19th March 2018

Brand perception in the culture sector

Andrew Larking
Creative Director

Smarter Cultural Journeys is a four month research project we recently completed, exploring how the arts and culture sector uses technology to engage with their audiences.

It has been one of the most interesting and insightful times in my agency career, and I'd like to thank everyone involved. From Innovate UK, who funded the study, to our internal design and delivery teams, and of course to everyone in the sector who gave us their time and shared their experiences and opinions.


This sector is vast and has undefined borders. For the purposes of keeping the scope manageable, we focussed on museums, galleries, and theatre. We also have prior experience in this specific area, working with clients such as Imperial War Museums, National Army Museum and Royal Collection Trust.

In this blog post I’m covering what we learned during the research project and our final recommendations.

I’ve published two blog posts on the study so far – the first explaining the reasons behind the study, and the second covering our research methodologies and findings. This final post will focus on the tech and the reason we chose virtual reality (VR).

Brand perception.

One of the more controversial findings from our research was that this sector has a brand perception issue. I want to explain what we mean by this.

We live in an experience economy. Younger people especially are turning away from materialism in favour of live events and experiences. With the advent and immediacy of social sharing, fear of missing out is now so prevalent it has its own acronym. In-person experiences offer deeper fulfilment than spending the same amount of money on acquiring more possessions.

A recent report showed that 37% of gallery visitors did not consider their visit cultural. It seems ‘culture’ as a descriptor is losing its meaning. But is it important if people don't see something as a cultural experience, as long as they think it's a great experience? Yes, if you’re positioning your offer as cultural and people don’t understand what that means.

The same study showed that 81% of visitors to cultural organisations were there to have fun. To be honest I'm surprised the number was that low, and I think in reality the grouping of the answers was probably a little macroscopic. Can we not have fun whilst also learning something new?

The majority of the people from the sector we interviewed understood this, and said they are actively looking for new ways to speak to and engage audiences. But for now the way they talk about themselves is misaligned with how much of their audience describes their own wants.

If you describe your gallery as the world's leading collection of 17th century art, you’re missing an opportunity to talk about the experiences it offers. The works of the art as objects are not the draw, so much as the stories each one tells. Likewise an exhibition in a museum has a narrative that can be shocking, revealing or emotional. This is what your messaging needs to convey.

The feedback from the 1,435 school age children we surveyed revealed that they feel the arts and culture sector is “not for people like me". We believe this stems from a skewed perception of what the sector is and what it has to offer.

This brings us to technology. The brief we arrived at from the research was that any useful technology needed to attract a larger and more diverse audience, not just provide a better experience for people who are already engaged.

The technology also had to showcase the experiences on offer in a novel way, and bring them to wherever people feel most comfortable, for instance their own homes.

360 Video.

We began by testing 360 video. We created a set of experiences which allowed us to test an edited, story driven approach versus a free flowing experience. We tested having the camera still, having it move, having it locked to one location for the entire film, and moving it from spot to spot. We then tested the experiences with a group of 25 people.

The findings were interesting, and contradicted what others had found. Our audience told us that while they found 360 video an interesting idea at first, it quickly lost its appeal. We heard comments like:

  • It’s lower quality than a typical YouTube video.
  • Clicking and dragging to change the frame is fun at the start, but people quickly lost interest and wanted the film to self focus on the main areas of interest.
  • Where points of interest were in several places in the scene, people experienced a fear of missing out.

We did find that for some pieces of content that had a single point of focus (such as an individual being interviewed), a locked off camera, and the opportunity to explore the scene in the order you wish, participants were more likely to enjoy the experience. This was backed up by the Tate’s experience of their recent collaboration with Facebook.

But, while 360 video has potential, it didn't take us as far as we wanted to go.

Virtual reality (VR).

Virtual reality seemed the logical next choice. It's new enough that it's still exciting, it immerses people in experiences, and when targeted at people's mobile phones it's cheap and easy for customers to engage with.

VR is also becoming a proven technology in the sector. The Tate, the V&A, the Science Museum, and the Philharmonia Orchestra have created and tested VR experiences with positive results. These experiences have demonstrated that people are excited by VR and, more importantly, that it makes people feel more confident to engage in the cultural institution’s wider offer.

What we needed to understand was if we could repeat this success with audiences who have expressed disinterest in the sector, and with people who are not on a day trip and therefore already engaged.

We experimented with a range of game engines and existing open source VR frameworks. We produced a variety of experiences, from standing in a historic spot (e.g. old New York) to standing next to a key object from a national museum (e.g. the V2 rocket).

We settled with Unity as the game engine because it has an active community, an appropriate licensing model, and it allows easy publishing across iOS and Android platforms – our two key targets.

What did we learn?

Creating compelling VR content is hard! It's not so much the creation of the assets (i.e. the 3D models, the textures, the sound files) but the small technical requirements related to texture compression, efficient use of memory, and the differences between the operating systems.

We also learned that there is no common design language for VR, as it's too young in terms of mainstream use. There are no foundations to build off, unlike the web, and so everything has to be made and thought about from scratch.

The combination of very complex technology and no common starting point means that creating VR experiences is very expensive right now, and while this is less of a problem for national museums, VR is almost entirely out of reach for smaller museums and galleries.

Testing the prototype.

Once again we went back to our 25 person strong test team, spread across five schools, to test the prototype.

We showed them a VR experience running on both an iPhone X and an iPhone 6, using inexpensive VRBox headsets. The experience showed them a V2 rocket sitting on a launch platform in situ, in a European style forest. It had an oral history sound file of a V2 survivor from London, and it contained a wall of images of the V2 being built and flown, and the devastation it brought.

We tested on 25 people who had shown minimal interest in visiting a museum during the initial survey. Every student finished the experience, and 92% expressed an interest in seeing the object for real at the museum.

When the headset was on you could see them listening to the words of a survivor and responding with physical movement, such as looking at specific areas of the rocket or the scene. This is something that without VR a control group showed little interest in - the audio file to them was boring, irrelevant, and in no way linked to anything recognisable in their own lives.

VR bought the testimony to life and it gave the children enough information to begin taking about the V2, the blitz, and the war.

Open sourcing our solution.

Our experiments outside of the museum walls matched the findings of experiments taking place within museum walls. And although our test pool was limited, the reactions were strong enough and the conversion rates high enough for us to conclude that VR technology does offer this sector an amazing set of opportunities to engage with wider audiences, in spaces they feel most comfortable, using a technology that is cheap and easy to access.

Your challenge is producing the content, especially if your budgets are limited. This is why Deeson has decided to give away our VR code for free. We hope that by democratising the technology, people will grab the reins and begin to create amazing experiences that show everyone that this sector is for them.

Complete your details below for a direct download link as soon as the starter kit is released.

Download the VR starter kit.

Complete your details below for a direct download link to our VR starter kit, which has everything you need to start creating VR experiences.

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