Interview with Voltaire Santos Miran by Megan Youngblood

Voltaire Santos Miran is the CEO and Head of Client Experience at mStoner — a digital agency focused on higher education marketing and communications — who’s reshaped higher ed brands across the country.

Zehno is teaming up with mStoner to bring you a free webinar about how to create unforgettable branding. So we caught up with Voltaire — who’s co-presenting the webinar with Zehno’s Shane Shanks — just after he moved mStoner’s Chicago-based office to a new downtown location (and returned from a trip to Spain!).

Here’s what he had to say about starting your brand project off right, getting at the heart of an institution, and schools communicating their brands well.

Q: What are the most common mistakes you see institutions making in marketing?

The two most common mistakes I see — or let’s call them opportunities for improvement — are not paying attention to the data and treating a website as a discrete project instead of an ongoing process.

Often clients either don’t set up analytics correctly, or they set up analytics but don’t spend time drawing insight from information. In the same way, institutions tend to view websites as syncopated investments — a matter of ongoing maintenance with the occasional infusion of capital funds.

The best teams, however, are constantly experimenting, analyzing and refining their sites to improve results and enhance site visitors’ experiences.

Q: In an ideal world, which should come first: new brand or new website?

Ideally you’d conduct research for the brand and for the site concurrently. Then develop the brand platform and use digital as the first expression of that brand.

I’ve found that you ask roughly 75% of the same questions in brand discovery as you would for website discovery — doing them together saves time and money.

And if you start with the website in a brand rollout, you address at the very beginning a number of items that you just don’t consider if you start with a print piece and a billboard.

Q: How does mStoner get at the heart of an institution?

We try to ask good questions, and we work hard at listening.

The art and science of developing a brand positioning is basically finding the sweet spot in the middle of what’s authentic, unique, mildly aspirational, and valuable.

Q: What’s the secret to making a brand come to life online?

Digital offers us so many ways to create a sense of place and community and to tell stories that captivate and inspire. Wonderful photography, videography, well-written content and brilliant visual design — all contribute to bringing a brand to life. So do good information architecture, thoughtful navigation, and attention to details like microinteractions that convey polish and craft.

On a well-branded site, all of these items come together in a way that creates a unique experience — one in which you couldn’t just swap out the logo and have the site represent any other school.

Q: From your portfolio of work at mStoner, what are you most proud of in terms of how well it communicates the brand?

I’m really thrilled with our work with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the Medill School of Journalism, and the University of North Dakota. In all cases, I think we were able to convey the essence of the institution through highly dynamic and visually appealing sites.

My favorite project in recent memory is one in which we helped Rush University slim down its site from more than 20,000 assets to 500 pages and create a unified identity across its colleges and schools in a new content management system — with a solid governance plan.

What I love most about that project was helping our client to effect positive organizational change, both through the website itself and the process of relaunching it.


Sources of Inspiration

  1. Specialty pen“My Sailor fine point fountain pen optimized for the way I write as a leftie.”
  2. StorytellingThe New York Times and Vanity Fair are my two trusted go-tos for news about the world. And Ann Handley’s forthrightly newsletters are magic. I’ve also been binge-watching MasterClass lessons — Jimmy Chin, Frank Gehry, Alice Waters, James Suckling and Mark Jacobs. Currently, Neil Gaiman on storytelling.”
  3. Brainstorming“My team draws inspiration from the strangest sources and the funniest conversations. We had one brainstorming session, for instance, in which we redesigned a coffee cup as a way of getting at some original ideas for a website.”
  4. Travel“I’m just back from Spain. I spent time in Madrid and towns to the north — Bilbao, Zaragoza, Avila, Elciego, and Segovia. My favorite was Bilbao. The Guggenheim alone is worth the trip, and the city’s riverwalk is a fantastic story of urban planning and renewal. We found a Basque pintxo bar in Madrid that we returned to a few times during our stay, it was so good. Sagardi. But don’t tell anyone.”

Learn more

Get more great tips from Voltaire and Zehno’s Shank Shanks in our free webinar. You’ll learn how to transform your message platform into compelling and captivating creative and how to make your website an integral part of your branding.