Smithsonian aims to change its brand


"The Castle," the building on the National Mall that is home to the Smithsonian's administration. (HO/AP)
December 16, 2011

When people hear “Seriously Amazing,” they might think of a luxury car or an electronic gadget.

But with that new tag line next year, the Smithsonian Institution wants the public to get the message that it is both a hefty and hip place.

The sprawling institution aims to be, in the words of Secretary G. Wayne Clough, a “conversation, not a lecture.”

At the Smithsonian’s venerable age of 165, the Smithsonian name, one of the most recognizable in the world, is not going away. As many as 30 million people find its doors every year, and more than 70 million a year discover information on its Web site.

But when officials ordered the first in-depth research in almost 20 years to find out what people think about the Smithsonian, they discovered that name recognition had dropped to 77 percent for 18-to-24-year-olds, and that 25 percent of respondents think that the Smithsonian is “elitist.”


G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian. (BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST)

According to an in-house document obtained by The Washington Post, a branding campaign was ordered “to help us change the way people see us. And to place more emphasis on what we do instead of on what we have.” The branding idea was an outgrowth of a strategic plan developed last year. The Smithsonian spent $1 million for research and creation of the slogan.

They hope to toss out the description they haven’t been able to shake: “the nation’s attic.”

Pherabe Kolb, associate director of strategic communications, who has been shepherding the discussions, says that when officials posed the question of “what the world wants” from the Smithsonian, the major responses were customized experiences and more direct delivery of information through social media.

Mary Ellen Muckerman, head of strategy for the research firm Wolff Olins, said that, despite the Smithsonian’s popularity and recognition, the institution’s work, especially behind the scenes, is “not widely understood.” The firm’s task, she said, was “to help them better describe who they are today and help them set a course for the future.”

In the past 20 years, the Smithsonian has added two museums — the National Museum of the American Indian and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a giant annex for the National Air and Space Museum near Dulles International Airport. It has also reopened two others after six years of renovation and is planning another. The Smithsonian’s electronic presence through Web sites, blogs and webcasts has skyrocketed, and it now has a regular television presence through the Smithsonian Channel, a cable enterprise.

Smithsonian museum directors, who were enlisted in the planning process, needed some persuading. One initial skeptic was Gen. John “Jack” Dailey, the director of the National Air and Space Museum, which gets more foot traffic than any other museum in the world.

“I had seen efforts when we hire somebody to come up with ideas, and they don’t understand us,” he said. ‘But I am a convert — they have captured what we are all about.”

Dailey says the new branding will fill in an information gap about the Smithsonian's “incredible diversity of information. Our biggest problem is getting the word out in what we have to provide to the country.”

Bill Moggridge, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, was also part of the core group.

“There is enormously strong recognition of the Smithsonian, but there is a notion that it is antiquated,” Moggridge said. He said “Seriously Amazing” underscores the museum’s plans for its future identity. He likes the combination of the two words for its power and “a bit of edge.”

Cristian Samper, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, the second-most-visited museum on the Mall, joined what he said were robust discussions.

“What we wanted to get across, and this is a shift we have been doing, is show the Smithsonian is listening to the world, not only talking to the world.”

In focus groups, “Seriously Amazing” was tested with images of key Smithsonian experiences — seeing the National Zoo’s pandas, the Hope Diamond or the Wright Flyer. “We drafted visual images of different types of experiences, in person, educational and online,” Samper said. “The tag line is only important in the context of the experience.”

Clough introduced the “Seriously Amazing” slogan to 700 people at a staff meeting a few weeks ago and was applauded. “We need to define for ourselves and for the world, in terms everyone can understand, who we are and what we can offer,” a meeting participant said.

Tied to the reimagining of the heart and pulse of the Smithsonian is a planned national fundraising campaign, and the message document plainly says the branding campaign would “attract more donors and partners.”

When rolling out a new slogan, the trick is to avoid alienating the faithful, who make as many as four trips during their lifetimes — with a parent, on a class trip and with their children and grandchildren. “Seriously Amazing” is meant to show relevance and an invitation to “take another look,” Kolb said.

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