I am cursed with an unbelievably generic name. As one flippant Manhattan restaurant hostess said to me when I was reserving a table, “Wow, that’s just about the whitest name I’ve ever heard.” It stung. But the truth often hurts.
Growing up, I was desperate for a nickname. While all around me kids were attracting various monikers, my psyche seemed to be forever yoked to three bland syllables: Bill Baker. I tried shamelessly to seed potential nicknames with my peers by talking endlessly about certain things I loved (“Skittles!”) or tenaciously working made-up catch phrases into my speech (“Man, that is sooo gitch!”). Eventually, this hopeless endeavor jumped the shark once I left home and went away to college. When meeting someone new, I would introduce myself with, “Hi. My name’s Bill Baker, but my friends call me Bakes,” only to be met with a quiet, contemplative stare and then simply, “Nice to meet you…Bill.”
Eventually, I gave up. But after doing so, I came to realize that, while the words, phrases or monikers connected to my “brand” certainly had some influence on people’s impressions of it, what shaped their impressions more was their actual experience of being with me.
In other words, words alone were never going to do it.
I was thinking of this admittedly tragic and somewhat desperate aspect of my past when I read an article about the Smithsonian rebranding itself. Through considerable consumer research, the Smithsonian had discovered that, though it remains one of the most recognized brands in the world, more and more people felt it was antiquated and saw it primarily as “the nation’s attic.” The leadership of the Smithsonian wanted to change people’s impressions and open their eyes to the considerable amount of things this institution did beyond simply collecting “stuff.” Rightly so.
But while their intentions were admirable and the objectives behind their efforts warranted, I was bewildered to hear them talk about the solution to all their problems being a shiny new tagline: “Simply Amazing.” With sheer conviction, they waxed on about how this new line would alter people’s impressions of the Smithsonian and get everyone to see it for what it really was: as if by simply telling people the Smithsonian was simply amazing, people would come to see it as such.
Don’t get me wrong; I admire copywriting and the way certain people can bring words together poetically and provocatively. But the days in which a short collection of words can completely alter the way people perceive a brand are more or less gone. This is especially true if said line is about the brand (“No seriously; we’re simply amazing!”) and not about something bigger that transcends that brand. “Just do it” and “Think different” are immortal taglines because they aren’t about their brands. They’re about the higher sense of purpose that drives those brands, and they boldly encourage their consumers, their “tribe” to rise up and realize that purpose. One has to wonder what the Smithsonian’s tribal rallying cry would be?
To truly change the way people perceive the Smithsonian, they’re going to have to evolve the way people connect with, interact and are engaged by it. Our impressions of a brand are formed by what we hear, yes. But they are formed more by how we experience that brand, on our own or through the recollections of others. It is the experience of brands that ultimately creates memories and serves as fodder for stories we hold dear and long to share with others.
I certainly hope the Smithsonian got more out of this $1 million branding effort than just those two words. I have to think it did, as it deserves. I have great fondness for this institution, having spent countless hours walking its halls as a child and young adult. I truly admire the Smithsonian. Dare I say, I love it.
Hey, maybe Smithsonian could be my new nickname!