A Conversation with Matthew Montgomery

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Matthew Montgomery
Chief Marketing Officer at The Trustees of Reservations

The Trustees of Reservations is a multi-disciplinary institution dedicated to conserving and preserving significant places of historic, natural, and cultural value in Massachusetts for the public’s use and enjoyment. As the CMO, Montgomery serves as the primary strategist for audience development, brand identity, marketing initiatives, visitor interpretation, and member acquisition.

Over the past two years, Montgomery and his team have shepherded the organization through an ambitious and extensive rebrand across 26,000 acres throughout 116 sites. We sat down with him recently and asked about the project and how rebrands for non-profits might differ from those in the private sector.

Give us a general idea about the rebrand, its expanse, and touch points.

The Trustees of Reservations as a brand had a great deal of equity. We were well-loved within the communities where our properties reside but otherwise, we were still Massachusetts’ best-kept secret. We were respected among our peer groups and we have a very loyal membership base. Since our core mission was to provide public access to our special places we felt we had a mandate to be better known as part of our core value of being welcoming to all. We weren’t approaching this as a total re-brand, although some of the core elements of our identity were on the table. We first wanted to maintain the equity we had while expanding our image and bringing our identity into the modern age. We are a complex organization with many businesses—campgrounds, inns, beaches, farms, retail operations, and many public programs. All of these revenue centers would be impacted by the branding effort and we needed to achieve the transition with little to no business disruption. 

Historically, there were some key moments that served as inspiration. First, I found in our archives this fantastic note from our founder Charles Eliot, who had redrawn the seal of the organization which adorned the letterhead. So from the very beginning, we were redesigning our logo and he understood intrinsically that the visual symbol of the organization was a key component of how the public would embrace our purpose of conservation, at that time, a new idea. Again in the 1950s, the organization removed the word “public” from its name and its stated reason was to boost membership subscriptions. So at another pivotal moment, the organization concerned with its identity understood the need for a clear brand in order to garner the support necessary to be financially sustainable and healthy. Most recently, the organization had worked with Mark Minelli, Minelli Inc., to create a true professional brand package for the first time in the organization’s history. It was completed around 2006. We ultimately decided to work with Mark again and he was incredibly thoughtful and creative and we felt that we maintained a real continuity to the work that he had started a decade earlier. 

What were the main goals of the rebrand? 

We had two main goals for the rebrand: to bring the organization into the digital age and to explore the confusion (and find a resolution) around our name. All of this was to be in service to increasing our reputation and expanding our recognition and ultimately building our impact by connecting more people to our mission. We also needed to launch the brand refresh the year before our 125th Anniversary celebration so that we could focus on making that anniversary year amazing and special. 

We knew we’d measure the results of the branding effort by visitation, program participation, and membership revenue. We achieved and eventually surpassed all of our goals. Membership has increased from $3.3 million to $4.6 million this fiscal year. Visitation has increased from 1.2 million to 1.7 million in 2016. While these numbers represent growth, more importantly, they represent the success of the rebrand.

What was your biggest lesson learned? 

There were so many lessons. We thought a good deal about the audience segments who are not currently engaged with the organization, especially millennials and younger people who have not grown up with the outdoors as a part of their lives. 

“If you’re talking to your stakeholders about
fonts, typefaces, or color palettes, then you’ve failed. Stop it.
You should be talking about
perception, reputation, and impact.”

In attempting to develop ways to communicate with those audiences, we thought about how they behave, what they value, and how they make decisions. Design is everywhere in our lives and today, anyone and everyone is curating a piece of their life in some key ways. The sophistication level of the average person is elevated to a height that is far beyond what it used to be and we as professionals need to embrace that and not eschew this notion. That is not to say that just anyone can do our jobs. They cannot. Our work is harder than ever. But today, someone—say a teenager—who has spent a great deal of time consuming and observing design on their skateboard, in their phone, on their sneakers, or on their video game console has a refined sense of what good design looks and acts like. Often, the taste level of design of the average millennial is at a super high level and we should celebrate that and consider it an asset and use it in our communication channels. 

Did you receive much pushback from your stakeholders? How did you build or how are you building consensus? 

I think the pushback was to be expected, not more than normal and not highly unusual. We are a somewhat traditional organization and our properties are mainly situated in communities that are often in historic towns or villages and therefore somewhat traditional in their aesthetics. We expected some feedback.

That it is our responsibility as marketing professionals to help our stakeholders get to the same place that we do and at the same time. We have a responsibility to make the process transparent, accessible, and understood while also accepting that not everyone will be on board.

One of the most important things we did was to talk to our stakeholders early in the process and to keep communication open. We did individual interviews with some governance members and one of the things we heard over and over again was that the organization is not well known enough. So when we presented this feedback along with other data, we had an easy conversation about needing to build our brand first in order to grow our reputation. 

For example, you really have to talk about it. Admit the challenges, own the responsibility but be strong in your conviction. And focus on the high-level impact. If you’re talking to your stakeholders about fonts, typefaces, or color palettes, then you’ve failed. Stop it. You should be talking about perception, reputation, and impact. 

What’s next?

We are in a two-year process of installing new signage on all 116 sites. In the first year, we redesigned all print and digital collateral including our magazine, website, social media, trail maps, rack cards, uniforms, and business stationery. We also launched a brand-specific advertising campaign. This year, we created a four-color palette for signage and have been systematically implementing it. Some sites might have as many as 2,000 signs while smaller ones might have only 20 or 30 but it takes a huge amount of time to complete the design and installation. If you live in Boston, you might have seen the signs on the 65 community gardens that are part of our network in the Boston Region. 

Next, we want to review our digital platforms with greater scrutiny and look for ways to improve the visitor experience online and on mobile so that our visitors will have the best and most robust experience possible when visiting or attending a program. 

About the Trustees 

The Trustees protects and shares 116 special places across the Commonwealth. These places range from working farms; historic houses, estates, and gardens; beaches, recreational destinations, woodlands, parks, community gardens to islands.  The places are showcased through thousands of programs throughout the year. Find out more at www.thetrustees.org or @TheTrustees on Twitter.

About Matthew Montgomery 

Under his leadership as CMO of The Trustees, visitation has grown from 1.2 to 1.7 million annual visitors; membership has grown from $3.3 million to $4.6 million in revenue and to more than 56,000 households. Prior to coming to The Trustees, Matt was the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and oversaw the public relations and marketing initiatives for the opening of their Renzo Piano addition and brought attendance to record levels. Matt has also worked in Marketing at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Atlanta College of Art; and Emory University. Matt received his BA in English from the University of Georgia and his MA in English and American Literature from Georgia State University.

Spencer Brenneman, LLC
Copyright 2017

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