Why UBC is a place of mind

How does a decent provincial university of 20 years ago now find itself positioned among the elite of the world’s 35 greatest universities?

Why does a Nobel Laureate choose UBC to change the teaching of science on a global scale?

Why do UBC’s medical researchers rank in the North American top 10 for bringing their work to patients in the marketplace?

Why has UBC taken the national lead in Community Service Learning and sustainability?

Interesting questions,

but not exactly what a group of UBC communications and marketing professionals set out to answer two years ago this month.

Their question was a simpler one: If the university were to achieve consistency in telling its story in a crowded university marketplace, what would that story be? What, in short, is UBC’s brand?

While, even unwittingly, most people can tell you what Nike’s brand is, or that of Mercedes-Benz or Apple, how do you arrive at the brand of a wildly diverse institution like a university?

And with so many universities, how does one differentiate amongst them? The challenge is not much different for, say, Apple Inc.  Just like others in their business, Apple chooses a mix of integrated circuits, stuffs them into metal and plastic boxes, and loads in software to make the machine do the same kind of work as their competitors’ machines. Apple’s brand, whatever else it is, is a Big Idea – cool, hip, innovative are typically conjured – that leans on emotional, not functional, attributes to differentiate itself.

In higher education, many universities can rightly claim great teaching, research and service. This hardly leads to differentiation. Many universities can go further and claim global distinction in a few areas. However, claiming greatness on the part of a few automatically excludes everyone else. Inevitably, it is the emotional thread that binds individuals together in an organization and provides their collective story.

Where’s the new logo?

Many people equate brand with logo, and organizations frequently change their logos in an attempt to “rebrand” themselves. Unlike many university crests that hide identification behind ancient filigree, our logo is immediately recognizable as UBC and widely respected. The logo isn’t the compelling story, however; at best it’s only a symbol of the story. It can’t answer the key question: what is UBC’s story.

Two years later, and with the help of hundreds of UBC faculty, students, staff and alumni along the way, we are much closer to answering that question, and the ones at the beginning of this article.

The group understood that it’s not easy – an understatement as things turned out – to boil down an institution the scale and scope of UBC into a single idea. Many people openly doubted that a university on two distinct campuses, let alone one with so many staunchly independent Faculties, could ever arrive at an idea of itself that would span such potential divides. Yet once it became clear that UBC needed to reveal the big emotional idea within itself, the task became more manageable.

Surveys of communications and marketing efforts in 2007 revealed a hydra-headed organization. In the absence of a simple, compelling and true story – the absence of a brand – UBC showed a bewildering array of faces to the world.

And yet focus groups with prospective students and alumni in Halifax, Toronto, Calgary, Kelowna and Vancouver showed that many people already had a sense of UBC as a special place that transcended the mixed messages of unbranded communication. They relayed a positive image of UBC as occupying a highly desired part of the world that offers unique opportunity for personal growth and opportunity.

Getting in position

Working with a social marketing firm, the group began to distil this research into some key insights:?•

  • UBC’s high-performing and self-actualized students – in 1922, they marched to pressure government to build the Vancouver campus – are a core strength of the university
  • UBC’s research excellence is globally influential
  • UBC’s location, beyond the global most-liveable lists, appeals on a deep level that speaks to the idea of the West as a new place where people come to create, and recreate, themselves and their world.

These elements, individually, are not unique to UBC; combined, however, they create an idea that no other university in the world can claim. These insights were combined into a positioning statement:

To prospective undergraduate and graduate students, UBC is the Tier One international research-intensive university that, better than any other, offers a fresh, open environment that provides the freedom to learn, discover and contribute in one’s own way.

The positioning statement links, in “learn, discover and contribute,” to the university’s traditional mission of teaching, research and service. In itself, however, the positioning statement is not a brand, but by the winter of 2008 it began to pave the way for one. The group put the statement to focus groups and scores of meetings with students, deans, faculty members, staff and senior administrators. People agreed: the statement was true for, and reflective of, UBC.

This agreement then led to the next question: if the positioning statement is true for UBC, how could we best communicate what it means to our many audiences, and what would that communication look like?

Sketching the future

Using rough sketches of billboard ads – a medium that must quickly convey its messages with minimal words and powerful imagery– three ideas were explored in combinations of headlines, taglines and visuals. Although different in execution, they shared an attempt to convey the benefit promised by the positioning statement’s fresh, open environment – the freedom to learn, discover and contribute in one’s own way.

The ideas were presented in 25 meetings and a dozen formal focus groups in early summer. The dominant idea used the tagline A Place of Mind. While execution with headlines and visuals at this early stage was weak, the tagline resonated with people.

By late summer three executions were tested using the tagline A Place of Mind – this time professionally rendered in newspaper and billboard formats.

Three students and a tree – not

In a country where typical university advertising has been dubbed “three students and a tree,” UBC is making an audacious and creative claim for attention in a crowded marketplace, and every advertisement is backed up with proof points, stories and profiles. The ads tell why Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman came to UBC to improve the teaching of science, how UBC students are participating in innovative learning experiences, how UBC medical research is a leader in commercialization, and so on.

At a higher level, the stories told in the ads reflect success derived from UBC’s openness to new ideas, perspectives and ways of exploration – which is very much what the new brand is all about.

This recipe took a full year to cook. The subsequent year has been devoted to refining the idea in a variety of formats to carry a unified UBC story to the audiences that matter most: current and prospective students, faculty and staff, our quarter-million alumni worldwide, government and private supporters of the university, the people of BC and Canada who stand behind our governments, and a growing international audience that benefits from UBC student and research successes.

What does UBC have after this two-year process to define its essence? Firstly, some very important internal gains have already been made even before the brand’s launch this month. There is wide acceptance of the need for a true and compelling self-definition in an organization that only a few years ago was squeamish about words like “brand” and “marketing.”

There have been significant organizational development benefits as a result of this exercise, and the discussion it has evoked has had tangential positive impact on at least two other broad institutional initiatives, a renewed strategic plan and an upcoming development campaign, the university’s first such engagement with our communities in more than a decade. People on both campuses responsible for marketing and communicating the university’s values have rallied around the effort; even as they pursue specific business objectives, they appreciate the support of a strong brand.

At a more detailed level, UBC now has some tools to communicate a more cohesive story.

A planned three-year advertising campaign involving print, outdoor and online advertising begins this month with a focus on highlighting UBC’s value to British Columbians. The campaign has been designed to move to national and international markets in the following two years. The advertisements are a refinement of the combination of the bold idea that emanates From Here, wide-open “heroic” imagery, and the tagline, a place of mind.

The tagline is now rendered in lower-case in the Whitney font, and going forward it will be associated with the UBC logo as the most elementary expression of UBC’s new brand.

WEB 2.0

The ubc.ca website, an amalgamation of hundreds of sub-sites that collectively receive many million visits a year from all over the world, has been redesigned to reflect the brand. Thanks to more than 3,500 people surveyed, it sports dramatically improved architecture with new navigation and search tools. As UBC units adopt the brand visual standards there will be a modern and cohesive appearance throughout what is arguably the most powerful communications medium for the university. Visual standards are also being developed for print and other applications.

The last focus group in the two-year process happened a couple of months ago when a group of domestic and international UBC students met for a sneak preview of the advertising campaign. Some of what they said:

  • Makes me feel that learning takes place outside of the classroom
  • Echoes the excitement I have in learning at UBC
  • Provides a sense that anything is possible from here
  • I can put myself right in the image
  • The ads challenge you to think about the issues and show UBC is thinking about these issues

When asked for the single word to describe how they felt about the ads, the response was virtually unanimous:


Elements of the brand

Overwhelmingly, internal and external audiences, gravitated to one particular execution:

  • the tagline a place of mind
  • a big, bold idea to show how open thought can change the world, crafted in a headline that ends in the phrase From Here
  • equally bold “heroic” imagery that invites viewers to see themselves as part of wide open photographic vistas that characterize the West and UBC’s place in that geography.

For more background on the UBC brand, visit www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/brand/

A brand new idea: the two-year journey

Fall 2007

  • UBC Strategic Marketing Council: identifies need for consistent UBC-wide story.

Winter 2007

  • Marketing communications review: University-wide inventory of marketing communications and publications.
  • Positioning statements drafted.

Spring 2008

  • Prospective student focus groups: What does UBC mean to you? (Calgary, Toronto, Halifax). First taglines drafted.

Summer 2008

  • Focus groups: Tagline testing in Vancouver, Kelowna, Toronto. Internal consultation with faculty, staff, students, alumni, prospective students.
  • Chosen: a place of mind

Fall 2008

  • Advertising launch campaign: ideas presented through full internal consultation.
  • Chosen: From Here

Winter 2008

  • Budget approval and governance.
  • Brand Council and Web Advisory Council formed resulting in first university-wide communications effort with central budget support.

Spring 2009

  • Website redesign consultation:  Web survey results in 3,500 responses. Web RFP awarded.
  • ‘a place of mind’ and ‘From Here’ registered and trademarked.

Summer 2009

  • Web development: full navigation and redesign of UBC main and Okanagan websites. Common Look and Feel (CLF) templates designed through internal consultation.
  • Baseline poll: Ipsos Reid awareness survey.
  • Brand Fund: 45 applications result in $71,000 supporting brand rollout at the unit level.
  • Web 2.0 community site aplaceofmind.ca.

Fall 2009

  • Launch with back-to-school initiatives, including Imagine and Create rallies.
  • Advertising launch: first integrated reputational campaign utilizing print, outdoor, online, search and social media.
  • New signage, flags, banners.
  • Newly redesigned websites and community site launched.