George Mason University
Learn how Kelsh Wilson developed a comprehensive, message-driven branding program for George Mason University. Kelsh Wilson Design creates message-driven marketing communications, in print and on the web, for education, business, and nonprofits. Admissions / Advancement / Branding / Photography + Video
George Mason University
A Case Study in University-Wide Branding
An Exceptional Institution
When people learn of an institution of higher learning for the first time, their impulse is to place it into a familiar category—liberal arts school, public flagship university, community college, etc. When they encounter George Mason, however, they find the usual labels don’t quite fit. A onetime commuter school that’s grown rapidly into the largest-enrollment research university in Virginia, Mason is a school of many parts—all of them in motion. For marketers, this presents a challenge, but also an opportunity. The hardest school to sell is the one that’s just like all the others, and that Mason is not.
A PROJECT OF TRANSLATION
Often, the work of message building is not actually to develop new messages but to take existing ideas in an institution’s story of itself and put them in terms that are meaningful to the rest of the world. In short, it’s a job of translation. At George Mason, the starting point was the “Mason IDEA”—an acronym for Innovative, Diverse, Entrepreneurial, and Accessible. People inside the Mason community embraced and endorsed these themes, but unless you had a paragraph to explain them, the Mason IDEA was of limited use for marketing purposes. Kelsh Wilson set out to find new ways of expressing these points.
A Complex University, A Simple Message
Like many large universities, Mason is an institution that means many things to many people. The key to creating a powerful university-wide messaging campaign is to find themes and ideas that are meaningful to them all. Kelsh Wilson did so through a carefully planned process of discovery. Our conversations began with the president and provost and extended to include current and prospective students. However, we also made full use of Mason’s prior market research, taking pains to build upon—not duplicate—past efforts.
Exploring—and Testing—Fresh Ideas
At Mason, just as on other projects, Kelsh Wilson explored possible creative directions by developing and presenting ideas in context. A form of a sketch we call the Message Panel makes this possible. Panels show headlines working with photos, proof points, and taglines. They let us get a sense of whether a phrase will do the job not just in a focus group report, but in a real ad or web page. They also allow us to share our work in progress with target audience members and gather reactions.
What’s a Themeline?
A tagline can be a powerful element in a branding campaign, but sometimes setting out in search of the three-word phrase that will sum up an entire multifaceted institution means charting a course for failure. For Mason, themelines provided an effective alternative. A handful of phrases each capturing one distinctive strength of the school, the themelines provided the starting point for a vocabulary right for telling the Mason story.
Brand Guide, Generation 2.0
Half the work of brand-building involves strategy and creativity. The other half involves documenting the results in a useful form. For Mason, Kelsh Wilson helped create the George Mason University Brand Profile—essentially a user’s manual for anyone communicating on the university’s behalf. Most schools now employ some form of brand guide, but the piece Kelsh Wilson developed for Mason is more robust and useful than the standard. It maps central messages in an accessible, graphic form; defines approaches to writing headlines and citing proof points; focuses on specific themes for each key audience; and more.
Just as important as the story a school tells is its “look” or visual brand—the graphic approach that makes all its communications recognizable. In Mason’s case, a talented team of designers on campus worked to define a set of graphic standards. For other clients, Kelsh Wilson’s design team has met this challenge. In every case, our goal is to complement an institution’s in-house team, passing the baton at just the right point.
IT IS INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT FOR organizations and institutions TO CAREFULLY STRUCTURE HOW THEY CRAFT THEIR MESSAGES—BOTH IN THE CONTENT OF THOSE MESSAGES AND THE CONSISTENCY WITH WHICH THEIR STORY IS TOLD.
To learn more about how Kelsh Wilson can assist you, contact Fred Wilson at 267.765.0700 x701.