An artistic rendering of a Smithsonian “Seriously Amazing” billboard ad. The Smithsonian’s new tagline is the foundation of its new ad campaign ― the first in its 166-year history. The ads feature seven characters who represent the different areas of expertise at the Smithsonian and ask questions that drive people to a new Web site to discover the answers and much more. (Smithsonian Institution)

The new Smithsonian Institution branding campaign, “Seriously Amazing,” makes a central bet: Visitors and would-be visitors across the country have questions, and the Smithsonian has answers.

Its icon is a question mark, and it features red, green and spacesuit-silver characters, all asking for info:

“What has given us water from Mars and daggers from India?”

“How is hip-hop like the microchip?”

“What exactly does a bear do in the woods?”

The $1.4 million campaign, which has been two years in the making, launched Thursday with a preview for staff, regents and directors, and a new Web site. Ads in the Smithsonian magazine, outdoor advertising in the District and four other cities, digital ads and signs at Smithsonian construction sites, such as the African American History and Culture Museum, will be rolled out over the next few weeks. It is funded internally and by an in-kind gift from Target.

“The object of doing this is to make sure we’re connecting with younger audiences,” said Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian. He calls it a push to reach “aware moms who are so connected to the rest of the world” and those outside the Washington area. “We’re going to probably have over 30 million visitors to the Smithsonian this year, but some are only coming once in a lifetime. That leaves about 320 million others that we aren’t reaching physically. At the same time, we have 100 new exhibitions a year. It’s a shame to put on these exhibitions and not have youngsters have some ways of seeing it.”

The campaign centers on, which allows users to sort questions thematically and is “designed to go as deep as you want,” said Pherabe Kolb, associate director of strategic communications for the Smithsonian.

“The whole purpose of this effort is to reintroduce ourselves to the world,” she said.

Kolb cites research — including a national survey indicating that while 89 percent of adults had heard of the Smithsonian, that number drops among younger people and Latinos — to note that people aren’t fully aware of the range of Smithsonian channels and materials.

The branding campaign is a first for the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex, which has largely only advertised exhibits. With so many moving parts and considerations, there was concern about getting it right, Clough said. “Everyone was worried that if you try to message something, and you get the message wrong, you’re going to harm the reputation of great institutions.” He said they used input from focus groups at different stages of the campaign and had nearly 50 meetings with Smithsonian regents and the advisory board.

The campaign’s use of humor and questions is a switch for those accustomed to a less colorful tone from the institution. It’s “an approach people don’t expect to hear from the staid, traditional Smithsonian,” Kolb said. “We’ll see how audiences react, but we feel confident and optimistic. We’ll get through this month and see where we go from there.”