Stigma-Defying Brand Messaging that Changes Minds

Posted: January 4, 2020

Tony Poillucci Vice President & Creative Director

People often spend their whole lives fighting against negative stereotypes about themselves, their place of origin, their politics and so on. Stereotypes are more often than not harmful boxes constructed so that we can easily size up people, instead of getting to know them as individuals. The same can be said for institutions of higher ed. You’ve got your uber-conservative southerner, your liberal snowflake out west, the party school in every state, and the one that thinks they’re better than the rest. 

One that we’ve unfortunately witnessed far too often is that tired, yet stubborn, old trope of the community college as a place you go when you can’t get into a “real” (eg: 4-year) college. 

This was the perception battle we faced when we began partnering with Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). After extensive research on NOVA’s target audience’s perceptions, we heard time and time again that students and their influencers alike saw NOVA as something they wouldn’t want to “settle for.” This phrase, “settle for,” encapsulated all at once the negative perceptions NOVA faced, as well as the larger scale stereotypes facing community colleges across the country. Armed with this knowledge, we pitched the idea of using “Settle For” as NOVA’s new branding and creative campaign. Reclaiming this phrase, NOVA retorted with clever, good-humored messages about what students were really “settling for” at their college: amazing benefits like experienced faculty, lower tuition rates and student debt, and strong job prospects. 

After NOVA chose to pursue our bold “Settle For” message, we set out creating equally bold visuals to support the campaign. On the eve of the presentation, we had three or four visual directions, each strong, but none of them quite bold enough. NOVA needed visuals as bold, unusual, and eye-catching as their provocative “Settle For” messaging. To truly win audience attention in their cost-inflated media market of northern Virginia, we created surprising visual creative – hand-lettered “graffiti-esque” illustrations on a stock image of NOVA students.

While both NOVA and our team were thrilled to move forward with this creative concept, even garnering numerous awards for this work, the mark of true success is the reactions from our audiences. Perhaps most telling for any creative campaign comes from audience members accurately articulating back the core message of the campaign. This kind of success met NOVA’s campaign when Jonathan Turk of Higher Ed Today wrote about NOVA’s campaign after hearing one of our ads on the D.C. Metrobus. In “Erasing the Community College Stigma,” Turk succinctly summed up the purpose of NOVA’s campaign, noting that the campaign was “challenging misperceptions about the quality and value of the education students can receive at their local community college… taking on the community college stigma.”

“While the ad was clearly trying to encourage more students to enroll at NOVA, it was also doing something more – challenging misperceptions about the quality and value of the education students can receive at their local community college. The ad was taking on the community college stigma.”

Jonathan Turk, “Erasing the Community College Stigma”

Turk was not the only audience member who responded favorably to NOVA’s campaign. NOVA incurred an 8.2% lift in brand awareness along with a 10 point jump in positive perceptions in their service area. Beyond the initial campaign, we conducted a second quantitative study that proved 72% of the same respondents from our foundational research now consider NOVA as a top choice. And for us, those are results we might just be willing to “settle for.” 

  • 8.2%


    in NOVA’s brand awareness

  • 72%

    of audiences

    now consider NOVA a top choice

VisionPoint Marketing is a full-service marketing agency with nearly two decades of experience helping higher education institutions achieve their goals. See a sample of the work we created to transform audience perceptions for NOVA. If you have questions or want to start a conversation about how we can help, please visit our website or reach out to our team.