The way to steadily attract Chinese visitors to a museum might be less about the exhibitions or educational opportunities and more about branding in a more traditional consumer sense. This may seem like a strange turn for institutions that are often focused exclusively on high-culture offerings, but you only have to look to Chinese museums to realize how important this can be.

In July, the world-renowned British Museum opened up its first Chinese e-commerce channel on Alibaba’s Tmall. Within a month, the museum had pulled in $146,000 in sales via Tmall, and outlet that is more heavily fashion-focused than other major Chinese e-commerce sites. It may seem like a strange strategy for a museum, but it’s actually standard practice for Chinese museums, who have proven to have wildly popular products on these sites.

Chinese museums have been incredibly successful at creating brands, and spurring sales, on China’s top e-commerce sites

One example is the Palace Museum in Beijing, China’s premier history museum, which has been able to drive sales through an unusual fashion crossover. Chinese netizens have taken to the practice of using tapes with historic Chinese patterns on their lipstick cases, with DIY guides on using the tapes for this purpose incredibly popular among influencers and standard internet users alike.

british museum tmall

The British Museum store on Tmall

It may seem like a chance crossover, unlikely to be reproduced. In fact, the Palace Museum has a surprisingly robust fashion brand image in China, with official branded Palace Museum accessories strong sellers on Chinese e-commerce platforms like Tmall. The museum, much like the British Museum, has its very own Tmall outlet. The Shanghai Museum has similarly been able to brand itself as a fashion trendsetter on the platform.

Revenue is an obvious benefit from this kind of presence. But also can establish why Chinese millennial and Gen Z consumers may actually enjoy museums, when they’re understood as something more than “stuffy” centers of academic learning. There is, in fact, an appeal to style and culture that these consumers may not have previously realized was there. The presence that museums on these platforms doesn’t simply drive product sales, it can, in turn, drive visitation when these consumers travel abroad.

shanghai museum taobao store

The Shanghai Museum’s Taobao store

So the key question is: how do museums in Europe and North America fully harness this opportunity? Well, an obvious choice is expanding the sales of souvenirs at physical museum locations to online platforms in China. Many of the top American museums, for example, still don’t have much of a presence on U.S. e-commerce platforms, let alone Chinese platforms. Other museums, like the Louvre, have travel and tour products available, but no physical souvenirs. Still, given the strong track record this strategy has had in China, it would be a pragmatic move in helping to establish an interest among Chinese consumers to physically go to galleries and exhibitions.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Weibo account has just over 40,000 followers

The next obvious choice is the development of a robust social media presence in China. On this front, museums have done a pretty good job overall. The Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, both already have accounts on Weibo, China’s top micro-blogging site, and WeChat, China’s biggest social media and messaging platform. The Smithsonian’s Weibo account has just over 1,000 followers, but the Met’s has just over 40,000. The visual, art-oriented nature of the Met obviously gives it an edge over the science and history offerings at the Smithsonian. Unsurprisingly, images of some of the world’s best pieces of art are easier to consumer on social media platforms. Still, having a presence on Chinese social media, even if it is relatively small, can go a long way in boosting a museum’s profile.

The MET weibo

The Met has attracted a larger following than The Smithsonian on Chinese social media. Screenshot of The Met’s official Weibo account

In fact, where the Smithsonian has really thrived in the United States has been its ability to create and publish compelling text and video content for the American audience. The Smithsonian Magazine is one of the best publications for all things history and science, and the Smithsonian’s channel on YouTube has 1.5 million subscribers. WeChat, unlike Weibo, is perhaps a better platform for an institution like the Smithsonian because it allows for longer text posts that can take the form of full-fledged articles, something that the Smithsonian already has achieved success in.

Regardless, both of these kinds of formats can go a long way to establish a real brand for a museum and bring high-culture content to regular consumers in China. Given that both of these museums are already major stops for Chinese tourists in New York and Washington, D.C., having an account that can be followed on some of China’s top digital platforms can help enlarge their presence in China and drive even more visits even after tourists go home.

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Museums & Exhibitions