Smithsonian Revamping Its Stuffy Brand

How does one re-brand an august institution like a classical museum–a “product” that is stuffy by its very nature?

The Smithsonian Institution is an extremely popular destination for anyone visiting in the Washington, D.C. area, but the folks in charge clearly felt like they needed to increase their appeal—which is why they decided to hire Wolff Olins to help create the first ad campaign in the institution’s 166-year history.

The Smithsonian’s 19 individual museums and galleries are some of the best-known and most popular in the country. In fact, we wonder if one can even call oneself a true American without at least one visit to the Air and Space Museum! So what changed? The new move started with two dreaded words: user feedback.

The terms most often used to describe the Smithsonian in a study commissioned by the institution two years ago apparently included “boring” and “intimidating,” so organizers decided to spend a couple million bucks (with the help of Target) on a brand strategy and subsequent ad campaign, now set to appear in America’s largest cities this fall.

The most interesting thing about this project to us is that it wasn’t designed strictly to increase attendance—the numbers for 2012 are already better than last year’s, with total visitors expected to reach 30 million by year’s end. What the Smithsonian wants is, to put it bluntly, an image makeover.

Millions may pay admission every year, but surveys indicated that tourists see “visiting the Smithsonian” as the cultural equivalent of eating your vegetables: you know they’re good for you, you’ll probably thank yourself for eating them afterward, and you’re very concerned about your own kids getting enough of them–but you still don’t quite enjoy the process. It should come as no surprise that young people had the most negative perceptions of the Smithsonian experience, so of course the goal of the new campaign is to convince these impressionable folks that the museum is indeed “Seriously Amazing” (we preferred “amazeballs”) at the risk of losing them and breaking a crucial generational chain when they don’t feel the need to bring their own kids to the museum.

The theme of the campaign, then, is trivia—because every kid loves to hear about random, totally fascinating facts that he or she will completely forget as soon as the next shiny object bounces by.

Some sample questions:

  • “How is hip-hop like the microchip?”
  • “Was Dr. Seuss a wartime propagandist?”
  • “What exactly does a bear do in the woods?”

Oh ha ha, we see what they did there. And they might just be onto something.

Will this campaign make the Smithsonian cooler and expand its appeal? And should other museums follow suit?