s message is that the base-level connection with an organization is a form of marketing. But the marketing must be centered on the core values at the heart of the organizational mission. The stronger the WHY, and the clearer the relationship between it and how the organization acts, the better a chance that the organization can connect with people and create loyalty in them.

Libraries have a powerful WHY, a set of values that could be embodied and acted upon by the library as an organization. It’s key that libraries operate and make decisions based on their fundamental values, and avoid mission creep whenever possible. The post-COVID reality presents some opportunities for libraries to focus on what they do best, the things where libraries are most authentically themselves. There’s room for tremendous creativity in how libraries go about providing their services, even in this context. But what’s important is that the WHY of the library can shine through in how it goes about fulfilling its mission.

I think it’s tremendously important that libraries take lessons from both of these concepts (institutional marketing and embodying their WHY) and blend them into how they operate. It won’t be easy. It means being clear about our values and mission, and that’s something difficult for organizations that haven’t traditionally had to clearly articulate positive values beyond pointing to the things they already do. It also means aligning our actions with our values in a rigorous way. If we claim to espouse accessibility, we should be a wholly accessible organization, inside and out. If we claim to value equity, we need to ensure we are operating an equitable organization. Then we need to market our libraries thoroughly: through partnerships and programs and initiatives in alignment with our values.

Libraries generally have a very strong WHY. With clarity and a sense of purpose, and a strategy for institutional marketing, there’s nearly limitless opportunity to position the library a the hub of its community. The pieces are all there, and I’m hopeful that libraries can capitalize on their values in the very near future.