It’s beautiful, sunny, and warm in New York today, just as beautiful as it was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 almost ten years ago. In fact, that “message” of sorts is often mentioned when people begin to tell the story of 9/11 and that personal context is part of what connects us all to that day.

Recently I attended a lecture sponsored by New York City Alliance for the Arts presentation of The Arts Forum at The New York Times on Honor, Remember, Reunite: Preparing to Open the 9/11 Memorial. The speaker was Joseph C. Daniels, President and CEO, National September 11 Memorial & Museum. As we try to make this summer last as long as possible enjoying these sunny days, people are working furiously in the background at the Memorial for its opening to victims’ family members on Sunday, September 11, 2011 and to the public on September 12.

I began to think. Are there organizations that don’t need branding? Is the Memorial one of them? When we want to brand something we are looking for ways to differentiate an organization from others. 9/11 is without equal, so no need for branding there. We want to provide people with reasons to care about an organization. Caring is built in to 9/11, so no need for branding there. We look for the emotional threads that will bind people to an organization. Who among us does not feel emotionally charged when we hear about 9/11 with some combination of remorse, revulsion, and regret. So, certainly no need for branding there. Finally, we want to make sure in branding that our key messages come across clearly, succinctly, and consistently. Again, no need for branding here, we could all recite the main messages of the Memorial.

As for the visual aspects of branding, oh sure, the Memorial has its obligatory “logo,” and visual identity, a simple, smart, sparse, unobtrusive typeface treatment and system that characterizes “11” and symbolizes the twin towers, (I even see a “pause” icon), all subtlety appropriate for the solemnity of the organization and its purpose. But is this visual branding in the sense that we normally mean or are these identification and description graphics that crisply and simply do their job without fanfare?

Ideally, branding should be implicit in an organization’s programs and events. They should reflect or fulfill the branding of the organization. Mr. Daniels opened his remarks (available on YouTube)  with a moving montage of people’s remembrances of where they were when 9/11 happened and how they reacted, which set the stage for how we all relate to 9/11. Besides causing a shudder, Daniels accomplished the important task of having us relate to the events on our own terms—connection and context.

He continued this theme by explaining the process of how one can search for victims’ names on the Memorial’s website and how names are arranged on the site. Rather than a usual alphabetical listing, names are placed contextually and connected by groups and events. The remarkable aspect is that many names are arranged by adjacencies: some by event, some by circumstance, and some by request of victims’ families. As the website states, “This design allows the names of family, friends, and colleagues to be together, as they lived and died. The requested adjacencies reflected on the Memorial make it unique from any other in existence.” Quite a technological and logistical feat to accomplish, and one that beautifully and eloquently helps tell stories, contextualize people and events, and humanize names in bronze. The Memorial is about connections and contextualization—of all types.

The last audience question was about what will be the organization’s mission. Mr. Daniels answered that preservation is first and utmost, because as a history museum they have the rare opportunity to gather and learn from the people who were there. The second part of the mission will be to connect and contextualize all of that information. To answer the whys, the what led tos, and the what does this mean. So, is that branding? It’s probably related. Branding always does start with content, but perhaps in the context of the 9/11 Memorial some of the tools we normally use are not as necessary, applied, or apparent because of this subject’s singular focus, familiarity, and universal shared connection.

UPDATES.  A New York Times update on how the Museum is progressing.

Online Visitor Pass Reservations begin today, Monday, July 11, 2011