Creating a Brand that Reflects our Community

How a Marketing Initiative Became a Broader Effort to Articulate and Declare What We Stand For

studentsIn early 2019, our Communications and Public Affairs team at Stanislaus State embarked on an initiative to better understand our University story. An earlier branding effort had focused on the revision of the Stan State logo, and now it was time to expand that into a relevant and authentic brand messaging platform as we moved into our 60th anniversary. One that would help us express why Stan State is special and worthy of consideration, beyond our four lakes, ponds and beautiful green spaces. One that highlights the success of our students, the vibrancy of our campus and community, our unprecedented number of first-generation college students and a narrative that would connect and reflect everyone in our community. Bottom line: We needed a clearly articulated brand message that we could all support and be proud of.

After an extensive search, the team selected two agencies to take on this endeavor on this endeavor — one to do the research and create a brand message platform, and the other to take that platform and turn it into a compelling campaign.

“It was important for us to partner with agencies that would listen for understanding and deeply reflect on all that they had heard,” said Rosalee Rush, senior associate vice president for marketing, communications and media relations at Stan State, who led the agency search team. “After listening to our community, we wanted them to fully understand and believe in our mission and our promise to deliver a high-quality, accessible education that meets students where they are. And an environment that encourages and inspires students to do more with their degree for themselves, their families and their communities.” Both agencies were selected based on their ability to meet this key requirement, along with their experience in the higher education field and their collaborative approach to development. As the project progressed, we saw how these qualities became a driving force and critical to our eventual development of a powerful brand for Stan State.

In the heart of the Central Valley lies a welcoming community of exploration, understanding and ideas. Where students support each other, and respected instructors guide and challenge students. Where all who want to do more with their work and their lives are invited to Stan Up. This is the home of the Stan State Warriors.

Getting a 360-degree View

One of the hallmarks of a great brand is that it’s authentic, true and resonant. To achieve that, we knew we needed to talk to our entire community to understand their values, needs and perspectives on what Stan State does well or represents.

Willow Lake on campus with yellow color treatmentOver the course of three months, our branding agency, Stamats, conducted extensive qualitative and quantitative research across all of our communities in the six-county region served by our Turlock and Stockton campuses, including in-person focus groups and interviews as well as online surveys of:

  • Faculty and staff
  • Current students
  • Prospective students
  • Alumni
  • Admissions & Outreach team
  • ASI Board of Directors
  • Stan State Foundation Board
  • President’s Community Ambassador Council
  • President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion
  • Cabinet and Academic Senate
  • Provost Leadership Council
  • Communications and Public Affairs team
  • University Communications Advisory Group
  • High school counselors
  • City and county officials
  • Community (six primary counties) residents

In the end, the agency spoke with more than 150 community members and surveyed thousands, with more than 1,600 responses from members of our internal and external communities. It was important to us for all voices to be heard and that our new brand was not created in the communications or marketing office, but authentically developed through collaboration of diverse perspectives and guided by the expertise of our colleagues at the agency. As we got deeper into the qualitative research, some key themes began to emerge. Ones that would drive our quantitative testing and, eventually, our brand.

A Welcoming Community

As we interviewed our internal audiences, students and alumni spoke again and again about how Stan State makes them feel. They spoke about feeling welcome and part of something more than a school — part of a family and community where they are supported, seen and motivated to do their best. Professors emerged as heroes in our brand story, with an emphasis on helping students and meeting them where they are.

“My professors actually want to see me succeed and they remove obstacles instead of creating them.”
- Stan State Student

“You know when you’ve been traveling and you get home and think, ‘oh, finally — my own bed. I’m so happy I’m home…’? That’s how Stan State makes me feel. I’m home.”
- Stan State student, ASI Board Member

In the agency’s conversations with students, they also learned that our students are resilient, hard-working and focused on where their education will take them. They recognized the sacrifices our students have made to attend school and that for many, college wasn’t an automatic choice. When students did choose higher education, it was with a commitment to succeed and leverage that education to change the trajectory of their lives. We wanted to make sure that grit and commitment was visible both in our brand platform and campaign.

“The students are here by choice — this isn’t 13th grade. They have grit. And I want to do whatever I can to help them succeed.”
– Stan State Faculty Member

Expanding Our Research

When we moved into quantitative research (online surveys with prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, alumni and community residents) we validated what we heard in qualitative sessions. Three concepts were ranked as Stan State’s top qualities across nearly every group:

  • All are welcome at Stan State
  • Stan State professors care about students as people
  • Professors work with students to help them succeed, even when the student is faced with academic or life challenges

Armed with our discovery knowledge, we worked with our agency to create a meaningful brand platform that reflected what our community needed and what we delivered — the intersection of their needs and what we represent. Our overarching brand theme was one that our community led us to:

At Stanislaus State, you belong.

We took that simple but powerful idea and expanded it into what we call a “key takeaway” — what we want our prospective and current students, faculty and staff to know and feel when they interact with Stan State anywhere. In marketing. In admissions. On tours. In the classroom. We declare this to be our truth:

From first-generation college students and working parents to honor roll students, newcomers and multi-generation Californians, we welcome you at Stanislaus State.

Here we embrace the rich diversity that is the Central Valley and strive to create an inclusive University experience where all can flourish.

With this platform, we have a North star and a clear expression of what makes Stan State a school of choice and a community worth joining. We also want to ensure that we live this every day and expand the ways in which we welcome students, faculty, staff, alumni and our community in meaningful and consistent ways.

“Our brand message is the ethos of our institution. It’s weaved into our daily operations. It’s evidenced in our celebration of first-generation students with the establishment of the President’s Central Valley First-Generation Scholarship, and in Warrior Mentoring, Males of Color initiatives, and Warrior Weeks of Welcome. We’ve also initiated anti-racism training and certification for faculty to ensure our campus is a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone in our community.”

— Ellen Junn, Stanislaus State President

We’ve Chosen our Words Carefully

One key phrase in our brand message is “where all can flourish.” We want to telegraph that our welcoming environment and our commitment to academic excellence can be life-changing for our students.

“We’ve been recognized as a top public institution for upward mobility,” says Kimberly Greer, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Stan State. “We know that the powerful combination of our academic excellence and the support that comes in both formal and informal ways will help each student reach their full potential — and even change the trajectory of their lives and their families.”

Once we articulated what makes Stan State special, we also realized what was once a “brand project” had rapidly become a movement that would need the embrace and activation of every faculty, staff and community member.

Taking it on the “Road”

Our agency partner created a roadshow presentation to share with the entire community in both Turlock and Stockton. We held multiple open meetings to present the findings of our research and how it drove our new brand narrative. These live sessions ensured that our community could ask questions and provide feedback on how they saw the brand coming to life in their departments or roles across our University community. It was important to us that the brand platform felt true to our internal communities, and for each person to find ways to support it in their daily work and interactions.

In Stockton, our audience was comprised of local leadership, including Lange Luntao, the board president for Stockton Unified School District and the executive director of the Reinvent Stockton Foundation. “This clear brand message is really reflective of our students here in Stockton,” Luntao said. “We have a lot of teens who may not have considered college, and having a campus that welcomes and understands these students will do a lot to inspire them to attend, see what’s really possible and become a part of our growing college and career culture.”

Now that we’d made our declaration, our second agency (SimpsonScarborough) was ready to create a campaign that would bring our brand platform to life.

Creative Testing, with a Digital Twist

The agency teams and the Communications and Public Affairs team worked through a host of creative concepts and finally landed on two that we felt best represented who we are as a community and aligned with the brand message platform. After sharing with our campus leadership, we continued our collaborative approach through an on-campus test with students, alumni, faculty, staff and more.

Over the course of several weeks, the agency did both on-campus “intercept” testing on iPads and then additional surveys to the broader University community to ensure all had the opportunity to weigh in on everything from specific words and images to the overall feel of the campaign. Senate, Cabinet, deans, ASI, the University Communications Advisory Group and the brand evaluation committee weighed in as well. In the end, we gathered more than over 1,700 opinions.

“It was very important to us to continue to involve our campus community,” said Rush. “We wanted to ensure we were empowering and connecting with our communities in a meaningful way and clearly articulating Stan State’s core values and our regional impact as expressed by our stakeholders. And we wanted to make sure we brought that to life in a powerful way in the visual concepts.”

In the end we landed on a campaign that received broad support and enthusiasm across every cohort. Now it was time to share it.

Brand Launch Time…Enter the Pandemic

Just as we were about to launch our brand, the pandemic was upon us. Warriors were overwhelmed with the sudden shift to online classes, shelter-in-place orders, changes in employment and opportunities and day-to-day connections.

We were initially unsure of how to proceed … and then realized there was no better time to launch a brand that’s all about our community and true connectedness, and how through Warrior strength we would not only persevere but thrive.

Together, We #StanUp

After a series of teasers on social, President Junn kicked off the new brand on a Warrior Wednesday with a livestreamed event that included co-emcees Karlha Davies (’00), alumni engagement director, and Wonuola Olagunju, a senior, biology major. We were delighted to include a virtual musical performance by the Stan State Chamber Singers; a song by Dave Evans, dean of the College of Science; and a series of campaign images and a video that clearly highlighted the power of our community when we Stan Up together.

The launch was attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends in our community, with viewers logging in from bedrooms and living rooms to backyards and city streets. In that moment, we were all reminded of why each of us chose Stan State and why our community is one of strength, inclusion and celebration of the people who comprise our Warrior family. Students and alumni that are proud, determined and resilient. True Warriors.

How we Stan Up: It’s More Than a Campaign

The launch of our brand and what we stand for has never been more timely. As the world at large examines the inequities that have been inherent in our institutions, communities and legislation, we need to reflect on what we can do as Warriors to strive for greater equity and inclusion. We will continue to challenge ourselves to do more and review our language, behaviors, infrastructure, curriculum and more.

Together, we will help to realize the change that the world is seeking. We will build on the strength of our community, our welcoming of students from every culture and background, and our desire to help our students leave Stan State ready to #StanUp for their beliefs and values. And with the knowledge and skills that enable them to have a powerful impact and reach their goals. As Warriors, we know they — and you — will change the world.