ROM’s short film about the history of humanity launches new brand platform

Who: Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), with Broken Heart Love Affair for brand strategy and creative; Scouts Honour for production (directed by Mark Zibert); Leo Burnett Design for brand identity; OMD for media and No Fixed Address for PR.

What: “ROM Immortal,” a new brand platform and identity driven by a larger underlying objective to transform the museum into a thoroughly modern cultural institution that leads discussions about society and strives to answer big questions about humanity.

When & Where: The campaign is live now, running through September. In terms of paid media, there’s an emphasis on outdoor and digital display, along with a 90-second film for cinema. But the biggest piece of the campaign—a six-minute short film—will rely mainly on organic reached via owned media.

Why: ROM has been focused on modernizing the experience for visitors for last five years or so, with exhibitions that speak to contemporary issues and topics, said Lori Davison, ROM chief marketing and communications officer.

“Yet perceptions of ROM have not caught up to that,” she said. In brand health studies, people used words like “nostalgic” and “trusted,” which aren’t bad, but Davis would prefer “dynamic” and “relevant.”

“Their view of us as a brand is not contemporary,” said Davison. “So the job here is really to help the brand catch up with what people who do come are now experiencing here.”

They needed an advertising campaign to do some of the heavy lifting of communicating the new vision and voice for ROM, but they also needed something bigger and more ambitious to be truly disrupt the status quo and change the perception of ROM among those who associate it with nostalgia.

How: The entire campaign is built around “ROM Immortal,” and the idea that “we live on in what we leave behind.” The ancient artifacts are not just curios behind glass—instead each one tells a story of a people and a time. Together, all of the exhibits and galleries tell a much larger story of humanity itself. Knowing that story leads to better conversations and questions about how we behave in the world today and what we want to leave behind.

Display ads showcase the objects with sometimes playful headlines, such as a buddha and the headline: “The G.O.A.T. of mindfulness didn’t need an app.” Those ads make up the bulk of the paid media buy, including a Union Station domination. (See the campaign reel at the bottom.)

The Film(s): Certainly, the most unusual part of the new platform the six-minute-plus “ROM: Immortal” short film, which has been cut down to a 90-second version for cinema.

The film captures the sweeping history of humankind, starting with the big bang and the creation of the planet. It then transitions to a shot of a single unborn child floating in the womb of mother earth, as a voiceover explains: “My mother is four billion six hundred million years old. She is the mother of the seas, the land, life itself.”

From there, the film presents a slow rhythmic unfolding of history. The poetic narration introduces key moments, while a visual mashup juxtaposes astronauts and woolly mammoths; modern day street protesters clashing with Roman centurions in slow motion. Some of the moments are non-specific, while others are famous and unmistakable. There’s the plague and the pandemic, the Holocaust and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gandhi and the Donald Trump baby balloon.

“I think it’s quite moving when you see something like the Tiananmen Square recreation, or the image of refugees coming out of a lifeboat,” said Davison. “This is all of us. This is the shared experience of us.”

As the film nears its end, the camera returns to the unborn child as it opens its eyes and the narrator delivers her closing lines: “I will give birth, and I will die. But I will live on in what I leave behind.”

The cinema version does away with a narrator, relying instead on a visual depiction of key moments. No voiceover meant they could get more moments into the 90 seconds, since they wanted to treat it like a trailer for the longer version, said Davison.

Did the length concern you? “We knew the story that we were telling was essentially the story of existence,” said Davison. “And that that was going to require a bit of real estate from a film standpoint.” But she also admits to being surprised when should heard it was going to be six minutes. “I think I was in the editing suite. And I probably rolled my eyes, but then they hit play.”

But six-minute films aren’t cheap: “We actually did it within a very average ROM marketing budget,” said Davison, who was previously the client lead for SickKids Foundation’s “Vs.” campaign. “What I’ve learned is that if you are an organization that has storytelling potential that is going to be extremely compelling and shareable, then you can think in terms of the whole budget—where you want to put your resources.

“You might not need the largest media budget, for example, if you’ve got something that is really compelling that you know is going to get shared. So you might make a greater investment in the storytelling side rather than the media side.”

The branding:The branding identity includes logo, typography and photography. “We imagined the 13 million artifacts in ROM’s archive as an immortal timeline,” said Man Wai Wong, VP group creative director, Leo Burnett Design, in a release. “The design of the new identity brought that to life in a typographic approach that resembles a timeline. Along with the logo, photography and design language; the new visual identity is bold, timeless and adaptable. It evolves what people think of ROM and will live on long after us.”

David Brown