Ad of the Day: Smithsonian

Wolff Olins colorfully brands the iconic institution as 'Seriously amazing' in its first-ever national campaign

Headshot of Tim Nudd

The Smithsonian Institution is known primarily for housing historic artifacts—everything from George Washington's sword to Dorothy's ruby slippers. But that's a musty legacy—nothing feels new or dynamic about the Smithsonian. So, for its first-ever national branding and awareness campaign, developed by Wolff Olins, the institution is going young, bright and vibrant with a question-based strategy and a clever new tagline, "Seriously amazing," that helps get the old dog moving again.

Wolff Olins's brief was to craft a brand strategy that would make the Smithsonian—which is comprised of 19 museums, plus nine research centers and the National Zoo—more modern, more relevant and more impactful to more people more often. The agency's primary insight was to put the client's strength, its accumulation of knowledge, in motion—by emphasizing the idea of putting that knowledge to work for new audiences through learning. Thus, the ad campaign is built around questions whose answers can be found in the Smithsonian collection—and on its attractive new website.

"Was Dr. Seuss a wartime propagandist?" "What exactly is 'snarge'?" "How much courage is required to have lunch?" How far did John Wilkes Booth get on his broken leg after assassinating President Lincoln?" These questions, and dozens more—many of them quite intriguing, some mischievously phrased—are posed on the new website, And select ones are featured on print, digital and outdoor ads that will appear in magazines, on websites and in cities like Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago throughout the month of October.

In addition to the questions, the ads feature seven characters who correspond to seven areas of Smithsonian expertise: The Discoverer explores the world and the universe; the Storyteller is about America, its people and the tales they can tell; the New is where technology and creativity collide; the Wild represents the diversity of the animal kingdom; the Green reflects the wonder of the natural landscape; the Masterpiece embodies artistic expression; and the Mash-up stands for the ways people share culture. The questions and characters together are meant to pique curiosity and drive people to All the characters appear in the campaign's signature ad, in which they are arranged to form a question mark.

The photography and the art direction are infused with a pop-art vitality that firmly yanks the institution right into the 21st century. The visual language couldn't be more appealing to young people. The brilliant website is its own best advertisement, one that literally pays off the headline "Questions come alive at the Smithsonian" by making the question boxes clickable, to reveal the answers. Plus, the "Seriously amazing" tagline cleverly does double duty—evoking both the Smithsonian's important scholarship work and the more fun-loving "wow" vibe it hopes to impart to a new generation. For a client that desperately needs new blood and a fresh reputation, this campaign feels mighty promising.

"Which animal can have a brain so large it overflows into its legs?" If you can't answer that—or a host of other delightful questions—at least now you'll know who can.


Client: Smithsonian Institution

Agency: Wolff Olins

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.