Seriously Amazing

The Discoverer

When I came to the Smithsonian four years ago, it was clear to me that staff and volunteers alike knew we needed to become more relevant and connected with our visitors, friends and supporters.  It was just a question of how to do it and summoning the will to get it done.  Together we set our sights on transforming the Smithsonian into a more dynamic, accessible and responsive Institution. Our Strategic Plan gave us focus and a framework for the future that has helped us sharpen our message and forge an institutional approach to change. The Smithsonian Redesign plan allowed us to measure and improve our efficiency. We have begun creating a more self-reliant Institution with the National Campaign that has inspired potential donors and increased growth in private funding.  And last year, we unveiled our internal branding campaign to define ourselves rather than letting others define us. Now, we stand together at a pivotal moment in our history with this opportunity to capture the imagination of a new, younger, more diverse audience. We are ready to tackle the expectations of the connected, media-savvy audiences who are looking for something unexpected. To take advantage of this “tipping point,” we have created something unprecedented for the Smithsonian—a national advertising campaign. This effort is all about two words: Seriously Amazing.

So much of what we do here can be described in this way. Gravitas and wonder share equal billing at the Smithsonian. Seriously Amazing is not simply a slogan, but a prism through which we can see our exhibitions, collections, programs, people and research.  It is a way to guide us as we move forward. It is a challenge that we must live up to.  But how best to take that message to the next level and let everyone know that the Smithsonian is an interactive, fun, connected place?  Through the advertising campaign and its complementary website, With this initiative, we are shouting from the top of the Castle that whatever preconceived notions you had about us—think again!

The Green

Author Malcolm Gladwell noted that tipping points exist where products, ideas or trends explode into massively popular movements.  He observed that three types of people are needed to push these movements to critical mass: Mavens, Salesmen and Connectors. Mavens are the experts who have the knowledge, the “information specialists.” The Smithsonian has always been comfortable in this role. But for us to fully maximize our potential, we knew we had to become Salesmen.  We had to find the means to tell the full story of the Smithsonian and add a little style to our substance. Research told us that even though people trusted us, the vast majority do not understand what we really are, or what makes our magic possible. Now, through this ad campaign, we are going to take an active role in getting the message out.

The overall initiative was led by Evelyn Lieberman, with Pherabe Kolb directing the branding project and Carolyn Martin directing the creation of the website. Together, the dedicated team at the Office of Communications and External Affairs created a fun ad campaign and website.  Because the Smithsonian brings questions alive, the ads feature colorful, youthful characters asking questions that represent the breadth of our tremendous work in art, history, science and culture like these: “What masterpiece not only fills the room—it is the room?” and “How is hip-hop like the microchip?”  People can then go to to find the answers.  Over the next month, these ads will appear in magazines, on billboards and buses, and online.  Encourage your friends to check out the site.  I know I learn something new and exciting about the Smithsonian every time I visit the website.

We know that we cannot rest on our laurels and cater solely to the same visitors we have traditionally had. We have to attract new audiences for whom the Smithsonian has never been much of a consideration. These are Gladwell’s “Connectors”—the socially connected arbiters of cool who actively seek out and share the stuff they find online.  Kids who are plugged in.  The ones who can create buzz about The generation that can take the Smithsonian viral and push us past the tipping point.

I recently had the privilege of seeing some of Mary Hagedorn’s groundbreaking coral research in Hawaii. It is really inspiring to see coral spawning and the renewal of the cycle of life.  In many ways, the Smithsonian is doing the same thing. Growing, adapting, becoming a more self-sustaining Institution that will continue for generations to come. Mary’s work is just one example of the broad spectrum of work going on throughout the Smithsonian that is so vitally important, so awe-inspiring, and yet so little known by most people.  By reaching out with this national advertising campaign to new, diverse audiences, we can inspire them as we educate them.  The response since our September 20 launch has already been tremendous; even before the ads went public the website received 14,000 unique visitors and more than 20,000 unique page views. The responses from the media have been overwhelmingly positive; for example, Ad Week named Seriously Amazing its Ad of the Day.  This is just the start, as the world is poised to find out what we already know: the Smithsonian is indeed Seriously Amazing.

Questions come alive at the Smithsonian.


Posted: 27 September 2012
About the Author:

Wayne Clough served as the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 2008 to 2013. He oversaw several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum.