African-American history is America’s history. That’s the resounding message of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. The museum, which opened in September after a century of planning (in 1915 black Civil War veterans collected funds for a museum that would celebrate African-American achievement), brings to life a historical journey that began hundreds of years ago with the transatlantic slave trade and continues through to present day pop culture.
Telling a story that has more than 300 years of rich and complex history isn’t easy. That’s why three years ago, the museum approached Viacom’s executive leadership and BET’s chairman and CEO Debra Lee for help in conveying its message.
“As a child of the Civil Rights movement, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture is a culmination of what my generation so passionately fought and dedicated their life to,” says Lee. “Viacom has always been a champion of civil rights with deep roots in American pop culture so it was only fitting for to us to help tell this story of struggle and triumph.”
With a goal in place and a strategy needed, Viacom turned to Catalyst, (the company’s in-house advertising and marketing studio) to lead the charge. “The Catalyst team was thrilled to have the chance to work on it—right away there was a lot of energy and engagement with the project,” explains Cheryl Family, senior vice president of Brand Strategy and Creative. “We’re in a unique position with a strong track record of connecting, educating, and inspiring across such a wide range of audiences, so I think our skill set was something they saw as a good fit for the work.”
While Catalyst was originally brought in to consult on the museum’s brand communications and digital strategy, this eventually led to other high-profile elements. “As we defined the scope of the project, they had a logo, but in our discussions we saw an opportunity to create even more cohesion across the museum’s branding,” Family explains. “We respectfully asked if we could take a shot at a new logo for them, and they agreed.”
The team looked no further than the museum itself for inspiration. The David Adjaye-designed space is unlike any structure in the nation’s capital. Coated in bronzed aluminum, the three-tier facade draws upon the shape of a traditional Yoruban (West African) crown.
“We felt that shape was inspirational and powerful, and bringing it into the logo lets it act as an even stronger part of the museum’s visual identity,” Family says. And the museum agreed. With the logo now in place, another key element was needed to tie the museum’s brand messaging all together: a tagline. For Viacom Catalyst, it was about developing the right statement that was encompassing of all museum visitors, no matter their race, creed, or color.
“Yes, it’s the story of the African-American experience,” she notes. “But how could we open it up so that people understand its part of their story, too?”
“A People’s Journey, A Nation’s Story” is something that’s interwoven throughout the entire museum, capturing the spirit from which the project was initiated. “The tagline is something that we developed internally,” Family says. “We wanted it to feel inclusive and we also wanted it to speak to the critical role that African-American history has in our nation’s history. In the end, we had about five options to present. The museum zeroed in on this one immediately and we agreed. It communicates that complex relationship in language that is clear and compelling.”
This is further highlighted in a very special PSA starring comedian Dave Chappelle and television veteran, Norman Lear (whose career spans racially diverse and groundbreaking shows like Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons).
“Bringing together two figures from different eras for a conversation was our concept for the PSA long before we approached any talent,” Family explains. “Once Chappelle was on board, we said, ‘who do you think would be great?’ And he said he wanted to do the spot with Norman Lear. That pairing felt pretty inspired. The visual design of the PSA—using a minimalist space—was all about allowing the audience to really focus on that conversation.”
It was an idiosyncratic pairing, but when it all came together, it was clearly meant to be—much like the creative partnership that developed between the museum and Viacom itself.
“It’s so amazing to bring our collective experiences together for such an important mission. What we find as we partner with external brands on projects like this is that it starts a dialogue,” Family stresses. And in this case, the dialogue was keyed into a larger conversation that continues to impact not just African Americans, but the country as a whole.