VCU hopes for real return on branding investment

Originally published September 7, 2010 in The Commonwealth Times

VCU has been the subject of a lot of attention over the past few years, earning national acclaim during the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament.

After adapting slogans that originally came from the hardwood, like the basketball team’s oft-repeated “Our time. Right now,” VCU has introduced its new branding initiative. The expectation is to mold the image of VCU as an academically rigorous, uniquely creative national research university, according to President Michael Rao in an email to the community about the campaign.

“The ultimate goal (of the campaign) is to really support the university’s strategic plan … to raise awareness at VCU, to help recruit students and faculty and … to help them in fundraising,” said University Relations Executive Director Pam Lepley.

By the end of 2012, the campaign will have cost the school around $500,000, a small sum compared to the millions major companies spend on branding, but still a significant expense for the university, she said.

The money for the new campaign came from a marketing budget created by the University Relations office as well as supplemental money from the budget office. According to Lepley, the money came from the consolidation of marketing funds from several offices and areas.

“My goal is that the return on investment will more than pay for the campaign,” she said, noting that increased awareness in alumni and potential benefactors could result in increased donations to the school.

Most of the campaign fund is geared towards advertising, like billboards, banners and Web ads on sites geared toward university searches, with the aim of reaching prospective students.

The initiative is currently divided into two major parts. The first part is the new seal, which seeks to demonstrate the school’s history, emblazoned with “1838,” the founding date of the Medical College of Virginia. In 1968, MCV merged with the Richmond Professional Institute to form Virginia Commonwealth University.

Lepley believes the seal represents a more rigorous and historical school.

“We’re now looking like a university that has the academic rigor we have, but also the energy and creativity that the university has,” she said.

The second part is the new tag line, “Make it real.”

“Making your aspirations and your dreams real … to each person, making it real is different,” Lepley said. “We’re using students and faculty to tell the story.”

Victor Haskins, a jazz trumpet performance major, is one of the students featured in the campaign. To him, “Make it real” means, “(bringing) to fruition what’s inside your mind, whether that’s career goals or some personal objective to make it happen, to just do it,” he said.

Haskins has been a part of the campaign since early June, during a selective casting call for students who would fit the image of the campaign.

“I think it’s an interesting way to try and market the school … make profiles of representative students and showcase their story,” he said.

The central idea for the new branding push was developed through the combined efforts of an internal creative team at VCU, Richmond’s CRT/tanaka PR and advertising firm and Fuseideas, a marketing agency based in Massachusetts. The companies performed market research and ultimately chose the seal and slogan, with minor tweaking and recommendations from VCU’s internal team.

Associate Vice President of CRT/tanaka Jeff Wilson said that after compiling the research, “Make it real” was what boiled up to the surface.

“Thinking about VCU as this urban university … and all the attributes that it has, and its contribution to the city and how the students walk away with a great education but also that life experience they get from living in Richmond … led to ‘Make it real,’ ” Wilson said.

But not all community members think the campaign makes sense for the university. “VCU is trying so hard and I don’t think “Make it real” was appropriate for the university,” said VCU alumna Keshia Eugene, who graduated from VCU’s mass communications creative advertising program.

“I don’t think it’s powerful enough. I see what they’re going for but I just don’t think it’s as effective as it could be,” she said. “If they are trying to come up with something that is timeless … ‘Make it real’ is not appropriate.”

The result of collecting more than 3,000 surveys of faculty, staff and students and researching VCU’s image through the spring is a “branding initiative that will help raise regional and national awareness of our university’s high-caliber academics and unique, spirited culture,” Rao said in the email announcing the change.

VCU will continue to roll out the rest of the campaign in the next two years to fully integrate it with the school. The campaign will roll out banners around campus, campaign materials will be seen on websites, in admissions materials, in print, broadcast and online communications. Soon, Lepley said, all schools and departments will start using the new branding.

Students are encouraged to be a part of the campaign by entering a contest on Facebook, showing how VCU has helped them “Make it real.” First place winners will receive prizes that include a Rams Fan Spirit Basket, a one-year membership or membership extension to the Alumni Association, an autographed Final Four poster, a VCU Recreational Sports prize package, two tickets to the Theatre VCU fall production of “Avenue Q,” and more according to the VCU Facebook page.

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