San Fran’s Asian Art Museum Terracotta Promo Helps China Learn to Laugh at Itself

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“The Asian Art Museum today announced that its ‘lost’ Chinese terracotta warrior, reported missing and wandering the Bay Area, has been found.”

Thus concluded one of the more memorable, unconventional recent attempts by a museum to promote an exhibition. The “lost” warrior—an exquisitely made-up and costumed actor—is meant to draw attention to San Francisco’s recently rebranded Asian Art Museum show of antiquities from China’s famous Xian Terracotta Army (Feb. 22–May 27).

We spoke with the museum about the ins and outs of the unique campaign and how they introduced the idea to their Chinese partners. [more]

“The campaign was the brainchild of my colleague, Ami Tseng, our director of marketing and brand,” said Tim Hallman, Asian Art Museum’s Director of Communications and Business Development.

Using customized Google Maps, social media like Facebook as well as Vine and Youtube videos, participants needed to “help the Lost Warrior find his way to the Asian Art Museum,” the point of which, Hallman said, was to “require that you know where the museum is located.” The museum also used guerrilla marketing tactics like posting “lost warrior” flyers on street posts. Hallman added that this was to make people ask, “An art museum with a sense of humor and a savvy social media strategy? They’re supposed to be stodgy and boring.”

In a bit of cross-platform integration that would make corporate America nod with approval, Asian Art announced that Moses Carbins, “an erstwhile San Francisco homeless man,” had found the missing Chinese warrior. Carbins just happens to be “the subject of Moses, a documentary film currently in production by Fran Guijarro Hernandez, a San Francisco filmmaker and instructor at Academy of Art University.”

Asian Art says its fresh, “alive” Terracotta stunt is meant to be an extension of, and build upon, the buzz from the museum’s rebrand in 2011. That complete overhaul included inviting Pixar artists to skin the museum and blowing away the cobwebs of a building full of ancient decaying stuff by inviting contemporary Asian art.

The results of the campaign were, to say the least, convincing. In addition to increased conventional local news coverage, web traffic to the museum’s site tripled and engagement increased across the museum’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Plus, Hallman said, “Opening weekend attendance at the exhibition set a new record for the museum, exceeding the previous record by more than 60 percent.”

Moreover, Asian Art received a great deal of buzz within the museum community itself. Part of this, Hallman said is because museums are increasingly looking to be creative about interacting and engaging their audiences. “For the Asian Art Museum, it’s about living our vision and brand. Our vision is all about making connections—across cultures and through time.”

One connection Asian Art made was to its Chinese partners, whom the museum let know about the promotion before it got started. (Hallaman said San Francisco China Consulate members and officials sent over for the exhibit were pleased and participated in photos with the made-up warrior.)

The museum stresses that it did not ask permission, but the heads-up was smart nonetheless. China suffers from what’s known as the “Kung Fu Panda Problem,” best described by The New Yorker as “the fact that the most successful film about two of China’s national symbols—Kung Fu and pandas—could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects.” The fact that China playfully went along this time is hopefully a sign of loosening up.

Finally, marketing campaigns that make China “come alive” for foreigners is one more instance away from becoming an official trend, as this wasn’t the first foray into social media stardom. Late last fall, the city of Chengdu employed an anthropomorphized Panda Ambassador to promote the region’s most famous inhabitant. Both were hits, for anyone looking for China-related promotional ideas.

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