University of Virginia’s Rebranding Success Wins AMA Higher Ed Marketing Team of the Year

Molly Soat, Editor-in-Chief, Marketing News
AMA Higher Ed Symposium
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Key Takeaways

What: The University of Virginia successfully launched a rebrand in 2015 in anticipation of the institution’s bicentennial.

So What: A successful rebrand requires a central communications team to help its larger community to own and amplify the brand identity.

Now What: When rebranding, make sure all your stakeholders have access to all creative assets so they can help do the creative work for you.

How do you make a university founded by Thomas Jefferson seem fresh and modern? You take the reins and own the brand’s story, says Carol Keese, associate vice president of marketing at the University of Virginia. As they began planning for its bicentennial, UVA’s communications team realized the university’s brand was stuck in the past. Previous communication teams had tried three times in the past to rebrand, and all were unsuccessful.

Strategic Priorities

  • The rebranding campaign had four major strategic goals:
  • Faculty recruitment
  • Boosting academic reputation and scholarship funds
  • Increasing student enrollment

Initial Challenges

The UVA team tapped branding agency 160OVER90 to create a campaign that could focus on the past while also leading the university into the future. The two key elements to success would be in ensuring initial buy-in on the narrative and adoption across the institution. The challenges to implementing the project include:

  • UVA is a large, decentralized institution with a complex decision-making structure;
  • Those decision makers are all passionate and vocal, with a range of perspectives;
  • It was common knowledge that rebranding efforts had been launched and failed three times before.

Success would depend on who the team involved, how they involved them, and when.

Initial Approach

Recognizing that this would be a major initiative for a large and complex university, the team formed four groups to ensure that the work would authentically reflect the spirit, culture and essence of UVA: an administrative group, an advisory group, a working group and a university communications group. About 250 interviews were conducted with administrators, faculty and students from every corner of the university to create a cohesive UVA brand story that everyone would adopt. A tagline was created: “The Endless Pursuit of Better.”

The UVA Story

The story the communications team put together had four main themes:

  • The university was in a perpetual state of ingenuity;
  • It held a commitment to achieve at the highest level;
  • There was a sense of shared ownership among all university students, faculty and stakeholders;
  • The university would be promoters of the public good. 

Out of this narrative, the team created a story everyone could get behind:

There’s an aura here. Rooted in our novel approach to education.
A storied tradition of minds illimitable, free to run at full speed.
Where the commitment to honor and the responsibility of self-governance
Take hold, and stir something inside.
A desire to rise up and pursue any challenge.
To greet failure with a smile and a strengthened resolve. To harness our
Collective knowledge. And undauntedly explode forth to advance society.
That’s our aura. It permeates grounds and all who set foot upon it.
And its uncontrollable energy fills and connects us to

Growing Adoption

In 2015, UVA created and launched the full brand guidelines for print, identity and brand art. These creative assets were accompanied by tutorials, best practices and how-tos for getting creative with the materials in Photoshop and other programs. These pieces were revamped every four to six weeks, and it was all made available to anyone with a UVA email address through a microsite, This open approach resulted in the adoption and application of the brand by communicators in schools and units throughout the university.

Building a Community

Through the established communications council—which includes representatives from the health system, athletics, law school, student affairs and the president’s office, among others—the team created subcommittees to create guidelines for brand standards, web standards, social media, issues management, internal communications and editorial planning.

Working Toward a Brand Ecosystem

In two years, the brand has been adopted by the university’s schools, administration, health system, athletics and advancement sectors. The brand-asset site currently has more than 1600 registered users and 20,000 downloads to date. “The brand is now alive and evolving based on the work of so many parties engaged in telling a cohesive story,” Keese says. 

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According to Keese, there has been a steady increase in Virginians citing “quality academics” as the primary top-of-mind association for the University of Virginia over the past three years. Undergraduate applications increased by 13.6%, reaching a record 36,781 applications for 3,725 spaces.
Keese says there are three key learnings from this project:

  • Authenticity is everything.
  • Socialization is key. 80% of the work done on this campaign was on social engineering.
  • A good creative approach will encourage translation and trans-creation.

Author Bio:

Molly Soat, Editor-in-Chief, Marketing News
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