Guerrilla museum marketing, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum case

San Francisco, Jan 2013One of our terracotta warriors is lost in the Bay Area. We don’t know how, we don’t know where, but he’s out there and we need your help.

This is the intro of the press release that started off one of the most interesting non conventional marketing initiatives in the museums field, that has seen as protagonist the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. The initiative to get across was the “China’s terracotta warriors. The first emperor legacy” art exhibition, which gathered together several artefacts coming from the well known terra cotta army of imperator Qin Shihuang, brought back to light in 1974. In order to advertise the exhibition, the museum did not just only promote an off line and on line advertisement campaign, but it also started off a treasure hunt that reflected into the web with a strong buzz in all social networks.

The idea is to communicate the disappear of a warrior from the army, escaped from his travel companions towards the exhibition. It was made with press releases, taken from TV and newspapers, flyers on street posts, and in the museum social accounts. The museum then asked to people to signal where the sculpture was spotted. The sculpture was personified by an actor disguised as an army warrior. The signals could have been made into a museum web site page, designed in collaboration with Google Maps, that was allowing to share the spotting through comments and pictures on the main social networks (Facebook, Vine, Twitter, Instagram). The warrior was seen, on the exhibition inauguration day, nearby the museum by an erstwhile San Francisco homeless man, Moses Carbins, that guided him inside the foundation, where they were both greeted warmly with fanfare and excitement.

What are the initiative results? In addition to increased conventional local news coverage, web traffic to the museum’s site tripled and engagement increased across the museum’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Then the opening weekend attendance at the exhibition set a new record for the museum, exceeding the previous record by more than 60 percent.

This initiative was the latest result of a rebranding activity started in 2011 that switched the concept of communication of the museum cultural activities. The new Director of Communications and Business Development, Tim Hallman, has set as a goal the modernization of the foundation image, encouraging a creative approach that allows involvement and interaction with the audience. This eventually lead to invite the Pixar artists to skin the museum and blowing away the cobwebs of a building full of ancient decaying stuff by inviting contemporary Asian art.

This initiative is one example which proves the great opportunities that show up for cultural foundations in the usage of a creative approach towards marketing and communication activities.


Francesco Zanibellato




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