What We Can Learn from the Seattle Public Library

Diane Geurts / November 2, 2015

Companies and organizations make business decisions that affect their brands and bottom line every day, in both big and small ways, good and bad. Volkswagen made an ill-advised decision that has sales plummeting and formerly loyal customers joining class-action suits.

But what happens when the library – your library – takes a misstep? The library is a place that is sacrosanct to many, whether it’s that feeling of nostalgia for your childhood, where you take your kids after school to check out more books, or a place to get warm and dry when you don’t have a place to call home. Personally, I’m an avid reader and grew up in my local library. It’s where I discovered Madeleine L’Engle, Walter Farley, Steinbeck, Hemingway and yes, Danielle Steele and V.C. Andrews. The library is personal. It’s ours.


So in hindsight, it’s really no surprise that the public reaction to the Seattle Public Library’s rebranding effort was so strong. There were a few key learnings that all of us in marketing and public relations would do well to remember.

  1. Know your audience. When I say know your audience, it goes beyond demographics and psychographics. In order to best serve your consumer, you need to act with foresight. Take what you know of the demographics and psychographics and ask: how will our customers react? “How would our customers react if we cancelled the Pumpkin Spice Latte?” “How will our customers react we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make our current name plural instead of singular?”
  2. Have a meaningful process. Hitting pause to make sure you understand what your customers – and your employees – think about an important change is key. Build this step into the process early on, even if you think you don’t have the time. You do. You must. It will, I guarantee you, save time in the long run.
  3. Respond immediately and honestly. On October 28th, SPL posted a message from their board president, Theresa Fujiwara, that addressed the final board vote and acknowledged what they heard from the public: “Thank you for your honest feedback, your suggestions and your love of the Library. We recognize and value the importance of the world ‘public’ in The Seattle Public Library.” In the case of VW, an apology was appropriate. But in both cases, responding with next steps, as SPL did, is key.

We, like the rest of Seattle, love the library. And we’re excited to see how they proceed from here, freshly armed with how much the library means to all of us.