Our Experience with Brand and Storytelling in Higher Education

Posted: November 2, 2015

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

In preparation for a visit to the College of The Albemarle campus for their brand launch event, our Vice President, Creative Director & Senior Strategist, Tony Poillucci, sat down with Account Manager, Micaiah Norby, to talk about the branding process and their experiences.

Tony and Micaiah have worked together on several branding projects for VisionPoint clients and Tony was interested to hear Micaiah’s perspective (as a relative newbie) on the VisionPoint branding process. Aside from throwing some friendly jabs at each other, Micaiah and Tony discussed their ideas about brand and some of the reasons the story behind the brand is so important.

Tony: Micaiah, did you ever take any marketing courses in college?

Micaiah: No.

Tony: How’d you even get hired here?!? [Laughing] How’d that even happen?

Micaiah: That’s not part of this blog. [Laughing]

Tony: So what did you know about branding before coming to VisionPoint? Was it something you even considered?

Micaiah: When I thought about branding, I thought about very famous aspects and visual representations of very famous brands. I thought about things like the McDonald’s golden arches and Apple’s “Think different” slogan. I knew taglines, slogans, logos and even campaigns. But I never thought of a brand as a lot of parts that work together.

Tony: Now that you’ve been at VisionPoint for more than a year and you’ve been engaged in and surrounded by a number of branding projects, how has your perception of branding changed?

Micaiah: I’ve learned that a brand is a lot more than just a logo or a tagline. We began the branding process with College of The Albemarle by helping the client define their brand story. The importance of defining who you are before moving into messaging and design was something I hadn’t thought about much before.

We spent a lot of time on the story, and that story played a major role in the design decisions that followed. I thought that was really interesting. What has your experience been with the role of storytelling in branding?

Tony: I think all too many firms or institutions or companies think of branding as a logo design process. They really don’t delve deep enough into the true story of their organization. The way I see it, a visual mark is just a vehicle for a great brand story. A good story is memorable, and a brand story should be short, concise, powerful and meaningful. You want people to connect with your brand, and you want stakeholders to be champions of that brand. The best way to make sure this happens is to educate passionate and vocal stakeholders on the brand story and how and why it was developed.

The visual mark itself should surely be aesthetically pleasing and interesting, but it’s really just a vehicle for telling the story. If you think about it, every global corporation and almost every mom-and-pop shop around the world has a logo or visual mark. And when you dig into things a bit, pretty much everything’s been done. For every new logo, you can probably find 40 or 50 examples of that same thing being done before. The power of the actual visual mark has waned significantly, which is another reason the story behind the logo is so important. There’s a great quote from Paul Rand who said, “Don’t try to be different. Just try to be good.” That’s something we talk with our clients about quite a bit.

Micaiah: Yeah, I’ve personally seen this in action at VisionPoint with client partners like Gardner-Webb University and Wake Tech Community College. One of the cool things about the logos for these institutions is that they don’t just look cool; they also have a meaningful story behind them. For example, Wake Tech is one of the most successful brands we’ve designed in part because of the fact that the Wake Tech community—from students to faculty and the administration—has really embraced their new brand. They absolutely love their brand story and their visual mark and they’ve done a lot with this since they launched their new brand a couple of years ago.

GWU Logo

Tony: I agree, they really have done a great job with embracing and extending that brand. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the story resonates. The story is that Wake Tech serves as a beacon of light providing education, training and resources to the people in their community. Those people see this beacon of light in the distance and they’re drawn to it, to that education and what it can do for their lives. It’s a journey that they take … a life-changing journey. Now, the KEY is that you don’t lose that light after you leave Wake Tech. You carry it (your education) with you. You carry a torch—a piece of that light that represents your education—with you when you leave Wake Tech and it lights your way into the future. And so, the visual mark is essentially a stylized “WT” that takes the shape of a torch. That logo—the torch—is simply a storytelling device.

Wake Tech Logo

We don’t just come up with these stories on our own. They’re based on research and what we call our “Listening Tour” which is when we travel to campus and meet face-to-face with, and listen to, sometimes hundreds of stakeholders. We also do a competitive analysis, a SWOT analysis, a current-state assessments and bunch of other research. In your time here, you’ve been on campus quite a bit doing research and talking to stakeholders. You’ve seen how those stories begin. Are there any of those experiences that really stand out?

Micaiah: When we were on campus at College of The Albemarle (COA) for our listening tour, we talked to a lot of stakeholders—faculty and staff, board members, students and alumni. We heard really interesting things, especially from the alumni who couldn’t say enough about the transformation they experienced in their lives after attending COA. Hearing stories like these is really what got us thinking about the transformative difference COA makes in the lives of its students.

Tony: I had a similar experience when I was on campus talking with COA students. I thought one of the most interesting things that informed the branding process was hearing the stories of people who came to the college knowing they needed some type of education but not thinking they were good at anything. They almost didn’t go to college, but they decided to take a chance and come to COA. And they found that COA helped identify something … some sort of potential they already had in them.

Micaiah: Exactly. Those conversations with COA’s stakeholders really brought out the pieces of their story that are so important and unique. And that idea of COA helping to transform the lives of its students and bringing out their potential has been a huge part of our design process. I’ve seen the importance of the story behind the brand come into play time and again with our clients.

Tony: It’s so important in branding these days to focus on the brand story and to make sure that all marketing materials relate back to that story. Most important of all, that story should be true and should represent the uniqueness of the institution.

Revealing the COA Brand

College of The Albemarle showcased its unique story in a brand reveal video to help spread the word about who they are as an institution and what they can offer students in the area.

If you’d like to learn more about the difference the COA is making, check out their newly launched microsite with more information about a variety career paths and educational opportunities.