Mallory Willsea: Hello and welcome to Making Your Mark: Unforgettable Branding co-hosted by mStoner, a digital-first agency committed to tailored solutions that deliver real results. And Zehno, a strategic branding and marketing firm for educational organizations.
My name is Mallory Willsea, director of marketing and business development at mStoner and your moderator for this presentation.
Let’s meet our presenters.
From Zehno, we have Shane Shanks, senior strategist and editorial director. Shane is the bridge between the strategy and creative concept at Zehno. He’s coached hundreds of institutions on how to improve their brands, publications, websites and marketing strategies.
Current Zehno clients include University of Iowa, University of North Georgia, John Tyler Community College and Marymount California University. Fun fact, Shane is a CASE Crystal Apple Award winner for Outstanding Teaching, so no pressure, Shane.
From mStoner, we have Voltaire Santos Miran, co-founder, CEO and head of client experience. Voltaire works with mStoner client teams to forge and sustain transformative, memorable and incredibly effective partnerships. He shapes all aspects of mStoner’s individual projects, overall planning and company-wide management. A natural storyteller, Voltaire enjoys teaching others how to tell stories and using his expertise in information architecture, content strategy and governance to move institutions from a project mindset to a process mindset.
Current mStoner clients include the University of Charleston, Northeastern University and Mills College.
Now today’s goal is fairly simple: We want to arm you with the information and understanding necessary to launch a branding website or branding to web initiative with confidence. We’ll use two case studies to illustrate how this can be done.
Over the years our teams have collectively worked with at least 500 colleges, universities, community colleges and schools. Through all of those engagements, we’ve built a list of the seven basic promises that we see most institutions make. They include:
• Faculty members who know your name and are committed to your personal success
• Experiential learning and research opportunities
• Leadership and global citizen development
• The chance to get involved in a broad array of clubs, organizations, or other activities
• The perfect location
• A deep and broad alumni network
• And, of course, friends for life
How much do these promises sound like what your institution are saying now?
While these facets of the student experience are important and many are foundational to the college experience, they are not differentiators and they are not your brand. Over-focusing on these promises will contribute to watered-down stories that really any institution can claim. So today we want to challenge you to think of the things that truly make your institution different.
Shane, I’m going to pass it over to you to talk to us about what a brand really is.
Shane Shanks: All right, great. That standard set of seven promises describes really every school — and not yours specifically. If you want to make your brand unforgettable you have to be able to think beyond those basics.
I wanted to start with the big question that I think is really at the core of memorable branding: What does your institution stand for? What do you stand for?
Now I know you’re working in higher education or K-12 education, so this frankly should seem like the world’s simplest question. But why is it so hard to answer? It’s because our schools are complicated.
Think about your own institution. You’ve got a full range of programs. You’ve got lots of different audiences from prospects to alums. You’ve maybe got multiple campuses and then you’ve got competing interests within your organization. You’ve got the sports versus the academic side, the arts versus sciences, undergrad versus grad. Maybe you have online and on-campus courses. You’ve got your school’s history versus your school now. It’s complicated, right?
Then where do you start?
If you want to work smart, you should start thinking about your brand platform. That’s an internal playbook that you use for positioning your institution. You might call it pillars or guiding posts or architecture. Everybody has a different name for it. At Zehno, we call it a platform.
You can see some of the typical elements that are summarized here. It’s everything from a brand promise to the key messages tailored to each audience.
At Zehno, we start with the discovery phase when we’re working with a school and trying to learn as much as possible about the institutions. In that phase, we’re reviewing the existing research and conducting surveys and holding focus groups. We’re looking at your current materials. We’re analyzing the competitors. We’ll meet with stakeholders to figure out where the institution’s heading next. (That might be your strategic plan or there might be some surprises that are falling between the lines.) Then we look at how we can draft thematic messages that would speak to each of your priority audiences.
What does a brand platform give to you?
I want to say that it gives you clarity because it sets up some agreement about what you stand for as a school. If you work at one of the schools where everything has to be blessed by multiple layers of subcommittees, the platform isn’t just about clarity. It is about official clarity, which is frankly the best kind!
After you map out your platform messages, what comes next?
You now know what the school stands for. And everyone agrees. You can feel it. What do you do next?
Maybe you publish the platform in a small book that can be shared by the people who need to work with it the most. Maybe you summarize it into a nice diagram. Getting the platform finalized, it’s frankly a very big accomplishment.
But the platform is only internal, which leads us to the next big question: How can we share this with the outside world? That’s where the creative expression of your platform message really becomes pivotal.
I think that higher ed brands today need to have a very strong creative concept — something that captures what the school stands for. A great concept will grab people’s attention — that’s one thing. It highlights the aspects of your institution that are distinctive, authentic and relevant to your audiences — things that people care about — also helps to work your content across all communication channels.
If you’re doing it right, a creative concept really drives your stories — the kind of things you talk about and the ideas that you want to present to the world.
Today we’re going to show you two different schools where the branding is memorable because it conveys what the schools value and also its stories help to bring the key messages to life.
We’ll start with Loyola University in New Orleans. It’s a project that I worked on. For this project, the creative concept came from pinpointing the biggest shared values of the school.
We’ll give you just a quick look at Loyola in general. It’s a liberal arts college about 2,700 undergrads. It’s known as a top Fullbright producer, ranked No. 10 for Universities in the South. It’s Catholic in heritage, but it’s very open to any kind of faith.
The best-known programs include music. It’s the classical side of music mostly, although they’ve got jazz, since they’re in New Orleans. The violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is on the faculty. It’s a big deal.
They’re also rising in things like creative writing, filmmaking and entrepreneurship.
It’s also not much of a sports school in a rah-rah sense. They have pep rallies, but they’re often missing the pep.
Loyola’s recovered from Hurricane Katrina, which happened more than a decade ago. When we started working with them, Loyola was trying to bounce back from an enrollment dip and a round of layoffs.
That sets the stage for where we were.
Next you can see some of the things that we learned about the students during our discovery phase. We heard Loyola described as “a singular community of hipster individuals” — also as “beyond hipster.” Now if you’re like me, you’re not sure what “beyond hipster” actually means, so we did some probing. We found out that hipsters all follow the same code. You know the look. It’s the beard, it’s the pioneer boots, it’s the clothes that look like you’re in an indie band.
But at Loyola, students are so hip that they can ignore the hipster type. That’s what we heard.
We heard that everyone fits in at Loyola. There’s a place for everyone. For example, the LGBT group has never been very strong on campus because the campus itself is very accepting to start with, so who needs the club, right? There’s even a student who dresses like Little Bo-Peep, and guess what, she just blends in.
We learned that the students were really into art and music. We were told that if your friends don’t ask you to be in their band, the problem is you as a person.
Loyola students are, I think, looking for a sense of purpose like a lot of college kids, but the quest here also dovetails with Jesuit values and the idea that you can personally make some sort of impact on the world — in small or large ways.
Let’s look at the strengths of Loyola next. These are some of the ways that Loyola stands apart:
First, it’s very strong on creative thinking. We’re not talking about critical thinking; that’s a 1980s thing. We’re talking about creative thinking, which is more about now.
They’ve got a very strong presence in creative programs. I mentioned music. There’s also a music industry major — which is the practical, career-oriented side of things — and digital film and creative writing. Those kinds of programs have been some of their shining stars.
The class projects typically mix a lot of disciplines and different types of skills. There’s always this element of creative problem-solving that’s added into the mix. Loyola also has a lot of programs that teach you how to monetize creative work so that you could actually have a career in a creative field.
Second, Loyola is also very strong on social justice.
I will say that I went to a Methodist college, and it was only religious on parents’ weekend, if you know what I mean.
What about Loyola? How religious is it? Well, the Jesuit ideals teach you that you use your talents to make the world better. You think about things like righting social injustice and giving back.
One of the students told me — I thought this was a great explanation — she said that every Loyola diploma should come with a disclaimer that says, “All your life you’re going to look at the world around you, and you’re going to ask why can’t this be better? Or why can’t this be fairer?”
Third, for New Orleans, I’ve listed it as a strength, but actually it was a strength and a weakness.
The research showed that people were 50/50 about whether New Orleans would be a desirable college destination. So we needed to tip the scale so that people could see it as more than just about parades and partying.
Also Loyola’s a school where diversity doesn’t really have to be staged or engineered in any way. It just is. The students come from all over the world. They come from all walks of life. It’s not just diverse; it’s also just a little bit offbeat. If you wanted to dress like Little Bo-Peep, go ahead and do it, because you can be who you are and you’re not going to be hassled.
The next slide is just a palate cleanser. So if you’re expecting a campus to look like rickety old New Orleans, this is what it actually looks like. I call it “Catholic meets tropical.”
Our next step is to work on the creative concept. This is where we’re taking the ideas from the platform — the messages about what we stand for as an institution — and start to translate them into the creative.
The creative concept that we landed on here is called “Create Something Meaningful.” It’s picking up this idea of creativity. We weren’t sure if it applied to the whole institution, so at a certain point we had a meeting with the small group of deans, and we had to ask, “Could this concept represent creativity in fields that aren’t music and arts?”
It was the science people who spoke up first and said, “Science is extremely creative. Anybody who doesn’t see the creativity there just doesn’t really understand how science works.” That was a good sign for us.
The concept has the word create first, and then something meaningful taps into the sense of purpose, where you could work on something that is meaningful to your community or to the world at large — or even just to you personally.
On the next slide, we’ll take a look at mood boards. Along with the creative concept, we also present mood boards as part of our creative phase. The idea for the mood boards is that we’re letting you in on the creative process. You don’t have to wait until everything in finish, and then we say, “Ta-dah! Here, I hope you like it.”
With mood boards, you can see our thinking and how it aligns with your strategy and your messages. If you watch a lot of HGTV, the mood board phase is when the interior designers come in and they show you the swatches and the tile samples right before they gut your kitchen.
For Loyola, this is what we were thinking. It’s lifestyle photography — a little bit like you would see in fashion or advertising. We wanted to make sure that we could show the texture of New Orleans and show the students out in the city. We were looking at some looser fonts that might match the school’s personality.
I’m just showing you a few of our mood boards here.
In the next set, we’re not using real photos and official copy, we’re just focusing on the vibe. There’s a set of colors — the school colors are there. Then we also start to play with how the elements work together — adding in some headlines like “speak your mind” that could tap into the messaging about personal discoveries and finding your voice.
One way that we thought we could start to explain the idea of creative thinking is saying, “Hey, welcome to our community of original people.”
Here we start to play a little bit more with the language and finding the tone that we might use. It says, “Be you, be true, define who you want to be at Loyola. We are free thinkers and risk takers and people of character.”
There’s one more that I wanted to show. It also relates to this idea of showing the creative thinking that runs across the whole spectrum of disciplines. So we’re using it in conjunction with a science shot just so that you can see that we can pair this concept with the story about exploration.
We workshop the mood boards, and then we gather the feedback from Loyola. And we’re really asking just two main questions:
Would this creative direction advance our strategy and our goals — would it position us the right way?
And does this feel like us? Because the branding has to be authentic.
Then we go back to the office to revise and amplify.
Our next phase is the brand vision. It’s this big long print that maps out our vision for the brand. It’s showing you how the brand and the brand concept could apply to your various audiences. We try to show samples of all kinds of different pieces.
This one had a web homepage and viewbook, a donor piece, stickers to put on your guitar cases — a little bit of everything. But the idea of this print is something that’s shareable. Your internal team can develop pieces in-house and can always refer back to this to make sure that they’re staying on brand.
Then this is where you start to develop the actual tools. I’ll spend a little time here walking you through the content so that you can see how it relates back to some of the messages that were in the platform.
This was the cover of the viewbook. It leads with that concept “Create something meaningful.” You can see the unconventional typeface. The cover image is a little bit different because she’s not just looking into the camera.
Next slide is the opening spread. It starts with explaining the creative concept. It says, “Want to impact the world? Think creatively. That means brainstorming and pushing boundaries, infusing divergent ideas. At Loyola, you’ll spot new problems and formulate innovative solutions. You’ll see the world in new ways.”
And then we lead with a story about science on the right. Anna Lisa was born a preemie baby, and she always loved science. Now she’s researching how brains develop in premature babies. She did a summer research program at Yale and she’s the national spokesperson for the March of Dimes. She is a great example of how you can use science and your creative thinking to make your mark in the world.
As an institution, if you’re good at creative thinking, you’ve got to be able to prove it. Here’s a page that’s really packed with examples about what happens in the classroom. We added an offbeat illustration for each one. It says, “Join our creative class.”
If you’re in an entrepreneurship class, you would build an app and pitch it during Loyola tech week. In food ethnicity, you can study Dookie Chase, the city’s most famous restaurant and its role in the civil rights struggle.
There’s a forensics class where you track algae growth to estimate how long somebody’s been dead. There’s an electric acoustic ensemble where you capture strange sounds like a frog croaking and transform it into music.
At one point, Loyola asked us to present our work to a Deans’ Council meeting. When we showed up for the meeting, it turned out to be a meeting of the entire faculty. You walked into the room and you think, “Uh-oh. I’m being fed to the lions here.”
But we spent a lot of time discussing the examples on this page. When we finished presenting, the first faculty member to raise his hand was a person who was notoriously, let’s say, hard to please. But he said something that turned out to be great. He said, “In the past we’ve had consultants come in and they talk to us about who they think we should become, and it always felt artificial like we were wearing a costume. But this really feels like us.”
The next spread is “Be you, be true. There’s no in crowd here and we like it this way.” At one point, we were going to become the first school in history to feature a real live mermaid in a viewbook because when she’s not researching gold nanoparticles, Rachel here wears a high-tech tail and performs as a birthday party mermaid.
Which school can top that?
We thought we would shoot her frolicking in the campus fountain, but on our photo shoot day, we learned that the tail was broken. Not only was it broken, it had been mailed all the way to Germany for repairs. But this is Loyola so she says to us, in typical Loyola fashion, “Well you know, I’m also a flamenco dancer.” So, that’s the shot here.
Here we tried to dial back the use of the giant narrator in the sky. But we still wanted to give people an idea of who the Loyola students were. These are the students as they showed up with their own expressive presentation of who they are. We said that Loyola students are free thinkers and risk takers. They’re problem solvers and justice seekers, entrepreneurs and athletes, opera singers, social activists, and insect researchers. And they are Catholic and Jewish and agnostic and Muslim and still deciding. There’s some other choices on there as well.
Next I’m showing this because we tried to use the stories of people to bring all the brand platform messages to life. The students who are shown here really embodied the message about going deeper into something that you care a lot about. During our discovery we met with a professor of English who told us that the student on the left was a total badass. We didn’t get our mermaid, so you know we definitely needed the badass.
We met Flor, and she’s an audio engineering major. In that program, students record a lot of tracks for real clients. She got tired of being talked down to because she was a woman in a male-dominated field. So she started her own revolution, which was a nonprofit group called Electric Girls. It’s a STEM program just for women. She’s now turned it into her career. She’s a great example of somebody who can go deeper into something that means something to her — and frankly can have a little impact on the world.
You’ll recall that we needed to be able to tip the scales for the city of New Orleans so that people didn’t think about it as just a party city.
New Orleans at the time was the No. 3 film location in the country. Digital filmmaking was one of the fastest growing majors, so the story here is about Nick, who showed a lot of his films in different film festivals and was only a freshman. So he’s off to a good start.
We included some stats about the city that might be surprising: No. 1 foodie city in America, Top 10 for friendliest cities, No. 1 for brain power.
Then on the next spread we continued talking about New Orleans, and we really made a big deal about how you could do and learn things in this city that you couldn’t do everywhere else.
On the left-hand we’re showing you that there are lots of different scenes in New Orleans. It’s not just a party scene, but a food scene and a sports scene. Then on the right, we’re giving you examples of things you can do here that take you out in to the city to learn. You can study biodiversity on the bayou. You could transform Mardi Gras World, which is where they store the parade floats, into a dental clinic. You could transcribe audio interviews with Woody Guthrie for the music archives of the city. It’s those kinds of things.
This is a liberal arts institution, so you’ve got to always be able to connect what people are learning in the classroom to careers. There’s a list here on this page that shows you that the alums range from big-time entrepreneurs to rap stars.
For the grad, we’re showing here, Justin has a cool job where he’s a creative coach for different ad agencies. You can see the photography is that idea of going out into the city and showing the texture. Lots of the shots were planned with loads of extra space so that we could make room for the type.
We’ll go through some of these next pieces fairly quickly.
With the brand vision in tow, then Zehno and the internal team can start building up its full set of brand tools.
This is the search piece for college fairs with branded copy and stats. The next one shows the university website. It didn’t get a full relaunch, but hey started to bring in the brand messages and the storytelling content.
The next piece is a piece for music and fine arts. What’s great about Loyola is the students would just show up as themselves. Our cover model here showed up looking cool with his flip-up sunglasses and a thrift store shirt that was all splashed with paint. He’s a DJ on the side, so his backpack was covered with all these speakers hanging off it. It was extremely Loyola, so we just let people be who they were.
The copy here talks about how you can turn your creativity into a career. Then on the next slide when you go inside, it’s more details about each individual program within that school. You’ll always see a list of projects that you would tackle. There’s always a set of creative classes that are your examples of exploring creative thinking. And we always photograph the students just as they were. We didn’t scrub away any of their personality.
This is the alumni magazine. The point again is with this brand vision on hand the internal team continues to develop new pieces that always relate to the brand.
I didn’t really believe it at first but this campus really is a community of creative individuals — people who aren’t afraid to be their own individualistic selves. This student was not on our photo shoot list. She just walked past with this cool style. In some ways she’s maybe more Loyola than some people who we really had scheduled. Her last name is Winfrey, and guess what? She’s related to Oprah. She rides a retro bike, and guess what color it is? It’s pistachio. She was perfect. We asked, “Can you just stand there — right next to the parking garage — and be you?” She’s photographed like this.
The next slide shows you what I hoped would be the cover of the viewbook. But you don’t get everything you want out of life. I was pulling for her. She did not make the final cut. But I’m happy to report that my favorite shot at least became the poster for Fine Arts Day, so that was great.
I want to just talk a little bit about some of the results of this rebranding project. I already mentioned on a personal note I was not eaten alive by the faculty, so that’s mostly good. Right? It also won a slew of awards, which is great for building up the expertise for the internal team.
But this slide shows really the truest parts of the results. Their apps were up, their visits were up, and their deposits were up in the first year. Actually enrollment made a big jump, almost a third. Then it rose another 11%, I think, this last fall — even after they had some budget cuts in marketing. At a tuition-driven institution, that is a big deal.
Let me wrap up. I’ll do some quick reminders of some things that I think you can learn from the Loyola project.
The first thing is to get into the classroom. It’s just so important. That’s where the magic really happens. Every school could show you what their students are learning. It could show you how their classes are different. It could show you how their professors teach in a way that doesn’t match other schools. But hardly ever anybody ever takes the time to really do that.
The second thing is to listen to your research. It will help you to take your negatives and maybe translate them into positives, as we’re doing with New Orleans. But it can also help to elevate your positives up to a super-positive level.
The third thing is to let your people be themselves. You don’t want to art direct people’s personalities away. I think that came through really strong in the Loyola project.
All right, Voltaire, you want to take it away with the next school?
Voltaire Santos Miran: Awesome. Thanks, Shane.
I want to talk a little bit about UNCSA, the University of North Carolina School for the Arts. Just some background about UNCSA. It was founded in 1963 as America’s first public arts conservatory, and it is known as one of the best conservatories in the world.
What’s unique about is that it is a university that’s composed of five standalone schools. There’s a dance conservatory, a design and production conservatory, a drama conservatory, a filmmaking conservatory and then a music conservatory as well as a high school. It’s located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the faculty to student ratio is nine to one.
For UNCSA students, when you look at the student body it’s really small — a little less than 1,300 students. That includes 250 high school students, 890 undergrads and 152 graduate students. They tend to be highly gifted, and they also tended to be highly driven. This is something that I didn’t realize until we started working with UNCSA.
How different is it to be in a conservatory than it is to be in a typical college or university? I know people who for instance went to undergrad, they majored in English, and then they were part of the dance program. That’s not what happens at a conservatory. A conservatory is where you say at a very young age, “I believe enough in my ability, and I care enough about my art, that I’m going to double down. I am going to live, sleep, eat and breathe my art through high school or through graduate or through undergraduate.” It is a far different experience than most college or university students have.
UNCSA came into the project with a number of really great strengths. They have a global reputation and top national rankings. They have faculty members who are expert practitioners and recognized professionals in their field. They have really highly accomplished alumni. They have 11 performing and screen spaces that are comparable to the best in the industry.
They have a Hollywood-like campus that literally feels like Hollywood when you’re walking around their campus — in a city that is known nationally as a place for arts and innovation.
One of the cool things about being at UNCSA, having that structure, is that there is a community of collaboration — performers across all ages — everywhere from high school all the way up to practicing professionals. They are also pioneers in embracing technology to create what they call the 21st century conservatory experience.
Shane had shared a picture of Loyola. This is a picture of UNCSA. This is, if I remember correctly, the library, which is absolutely gorgeous.
When we started working on the website, we wanted it to capture the essence of the institution. We talked with over 140 different stakeholders and stakeholder groups just to get a sense of who UNCSA was. The creative concept that we landed on is “You will do what you love.”
Now, the reason that we came up with this was twofold. The internal reason is that we realized the one thing that UNCSA could talk about across all of the conservatories is their ability to tell stories. It is at the heart of what they do as performers. Internally this was something that they could embrace. Externally what we found when we talked with students is that the students who come to UNCSA don’t want to be in classrooms for the first two years just learning theory. From day one, they want to be doing what they love.
The promise that UNCSA makes is you will do what you love from day one. The text that they created for this is really beautiful. “Challenging, inspiring, intense, transformative, this is how UNCSA students and alumni describe the conservatory experience. You’ll learn from the best. You will live and work alongside immensely talented and enthusiastic young artists. You will do everything in beautiful modern facilities. Finally, you will leave UNCSA knowing how to work hard, dream big and pursue your art as a seasoned working professional.”
We say this on the website, but one of the wonderful things about working in a digital medium is that you can also show it. One of the big components of the UNCSA’s site is photography.
We have a mix of photography on the site. You will see when you go there that we have these highly polished and staged portrait photographs for some areas of the site. But we also have photographs that are basically behind the scenes showing how the magic gets made. The juxtaposition of the two and the blending of individual people performing and people in collaboration help to get at that sense of what it would be like to be part of the UNCSA community.
Now UNCSA was going through a visual standards redesign. While we were working on the website, we got to incorporate all of that great work. Here are the marks for all of the conservatories, and here are the typefaces for the list of conservatories. One of the things we wanted to do is make sure that we preserved the visual essence of the institution on the website as well as it was in print.
When you take a look at the website itself, one of the things that you probably won’t notice immediately is that the website design is fairly spare. We went with a high contrast and minimal, almost scaffolding-like design because what we wanted to do was focus on the photography and videography, and let the images tell the story. We let the images bring the institution to life.
When you go to the homepage, you will see this video, which is a montage of students in the act of creating, in the act of performing, in the act of producing across all of the different conservatories at UNCSA. Again it comes back to this idea that students need to know that they will be able to do everything that they came to do at the conservatory from day one.
The promise that’s made is conveyed also in showing different performances that happened at UNCSA on a daily and weekly basis. There’s a part of the homepage that spends time very specifically talking about the difference of what it is to study at a conservatory.
We continue to tell the story of UNCSA through individual people. So here are three stories of alumni. One who worked on The Handmaid’s Tale, one who is currently Miss America, and one who realized his childhood dream of working at Disney.
Then we also have student voices in the form of a curated hashtag feed. We feature faculty members and one of the things we want to point out here is that we were very deliberate at making sure that all of the faculty member photographs were high quality and consistent because we wanted everything to enforce the brand.
Then as we get into storytelling you will see that UNCSA’s site has a mix of different types of stories. There are some long-form stories that make really wonderful use of photography. There are some stories that are more Q&A and video focused.
And then we made sure that the sense of place and the sense of people were not just at the top levels but went down into each of the areas. So you’ll see the same care put into the design of the School of Music and School of Dance — even into the notices for performances that are upcoming.
I’ll point finally to the mobile experience. We made sure that the mobile experience was as beautiful as the desktop experience. In terms of accolades — accolades are nice, right, Shane? It’s always nice to win awards. We’re pretty proud of this. It was one of the three finalists for the Webby’s in 2016.
But as Shane said a little bit earlier, what really matters are the results. Some of the results we saw: social media referrals increased 2,600%. Short-form it went viral. It went viral because for the first time people had something that they were really proud of in UNCSA.
You would have no idea from their old website how tremendous the institution was. But I think you get a sense of that now.
Admissions inquiries increased 518%, online giving went up 48% and applications to the School of Filmmaking specifically increased by 37%.
Then here’s a softer outcome, but I think this is an important one as well. This is a quote from Susan Ruskin, the dean of filmmaking. She said, “The process of launching the website was very healthy for all of us as deans to start thinking of who we were as a whole rather than who were as individual schools.”
I think that’s really important because when you engage in a branding project — or a web project or a brand/web project — it requires collective introspection. And collaboration will most likely help you end up in a better place as an institution. It reminds me of one of the values that mStoner talks about: the best solutions that we come to are the ones that we arrive at together.
What can you learn from UNCSA? I would say three things:
The first is find out what inspires your students. For us that ah-ha moment when we realized that students were so passionate about the art of creating and they wanted to do it from day one. That was a realization upon which so much of we created pivoted.
The second is to invest in the expression of your brand. Everyone thinks that websites still come for free — that photography for websites is cheap and for video all you need is an iPad and a dream. I literally had a client say that once, and I was so tickled by that! But the investment in getting high-quality assets is so worthy.
The third thing I would say is sweat the details that convey craft and care. I didn’t get to show you around the live site, but I would really love it if you would spend a little bit of time clicking around and looking at the micro transitions and the little grace notes that we built into the site. As someone interacts with it, there are these little things that should surprise and delight and continue to capture people’s attention.
Let’s wrap this up.
The punchline: Across the two case studies that Shane and I have presented, I think there are three things that we want you to walk away with.
The first is unforgettable brands are based on values rather than attributes. If you spend all your time talking about how you have the perfect location and faculty who know your name personally, you’re not going to connect with your perspective students or your audiences as much as you would if you focused on the values that you as an institution and they as individuals share.
The second thing that we want you to remember from this is that unforgettable brands connect at an emotional level. It’s one thing to provide facts and figures, but when you are able to connect with people emotionally then you’re a step further. Because frankly, emotions drive the vast majority of decisions that we make.
The final thing we want you to walk away with is this idea that unforgettable brands tell stories in which the details bring the stories to life. I do a lot of storytelling workshops, and I tell everyone that there are seven basic themes that govern stories throughout all time and space. I think we as communicators sometimes want to do something that no one else has done — to say things that no one else has said.
It was a freeing moment for me in my research and in my work when I realized that that’s not the goal. The goal is really to tell the stories that only you can tell.
On that note, I’ll turn this over to Mallory. Tag, Mallory. You’re it.
QUESTIONS FROM PARTICIPANTS
Mallory: Thanks. All right. Awesome session.
Shane, I loved your tip about turning the negatives into positives. I thought that was so smart.
Voltaire, I liked how you just wrapped everything up, specifically that point about connecting with your audience at an emotional level. I think about the brands that I love most, and man, I don’t enjoy dropping a lot of money on a new pair of shoes, but I might connect with that brand just so much more than others. It truly is an emotional connection for one reason or another. I think that’s just such an important takeaway and keypoint. Thank you for making it.
Friends, now is a great time to share your questions with me through that Q&A feature or in the chatroom. But before we start answering them I have two items to share with you.
First, our teams gathered up relevant resources and case studies into one handy kit to help you further your knowledge on many of the topics like Shane and Voltaire discussed today. For example, you’re going to get access to Zehno’s white paper, The Brand Manual Reinvented, where they share eight tips for transforming your brand manual into a powerhouse tool. And then from mStoner you’ll read Strategies for an Audience-First Website and Ways to Transcend the Homepage Template that we see most colleges and universities following.
Look forward to that resource kit. I’ll share a link in a moment. As a side note, that kit is also where we are going to make today’s webinar recording and slide deck available. You can access the kit now. Come Friday those resources will magically appear. We really hope that in general this kit inspires your summer projects, your interactive site changes and your long-term brand planning. Please do share it with your colleagues if they weren’t able to attend today.
PARTNER WITH US
Second, when the time’s right, we would obviously love to explore partnership opportunities with you. Zehno and mStoner are teaming up and leveraging our teams’ expertise across marketing and communications to launch digital-first brands. We’re currently partnering together on a really exciting project and brand launch for Marymount California University and we’re nearing the final phase of their website redesign. So you will be able to check that work out really soon.
In the ideal world I think everyone here believes that branding and website redesigns should really be conceived as a simultaneous project. Right? Your website is a communications tool that can have the broadest impact. It needs to be in sync with your brand. It’s so important. But in the real world we know that at most institutions, branding and website are still in two different kingdoms. It’s often a question of which project gets started first or which project gets funded first.
Wherever you are in your brand iteration or kingdom, whether you’ve just completed a brand refresh and you need a redesign, or you’ve completed a redesign and you need to tune up your brand, or maybe you’re back to the drawing board on both, Zehno and mStoner can help.
Our partnership page is one way you can get in touch with us, or you can reach out to any of the team members you see today. So start that conversation.
Last but not least, please don’t forget to fill out our quick webinar evaluation. Your feedback as I mentioned earlier is so valuable. It truly helps us determine future webinar topics. It gives Shane and Volt a sense of how they did today and if the webinar met your expectations. I will share links to all of these things in the chatroom in just a moment.
Let’s dig into some really great questions.
Voltaire, I’m actually going to throw this first one to you. It’s a question that I have because my guess is that the majority of our attendees today don’t work at art conservatories and might not have the amazing video production capabilities that UNCSA had. You’ve talked a lot about the importance of investing in expressing your brand on the web. What advice would you give to our attendees who may not have those same capabilities to produce that high-quality video?
Voltaire: That’s a great question, Mallory. When you take a look at the UNCSA site, you will see that it is incredibly video-rich. Video is everywhere. High-quality photography is everywhere. That’s because UNCSA can do this. UNCSA is staffed properly for this. UNCSA is a creative conservatory. This is exactly in their wheelhouse, so they can embrace it. They can own it in a way that very few institutions can.
That said, I would still advocate that an institution should be really wise about budgeting money for photography and videography. It doesn’t have to be anywhere near this sort of budget — either as a one-time experience or in terms of ongoing staffing that UNCSA has. But when you’re telling your story on the website, you’ve basically got three seconds to capture someone’s attention. And those three seconds are based largely on photography and design. They will likely stay more engaged with your website based on good video that you’re able to show.
While you don’t need to invest anywhere near as much as UNCSA does, you should still invest in those things. Those are probably — next to content and now planning for content on the website — the two things that I find clients plan for least. The sensibility is still there that you literally can take an iPad out and get video that you’re going to be really proud of on your website, or that you can go back through your archives and re-crop 10 years worth of images that you’ve stored and be really happy with that. That’s honestly not the case. It’s just pretending. But that’s the perception.
Mallory: So another one of our attendees, Andy, raised the point that sometimes really high-quality photos can give a look of purchased stock photos when there’s no campus context around it. Is this something that you’ve dealt with our clients before, Voltaire or Shane? Do you think Gen Z cares about this? This authenticity through photography?
Shane: I think you have two choices. You can have either crappy photography or great photography. I’m going to encourage you to have great photography in the main tools that represent your brand as a whole.
If your photography gets so slick that maybe it starts to look like stock, I guess my advice is that whenever you use a photo that somebody could say, “Is that a stock image or is that really Loyola? Or is that really UNCSA?” look for ways to always tag what is happening in the photo. A very simple caption can connect the story so that you know that not only is it fantastic looking, not only does that person seem really intriguing, but the photo is very real.
Frankly, any generation likes things to be real. If you’re an alum, you’re thrilled when you can see your institution look fantastic, be intriguing, have some energy. I think as a prospective student, you want the same kind of thing: to look at the photos and stories and you think, “Wow, that place seems surprising” or “I didn’t know that.” Or “maybe I could be like that person.” Whenever you can tie the story in with the image, you get the most mileage.
What would you add, Voltaire? Anything?
Voltaire: I would say, number one, that what we hear is people do care. That they don’t want to see stock photography. I would say that one of the pieces of feedback I’ve gotten more recently with some projects we’ve launched is that it not only needs to look like them, but it needs to be really them.
For instance, I was talking with a group of people who work with international students, and they were saying, “You know what? We don’t have really good pictures, so we used stock photography.” The students were like, “This isn’t us. You didn’t even get the ethnicities right.”
For the people that they were trying to recruit, I think it does matter, and I would definitely push in the direction of don’t use stock. One of the things about stock photography is it’s stock photography because they shot it so that it can be generic enough to be applied to a number of different situations.
I think that Gen Z has a huge bullshit meter. They know when they’re being marketed to. So yeah, I think it matters.
Mallory: We’ve been talking a bit about Gen Z and that naturally leads us into some questions about admissions. I’m looking for your recommendations. One of our attendees is curious how you bridge the gap between admissions and marketing when both of those departments might report to separate leadership. I think the side question there is how much is admissions actually driving your brand? I think that’s part of that question or maybe is part of the answer. Shane, what are your thoughts?
Shane: Well, let me just start with a related question: how much should admissions drive your brand? I will say that admissions should not drive the brand because the brand should be for all of your audiences. However, that’s an ideal world situation, and I think every institution that I’ve worked for and with has always had admissions as a main driver. Because if you’re a tuition-driven institution, you have to have people in the classrooms, you have to have people enrolling.
I think there are some schools that can coast on their endowment, but frankly even those schools pay attention to admissions. I think admissions is a giant piece of branding for most institutions. If you do your brand right, it really taps into who you are as a school — but not necessarily at exactly this moment in time but who you have been and who you are becoming. And the brand can actually last for several years.
In the admissions world, you may have a campaign that relates strongly to your brand. And the admissions world usually moves at a faster pace. Right? Every three or four years people start to say, “Well, that hairstyle is not current” or “That person graduated so many years ago.” So the admissions side might need some freshening up. That might be on the visual side, or it might be in the storytelling side.
If the brand platform is done very well, it taps into what the school stands for. And that can withstand time.
In terms of how you get people to work together, that’s a big challenge. It seems worse the larger the institution gets.
I think you have to figure out how to set up some collaborative working groups that just bridge the gaps. If you’re on the marketing side, there are probably times that you say, “Well, if admissions would just work with us…” But if you’re on the admissions side, there would be days where you’d say, “Well, if the marketing team would just get their act together and work with us…” You probably think exactly the same things!
If you just set up the structure to have some kind of a working group — whether it’s super informal or very formalized — I think that’s a good first step.
Mallory: I like that you say working group and not committee.
Shane, let’s talk a little bit about the Loyola project. I have some specific questions about it. And they’re good ones too. Abby is complimenting that the campaign is very modern, and she loves it. But in her experience at her institution, she’s had a tough time engaging older stakeholders to buy into the more modern images or fonts that are really geared toward the next generation.
Have you had to combat this with Loyola or other clients? What tips might you have for creating buy-in with folks whose ideas might be a little more out-of-date or antiquated?
Shane: Well, I think that’s a common thing in a lot of institutions. Here’s one thing that I think always works well: If you can test the piece and get feedback with the actual audience, that matters. If it’s really an admissions-oriented campaign for a traditional-aged student, do some focus groups or testing. Maybe you have them sit in a room with all the materials that they can get from other schools and talk about why certain things appeal to them and others don’t.
Once you’re armed with some information like that, that makes it easier for somebody who may not be in that target generation to answer questions like, “Well, is this too loud or too bold?” Maybe you’re the boss and you’re 60, and you’re worried about how to pitch it at the 17-year-old. When you see what feedback you’ve gotten from that particular audience, then you can be a lot more comfortable with the decisions that are being made. When we present our mood boards, we’re not actually asking anyone ever do you personally like it? We don’t really care if they like it. “Like it” means “Well, l I like yellow” or “I don’t like yellow” or “I always hated this kind of a typeface.” That’s your personal preference.
So we’re always asking, “Can this match our strategy? Can this fit with where we’re trying to go?” That’s a completely different kind of question. Yes, you’re also asking “Does this feel like us?” so you have to calibrate your decisions based on that. You could do a rocking campaign, but if it doesn’t match the reality of the institution (or the people you are hoping to really connect with), it will be out of sync.
Mallory: It’s hard to dispute research results. Right? You’ve got the hard data showing one preference over another. Opinions kind of go out the window at that point.
All right. Another question about Loyola from Mary who is wondering if that cool offbeat and creative voice and tone from their viewbook carries through into the alumni magazine.
Shane: I will say, yes, but not in exactly the same way. When we work on a magazine redesign through Zehno, it’s never just to make the magazine prettier. It’s always to make the magazine more strategic. Yes, we’re going to make a magazine that looks great, but we’re also going to help you choose the right kinds of stories that advance the institution and the brand and speak to the audience. We talk about different ways to tell those stories. For Loyola, we carved out some specific spaces within the magazine to do content that’s very heavily tied with the brand. There’s always a little focus on a class that has this creative thinking. The magazine is mostly for alumni, so there’s always a big chunk about New Orleans. It’s not so much about the parades and that kind of stuff as it is, “Hey, did you know our people are doing this out in the city? Or this classroom is doing a big project with a local nonprofit.” For alums who loved the Loyola experience and know New Orleans on a more deeper level, they can see stories that really reflect that.
I wouldn’t say that the magazine itself is particularly quirky. Sometimes it uses exactly the same photography as the materials I showed you. There might be some alums who attended Loyola in the 1950s who maybe look at today’s kids with flipped-up sunglasses and all those paint splatters and think, “Well, that’s not exactly what it was like when I was in school!” But I think if you get the right vibe of the piece and you’re telling the stories that really represent the institution at its heart, nobody gets hung up on that kind of thing.
Mallory: Thanks, Shane. That was a great answer. Appreciate that. Just two more questions.
One of our attendees noted that the examples we shared today came out of some pretty creative institutions already. How about other programs like business or STEM? Obviously there’s a lot that you can imply from the learnings today but any differences in approach that one would really need to consider for a different type of institution or program?
Voltaire: I think one of the first things that Shane shared was that he really spent a lot of time with the Loyola project asking how this goes beyond, say, the music program. That’s why you tested this with science programs first. I’d love for Shane to say a little bit about how he saw the work applying to science as well as it does to the creative disciplines.
Shane: Is it Richard Florida that wrote the books about the creative economy and did all the research that shows that people want to live in a creative city, they want to be in a creative environment even if they might not see themselves as super creative? People get the idea that creative environments are more interesting and exciting. It’s not unrelated to that.
We were nervous at first about putting too much weight on creative thinking. We knew they were strong in the key programs, but a lot of instructors across journalism, the sciences, and business were doing things that also involved this cross-discipline thinking and had those creative elements. We had to make sure that the institution was comfortable with leaning on creative thinking.
I think also at the heart of this listener’s question is can this approach work if I have a science-oriented school or something more business-like? I would say that overall the basic processes — on the upfront branding that I showed and then also in that the website development piece that Voltaire walked through — are still the same. In the science world we’re doing some work with the LSU College of Science. The creative concept is very much about appealing to people that are puzzle solvers and problem solvers, who ask things like “is there a quicker way around this? Why does this process work 99% of the time then there’s that 1% that it doesn’t?” Scientists have that problem-solving mentality. If you really are approaching the creative concept in that way, you can appeal to that audience.
You might structure your content differently. You can still have beautiful images, but there might be a different kind of “beautiful” image. For example, in the science world, people wear those terrible-looking plastic goggles — that’s cool in its own way — or they might be surrounded by all this crazy lab equipment. Maybe other people don’t understand, but in the science world everybody knows that that’s a spectrometer or that’s a certain kind of microscope.
I think it helps to speak the language of your audience. You can use the same kind of process that we talked about and make a great connection with your audience.
Voltaire: I would say exactly what you said, Shane. That the process is the same. Substance of the photographs and the substance of the videography will be different, and the substance of the stories will be different. But we’re working right now with Northeastern University College of Engineering, and I’m blown away by the beauty of some of the photography that is related to work that students do. It’s a different sort of beautiful than someone who’s performing on stage, but it is still beautiful.
Hopefully what we want you to take away from the webinar is not, “We’re not a school that focuses on performing creative arts. What we saw doesn’t help us to approach brand better.”
At the end of the day what we’re trying to do is move you to tell your stories with the best video, with the best photography, with the best stories you can.
Shane: You can hire a specialty photographer who brings a particular style, that brings out your environment in a stronger way. I think that’s a key part of both of these projects that we showed you today. We actually work with photographers who had a specific style, look and vibe. That helped the visuals come across in both of these projects.
Mallory: A little while ago in the chatroom, Kathy observed that a lot of today’s conversation has been really focused on student stories and powerful images. That’s precisely what we’re talking about now, too. As we wrap up today’s session, any tips? If you could offer one tip, how would you find the best stories for branding website content?
Voltaire: That’s such a great question.
Mallory: Kathy asks good ones. I’m not surprised.
Voltaire: Shane, you want to go first?
Shane: Yeah. I’ve tended to work in the central campus more than in just a particular college or something, so my take is always that students are still the best resource for knowing who’s interesting and who’s doing something different and who is the ultimate version of your school.
If you’re working in an environment where you don’t really have much contact with students, I would try to switch that. I also always found that my frontline admissions recruiters, the people who travel with all your materials to the college fairs, seem to meet everyone and could be a great source for helping you find stories — at least about students coming into the system.
After that I often found that people who work in the residence halls have their finger on the pulse. If you could tap into the right people, you could really locate some great stories.
The other thing I will say is there’s a difference between a cool story and a brand story. The cool story is about a specific person at a given time — and then the story is over with. But then there’s a brand story. It tells a story about Joe and what he’s doing, but then it also tells this bigger story about your institution.
When you’re making choices about which stories get elevated, either in your print materials or on your website or across all of your communications channels, try to tip the scale toward that brand story. Make sure that it says something about your institution, not just about the cool person. I think you get more mileage out of that.
If you don’t have unlimited resources, maybe you don’t have the video and photography options at Voltaire’s school. But you could prioritize and say, “Let’s select these key brand stories that get elevated to this very high presentation level.” For some of your other cool stories, decide that you’ll do the best that you can, but make sure that those brand stories that people can see over and over are represented at the highest level of production.
Voltaire: Cool. I would add that faculty members have been really great sources of stories because they tend to work closely with students and know the stories with some specificity. They’re a really great source to tap as well.
Departmental assistants are really, really great about knowing where alumni are because the departmental assistants are the ones the alumni call even after they’ve graduated. So they’re a really good source.
As Shane drew a distinction between a brand story and an individual story, I would draw a distinction between a story and a profile. A story to me, a really good story. It has specific details and a narrative arc. Try to get something with a specific detail and a narrative arc like Miss America using her crown to champion the arts and how she’s doing it, or someone fulfilling a lifelong dream to work at Disney, that is a much more powerful story than someone saying, “Oh my God, it’s so wonderful here and everyone is so nice and now I want to change the world,” which we see a lot of.
I love when our clients can push a little bit further into the story. Go past the surface to find out what made the experience the way that it was. Uncover what conflict might have existed or what sort of challenge needed to be solved. Because the story is not a story without that.
Shane: That’s a great point.
Voltaire: The deeper the story, the better the connection.
Mallory: That is a great point. And we will leave it at that. The greater the story, the greater the connection. Thanks everyone for attending today. Have a wonderful afternoon and we’ll see you next time.
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