guts logo | Brand Strategy Agency
5th September 2023
Marketers Changing The World: Mona
Kara Sullivan
Written by:
Kara Sullivan

Marketers Changing The World: Daniel Aitken, Senior Marketing Manager, Mona

Mona, the Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart is one of the most interesting and unique art galleries in the world. Now a national treasure, Mona was opened to much mystery in 2011 by David Walsh AO who earned his fortune, through complex mathematical skills, as a professional gambler. ‘The Mona effect’ credits the museum’s transformative power of turning the whole state of Tasmania into a must-see destination and igniting local pride, contributing $134.5 million to the Tasmanian economy in 2017-18. Alan Joyce said Qantas had grown its capacity into Hobart by 63 per cent since Mona opened: “We have not seen that growth anywhere else in the country”. Subversive, irreverent and disruptive, the Mona brand has a back story most marketers would die for. So how did Mona create such a renegrade brand, how do you manage it and what’s next?

Daniel Aitken, Senior Marketing Manager, Mona. Image courtesy Eddie Safarik

1. Tell us about your Mona journey.

It’s coming up to my 13th year, so I'm fairly institutionalised! I joined the team before Mona opened and at a time when no one knew what it was going to be. It was foreshadowed as the ‘sex and death museum’.

We had a researcher estimate how many visitors we would bring in; it was frighteningly low. In our first year we had over 300,000 people through the doors. I think David was the only one who predicted it taking off as well as it did from the get-go. There was no growth phase, we we're flying from the start. So much has happened after that first launch, I’ve been holding on for the ride ever since.


2. What’s the one reason for Mona’s success, how would you define the secret sauce?

David is ultimately our main ingredient for success. He’s obviously a very intelligent person. Even though he says he hates marketing; he’s got a great mind for it. It was his idea before Mona opened to launch a music and arts festival to promote Mona and showcase our brand and philosophy in a tangible way. Ever since then, we’ve used our summer and winter festivals as megaphones for the museum. They allow us to reach new audiences.

And being a private enterprise definitely makes things much easier, being owned by one person. We don't have to meet the needs of a predetermined audience and with fewer conflicting interests.


3. How would you describe the Mona culture?

Generous. There’s an enormous sense of generosity.

Mona is a tourist attraction but it’s also David’s home. We often have our staff Christmas party on the museum lawns, where our F&B team cooks up incredible food, with our great wine and beer. Everyone puts so much into this huge beast and it’s such a nice reward for all the teams involved.

It’s well known that David tops up the museum from his own pocket, with the museum constantly expanding and adding new things, which is so fantastic for Tasmania.


4. What is the purpose of Mona?

David says the museum is his hotted up Torana, helping him bang above his weight in his various endeavours. I'd say Mona is a construct that's used to challenge preconceptions about many things in life, and only one of those things being art. What can be considered art and why people make art.

Another take on it is that Mona is the only institution that has a hypothesis about art, which is not based in culture. That art is based deep in our evolved biology and that art is a biological phenomenon. Mona's whole existence is this idea in action. Every Mona-led exhibition delves into the human biology of why people make art and how it’s used as a social tool.

Everything comes back to sex at the end of the day! [laughs]

5. Mona is unlike any other art gallery in the world with an incredibly unique story. What are the pros and cons to managing the Mona brand?

The brand is so strong across the full scope of the Mona beast. The museum, accommodation, transport, gift shop, breweries, wineries, music festivals and charities. We’ve even launched a recording studio recently that’s built around an original mixing desk from Abbey Road. The brand architecture is a Branded house because while everything we do has its own identity, it allstill falls under the core Mona brand, they’re all in sync. But there's definitely a lot of chaos, I won't lie. Things change at the last minute constantly. David is famous for saying the plan is just the path that you stray from. We do things because David finds them interesting and worthy of interrogation. That's the guiding light. So taking things to market from their inception is a wild and interesting ride.

The con is that we have so much happening, it's challenging to juggle it all. We have a full-service in-house agency team of 26. When I first joined, there were three of us. We’ve grown to meet the demands of the business and are galvanised by the chaos. There's not too much that phases us these days. The challenge is getting it all out there into the cosmos.


6. What’s worked most successfully to build Mona’s brand and draw in visitors and what hasn’t worked?

Funnily enough, talking to people about the art hasn’t worked. 5-8% of our visitors come to see a specific exhibition. The rest are coming regardless of what’s on. They just want to see David’s personal collection and because Mona has built up this infamy and they want to experience it. ‘Show don’t tell’ has always been part of our ethos, that sort of hype and notoriety and mystery flows through to all our comms. On our website we don't give anything away, you've got to come and see for yourself. We attract a wider audience than those who would usually visit an art gallery while on holiday, because we're not your average museum experience.

Our brand campaign, ‘the best of our worst reviews’ was the first time we ran ads using our greatest asset, the Mona brand… other than some ads we used to run at the Hobart airport, which advertised the museum as ‘sex and drugs for $20’… which got a got a few complaints!

In our brand campaign [which featured actual zero star google reviews from Mona visitors] we referenced things like our cloaca exhibit which is very polarising - this is exactly what we’re trying to achieve with the Mona brand and experience. Even if people hate it, they've had an experience and that's a great thing. By not focussing on the art, we’re attracting a broader audience - preaching to the unconverted - which is delivering great results.

Visitation has always grown year on year incrementally even though as an island state, access is limited. Our strategy focuses on converting as many travellers who are already coming to Tassie as possible and not try and boil the ocean with other tactics. We feel that that's better use of our limited resources, so we hit them while they’re on the way, in airports and entry points to build awareness.


7. What’s the wackiest idea you’ve ever been pitched or pitched yourself? Where does Mona draw the line… is there a line?

We like to generate earned media, to take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Our campaign AirMofo did that. We moved our summer festival Mona Foma, from Hobart to Launceston, which, due to lack of awareness and decreased access, was perceived as harder to attract audiences to from Interstate.

So we changed tack and instead of putting lots of resource into printing and distributing a festival programme which never had any measurable data, we just decided to remove all barriers and repurpose that spend and pay for people's airfares. In doing so, we launched our own fake airline: AirMofo. It then it escalated into chartering our own private flight from Melbourne to Launceston, and we gave away the tickets on social media, generating over $1,000,000 in earned media in the process.

We rarely enter awards, but that campaign won gold at the state tourism awards and bronze at the national level. It performed so well that the following year, to keep it interesting, we gave an entire plane away to one person who had to find 149 friends to fly with them.

There definitely is a line, but to be honest, I couldn't tell you the criteria. If an idea has enough merit, there's appetite to explore it.

8. Mona’s customer journey is so ‘Mona’ across every touchpoint, how do you keep all these experiences on brand?

Mona is designed to be approached by water, the ferry is a great way to start the experience, one ferry is decked out like an evil supervillains lair. You then ascend the stairs like a Greek temple and descend three floors into the museums depths, it’s quiteritualistic.

Our aim is to enhance the visitor experience at every touch point. We infuse as much brand tone as we can, even the signage for our winery depicts people engaging in compromising acts, they’re probably the most instagrammed thing, other than the art. It's just that constant search to make everything 10% better and ensure things are different to what everyone else is doing.


9. How do you manage a brand that pushes the boundaries and isn’t afraid to offend some people? What are your thoughts on cancel culture?

Mona is built on taking risks and favours chance. But the risks are always calculated. Not everyone's going to like what we put out there, but we're comfortable with that, we're not trying to be a brand that pleases everyone. We’re more afraid of drifting to the middle. Brands can learn a lot more from their mistakes than their wins. And I think all marketers would agree audiences appreciate when brands are genuine and honest.

Our festivals are vehicles where we can explore themes that the museum can’t. They're there to push the envelope, exploring challenging ideas and concepts. And I think there’s always a place for that. It's never been controversy for controversies sake. It's always about ideas worth investigating. For brands that are willing to take those risks, it ultimately pays off in the long run.


10. What’s the next world changing move for Mona?

There’s always something really exciting happening, new tunnels being dug and mysterious new wings under construction.

There’s some very large projects on the horizon, but I can’t say what, why or when it will open just yet, but you'll know it when it happens.

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Guts Creative acknowledges the awesome culture and creativity of the traditional custodians of the Country where we work: Awabakal Nation and Worimi Nation. We walk humbly in their footsteps, support the protection of their invaluable knowledge, and are inspired to do better by Elders past and present.
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