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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > November/December 2013

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 27 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2013
How to Prove a Library’s Relevance: MCPL’s Brilliant Brand Strategy
by Jim Staley
Now Mid-Continent calls its library cards “access passes.”
Staff members sported their new T-shirts during their brand training.
People love libraries. Public libraries enjoy a level of support unmatched by most other institutions, public or private. Writers say nice things about us, and ALA stats say that the average U.S. citizen uses us more than five times per year ( Here at Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL;, things are no different.

Mid-Continent Public Library is located squarely in the middle of the U.S., in metropolitan Kansas City, Mo. The 770,000 residents of our library district stretch from urban areas of Kansas City proper to small communities that are the very definition of rural. Within our 1,349 sq. mi., we have 30 traditional libraries, four automated library locations, and the Midwest Genealogy Center. Each of these sites experienced record use at the end of the last decade, but still our board and staff regularly fielded the question, “Are people still going to use libraries?” To answer that, we needed to first assess why these doubts about the future were so prevalent at a time when our usage was soaring.

The now-famous 2010 OCLC study, “Perceptions of Libraries” (, provided us with some context for the concerns of our stakeholders. The study showed that the word most associated with libraries was “books.” In fact, 75% of all respondents said that books were the thing they thought of first when they thought of libraries. In an age in which Google and Wikipedia are primary research sources for many and Amazon sells more ebooks than physical books, it is little wonder that our stakeholders would worry about the decline of an institution they primarily associate with paper books.

We surveyed our customers in spring 2012 to assess whether the OCLC study’s findings would ring true in our district as well. Among the 25,000 respondents, 65% agreed that “books” was the word they would most closely associate with the library. Focus groups of community leaders took it a step further, informing us that they consider the library a great community resource, but it would be even more valuable if people recognized and understood the vastness of resources available.

Faced with all of this information, MCPL’s administrative team sat down to discuss the perception of our institution in the minds of our public and the need to change that perception to remain relevant. To do this, we began with that most difficult of questions: “Who are we, really?”

Getting From ‘Books’ to ‘Access’

As we talked about everything, such as what we offer today, organizational history, and general library philosophy, the word “access” came up over and over again. Through the conversation, we began to look at access as the lens through which our value becomes most clear. It was also the idea that tied all of the library’s varied offerings together and was the subconscious reason for most system decisions through the years (including the partnership that started MCPL).

The idea of access also seemed to go beyond the library walls and resonate in our broader culture. In an era of digital divides and growing income inequality, we felt that libraries’ mission of access for all was a powerful value statement.



Community members
Libraries aren’t just books.
The library has services that will improve your life.
We have more to offer you.
Community leaders
The library remains as relevant as ever.

In spring 2012, informal testing with staff and patrons yielded positive reactions to the idea that our library brand should revolve around “access.” The next task, then, was to turn the idea into a brand message. We had previously determined that our brand message needed four major attributes: It had to be clear, focused, flexible, and sustainable. In addition, it needed to be able to communicate with multiple groups of stakeholders. We developed a chart that explained each stakeholder group and the message we needed to communicate to that group via our brand.

A final major goal was to have our brand identity really pervade our institutional culture, not just be dismissed as an advertising campaign. In pursuit of that goal, we made two major decisions. The first was that we would not change our logo. This decision may seem puzzling because we were attempting to move our brand image away from “books,” and our logo is an open book. So why not change it? We believe that branding campaigns too often begin and end with the development of a new logo. For us to attempt to alter organizational perception and culture, we needed to be sure that the rebranding would be seen as an alteration of our focus and identity and not just of our logo. And with our belief that this wasn’t truly a new direction for MCPL, but a conscious claim on our historical identity, we wanted internal stakeholders to avoid the idea that a new logo meant that we wanted to be something different.

The second decision we made to try to fully infuse the concept of access was to replace the traditional tagline with a layered tag message. This decision was rooted primarily in the need to communicate with various stakeholder groups and in the nature of the services and products we offer.

The layered tag message does start with a base message that looks very much like a standard tagline. The base message is “Access Your World.” This statement does three important things: It communicates the essence of the brand, it implies broad offerings, and it is a call to action. This version of the tag message is used in all general communications about the library.

Most library communications, however, don’t carry the “Access Your World” statement. Instead, they carry a secondary version of the message that is intended to combine the Access brand with specific benefits of the subject of that particular communication.



General library document
Access Your World
Signage about book clubs Access Community
Flier about job search help Access Opportunity
Video about kids’ reading program
Access Literacy

When we produce a communication piece that talks about book clubs, the Access statement is “Access Community.” In any case possible, we try to convey the benefit of the service (Here, it’s “community.”) instead of simply restating the service (book clubs).

The construction of the layered message is meant to both build the association of the library with Access and to expand the consumer’s knowledge of what is there for him or her to access. Visually, this is accomplished by consistently rendering “Access” in black or white and then rendering the rest of the statement in a variety of colors. Above are some examples of how we use the layered Access brand.

Achieving Organizational Change

There are no more-important brand ambassadors for any organization than its staff members. At MCPL, we believed that getting staff immersed in the brand was the first step toward a successful branding effort. To that end, one of the first things we did as we rolled out Access was to give a half-day training session we called “Accessability” (a word play on the ability to provide access). This interactive session in May explained the ideas behind the brand, celebrated the organizational culture around access, and explained the power that each staff member had as an advocate for the library and the brand.

All staffers received their own T-shirt that bestowed upon them the title of “Access Specialist.” In the time since the launch, we have actually begun the process of retitling all of our frontline staff positions as access specialists.

Staff reaction to the brand has been very positive. Many employees have talked about the pride they feel from being providers of access to their communities. The board of trustees has also embraced the new brand. MCPL’s board president regularly asks the question, “Does this improve access?”

At the end of 2012, MCPL went through a strategic planning process, and the brand took center stage. Our mission statement became a crystallization of the brand concept. It now reads, “Mid-Continent Public Library’s mission is to enrich our citizens and communities through expanding access to innovation, information, ideas, and inspiration.”

Taking Access to Our Customers

Putting the brand front and center through our communication and marketing efforts was our next challenge. As we worked on a plan to communicate with customers that May, we determined that we needed to not only include the new brand message, but to make more fundamental changes to our promotional efforts to reflect the brand. We thought about our general aesthetic and determined that being accessible meant having more simple and open designs with ample white space. We also thought about the products themselves and whether they supported the brand in concept. I’ll detail a few of the changes we made:

Access Passes: There may not be any library item more associated with the “books” brand than the library card. The cards are revered by librarians and customers alike, but they also represent an ability to leave the library with a stack of books. We all know that our cards offer much more. That is why we began calling our library cards Access Passes. A library card may allow you to check out books, but an Access Pass allows you to tap into the vast resources and knowledge available in many forms at your library.

Access Guides: We redesigned our live programming guides and called them Access Guides. These pieces

conformed to our new accessible-design aesthetic and incorporated the brand message. Perhaps more importantly, we developed a new model for our guides that grouped nearby branches in recognition of the fact that our customers tend to access more than one library.

Digital Efforts: A major element of our rebranding effort was thinking about how the concept of access could work in our online efforts. We updated our digital branch and app with the visual branding and also incorporated the idea that being more accessible meant more interaction with customers. In addition, we made a concerted effort to get the most-used resources into visible locations. We also amped up our social media efforts. Our goal became to encourage as much interaction as possible on our pages, and the Likes on Facebook skyrocketed as a result.

Advertising Campaign: The one piece of this process that incurred significant cost was the advertising campaign, which was intended to carry the Access message beyond our walls. Because we were talking to people who had much less familiarity with the library, we focused the campaign on the ability to access services that would make someone say, “Wow, I didn’t know the library did that!” Among the products we featured in the ad campaign were ebooks, homework help, downloadable music, and job search resources.

We then set out to create as many impressions as possible in our community. To accomplish that goal, we developed a multichannel campaign that was aided by donated and reduced-cost media from local companies. The campaign, which ran from August through December, included the following:

  • Billboards
  • Online ads
  • Television
  • Radio
  • Newspapers (print)
  • Magazines (print)
  • Online video pre-roll

Each type of media carried a mix of messages that was appropriate for that audience. For instance, ads to promote our free music downloads ran as “pre-roll” (paid messages that run before a selected service begins) spots on local streaming radio, so people saw them as they waited for their chosen radio stream to start. Every medium carried at least two different messages to consistently enforce the idea that there are multiple resources people can access. The overall media mix allowed us to garner more than 15 million impressions. That means reaching members of our community an average of 20 times each. (This, of course, didn’t even count the impressions our current customers get through their interactions with the library.)

How did we pay for all of that? The MCPL board was excited enough about the brand to dedicate a special marketing budget of $75,000 specifically for it, which we spent on media and printing. We leveraged that budget with our local media partners to get $19,200 worth of free exposure as well. (In addition, we estimate that our staff spent $70,000 worth of time on it.)

Tracking usage numbers for the products we featured in the ad campaign proved that people paid attention. During the period ebooks were advertised, their circulation went up 191%. Use of online job resources grew by 48%. Online tutoring sessions grew by 37%. Enrollment in online classes grew by 23%. And downloadable music usage grew by 227%!

Where We Are Today

As I write this in October 2013, it has been about 10 months since the end of the initial major push for the campaign. The brand has begun to settle in as a regular part of life for everyone around the system. Staff members talk about becoming aware of how many times they use the word “access” in the course of their daily work. Our customers tell us they like our Access Passes, but we still have some work to do in educating them on all the library has to offer. And we were honored that our library colleagues believed in the campaign enough to make it a 2013 John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award winner (!

We are about to begin another advertising push that features the brand. This time, we will shift the focus slightly from “wow” products to initiatives that fit our new strategic plan. We will also reduce our media mix a bit to use our most effective channels more frequently.

All in all, we can say that the branding experiment was a success. However, this brand was built specifically to work in an ever-changing library landscape. That landscape hasn’t stopped shifting, so we must continue to redefine what “access” means to our customers and our community.

Jim Staley is the marketing and communications director at Mid-Continent Public Library in Kansas City, Mo. He holds a master’s of public administration degree from the University of Missouri–Kansas City and a B.A. in communications from Drury University in Springfield, Mo. Staley was the rebranding process leader for MCPL and serves as a member of the senior administrative team. His email address is
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