Lunchtime Speaker

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

12:30pm – 2:00pm

Pamela Baker-Masson, Smithsonian Institution, National Zoological Park & Conservation Biology Institute

If only we all had a cute giant panda to help us grow our base of members and supporters. Well, maybe you do, it’s just a little harder to identify. Learn what it takes to find YOUR panda and create an indelible brand or icon for your organization.

Notes from the session:

How Giant Pandas Became the Icon of the Zoo: How to Turn your brand to an Icon Status

  • Pandas are a source of storytelling for the Smithsonian Zoo/ a vehicle to illustrate their mission
  • Smithsonian Zoo always remains consistent to values of the Giant Panda, which is conservation
  • To elevate your brand, you must make it iconic or indelible

Your “Panda” has to be loyal to your brand and have to have the following requirements:

  • Must deliver the experience
  • Must identify the elements that offer uniqueness
  • Flexible
  • Must be authentic and modern
  • Must have a key message
  • Offers multiple opportunities and it can’t be flat – must be multi-faceted

Why a Panda, specifically for the National Zoo?

  • Giant Pandas have always been popular but 11 years ago, visitors didn’t know their story
  • Giant Pandas are “mega-charismatic”
  • Pamela’s Mission: to connect Giant Pandas to the Smithsonian Zoo’s greater mission of conservation, to ultimately turn the Giant Panda into an icon.
  • Smithsonian was able to connect the Giant Panda to human values and easily recognizable
  • Your icon, or “Panda”, must scream your values in a way that is clear and cohesive

Giant Panda fills all 4 buckets for the Zoo/ their 4 Pillars of the Smithsonian Zoo’s Mission:

  • Excellence in animal care
  • Conservation
  • “Visit Us”
  • “Support Us”

To begin, you must evaluate your strategy: Does your “Panda” support your mission?

  • For the Smithsonian Zoo the answer was a resounding – yes the Giant panda is an umbrella species and by saving Giant Pandas conservationists can save 70% of mammals and 30% of amphibians in China

You have to be willing to audition your “Panda”:

  • Does your panda have staying power?
  • Is it unique?
  • Does it connect emotionally with your customers?
  • Does it drive and connect w/ business?
  • Do you have tools and tech to sustain this?
  • Will you exhaust your storytelling?
  • Can you refresh your panda in some way if they are exhausted?
  • Can you protect your panda? If not, you have to be ready to turn it off.

How did they launch this effort?

  • The birth of Bao Bao, This brought international media attention to the Smithsonian Zoo
  • However, the Atlanta Zoo had Giant Panda twins at the same time and had no press
  • The key difference? The Smithsonian has branded the Giant Panda as their icon
  • Other zoos were getting attention because Smithsonian directed attention – rising tides raise all boats, help each other with the same mission

Warning… You have to be prepared because sometimes your “Panda” won’t be perfect- Your “Panda” will have vulnerabilities

In promoting your “Panda”:

  • Don’t compromise your brand
  • Be creative
  • Focus on storytelling
  • Invest smartly
  • Take risks
  • Distinguish your panda

How You Can Use Technology to Promote Your “Panda”: The Evolving Social Media Landscape

  • Advertising: Recently, the Smithsonian Zoo ran ads on social media platforms using memes of animals at the Zoo. These ads ran for 3 months and of all animals tested, including a Beaver with the slogan “Well, dam.” the Giant Panda was the most successful ad by far This served as a reminder that the Giant Panda was the brand and icon of the Smithsonian Zoo
  • The Panda Cam: Began as a research tool and then increased in quality as they garnered corporate sponsorship

Advice: your brand, or “Panda”, needs to be cultivated in order to thrive

  • This takes resources and time
  • As you imagine how you will evolve your “Panda” you must make sure you have the resources in place for future growth

For the departure of Bao Bao…

  • Things had to be done differently than before
  • She was aware that the Zoo was sending away an icon
  • She would have to handle this in a way that reinforced the “Giant Panda”
  • She would have to make the departure of Bao Bao an experiential event
  • In Washington, D.C. you could go to the physical sending off or connect from anywhere in the world through social media and the internet
  • The Zoo used this to create participation and connection over the cornerstone of the Zoo, the “Giant Panda”

You must make sure that consumers appreciate the brand and in turn, your “Panda”!

Enable “Panda” to tell stories that:

  • Creates mystique
  • Encourages experience sharing
  • Can be used to create an emotional connection
  • Inspire future conservationists – or the next generation
  • Think about how to reach a broader audience, how do you share your “Panda” to the whole world?


  • How do you motivate your team to be creative? Her motto “Let’s get slutty” – identified 4 target audiences, and they had to think differently to reach and target each desired audience. Ex. International Family Equality Day; they leveraged this to make it “Every Family is Welcome” shake it up a little bit, she expected the team to take risks.
  • How did the Zoo’s Communications Team handle the red panda escaping? The Zoo leveraged social media and maintained transparency so that people would be aware of what was going on. Being transparent also helped to build trust with the city and the general public. This kept the public in the loop and also assisted in locating the Red Panda.