Standing apart on the intangible.

At a 10,000 foot view, there’s not a lot that separates one university from another. Every university makes its best effort to provide an outstanding student experience, to champion research and innovation, and to provide an outstanding academic experience. The details change, but the offering is essentially the same.

That’s why some schools rely on the intangible to set themselves apart. There’s no mistaking that there’s a spirit that exists on each campus that doesn’t exist anywhere else. 

Capturing an ethos is more difficult than making a list of achievements, and most schools default to the latter.

In 2011, the University of Manitoba wanted to stand for something more than its list of accolades. They were looking to soften the ground for an upcoming capital campaign. With many Faculties managing their marketing independently, the university needed to align communications under one banner if they were going to have resonance with all alumni. 

What they told us: Cold, flat and far.

ED began by reviewing awareness and perception research, and noticed a trend. The U of M’s reputation was strongly aligned with perceptions of its home province – and not all of them positive. The data showed that parents and students knew the University of Manitoba was in Manitoba; and they believed Manitoba was cold, remote and flat.

Their perceptions were true, of course, though none seemed like a strong basis to form a brand expression. But we realized we had a choice; we could ignore (or combat) these strongly-held associations, or we could leverage them.

We thought about what it takes to live in a place that’s cold, remote and flat. It takes guts. Resilience. Independence. Creativity. All attributes that can be seen in the way students, professors and researchers at the U of M approach their work and study. We summarized these notions in a single statement that would guide our creative exploration: “Where you are shapes who you are.” And we created a brand narrative to help share this idea and guide its unique voice.

What we saw: Where we are shapes who we are.

We presented this strategic direction and narrative to the U of M, and worked closely with their team to explore different ways to express the idea. The first step was determining the lexicon – given the challenging environment, how can we speak about ourselves in a way that feels authentic? We embraced a voice that made unapologetic declarations: here, we are trailblazers, rebels, visionaries, and innovators.

University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1

Then, we evaluated the communications from competing institutions and noticed that most used the same approach: colourful photography of smiling students, professors and researchers set against iconic campus locations.

To stand apart, we took the U of M brand in a different direction. We chose prairie landscapes for our locations using a horizontal layout to emphasize the province’s flat horizons. We used black and white photography, with only the institution’s logo and a subtle graphic device appearing in full colour. And we featured elementary school-aged children instead of the ‘usual suspects’ of students and professors.

University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1

All of this was anchored by a bold headline statement in the first-person – the kind of statement that was surprising coming from a young child. “I am a trailblazer,” said the girl standing defiantly in the snow, frost forming on her scarf. “I am a rebel,” said the boy with a knowing smirk, with a Winnipeg skyline stretched out behind him. In copy, each application shared a deeper story of the university’s areas of accomplishments through the eyes of children. And every visual backdrop – a beautiful, desolate, often wintery landscape – was unmistakably Manitoban.

University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1
University of Manitoba Trailblazer – Phase 1

Recognition from the industry.

The first iteration of what would come to be known as the “Trailblazer” campaign was launched nationally in print, online, and in select airports in markets where a large concentration of U of M alumni live. The campaign received four awards from the CCAE Prix d’Excellence, and three wins at the 2012 CASE District VIII Communication Awards. 

The campaign received four awards from the CCAE Prix d’Excellence, and three wins at the 2012 CASE District VIII Communication Awards.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the U of M had reasons to blush. Within a year, advertising from other universities in Toronto, Southern Alberta – even a school in southeast Asia – bore an uncanny resemblance the the “Trailblazer” campaign, complete with black and white photography and virtually identical, first-person headlines.

Transformation within the university.

But the most meaningful results came from within the university. In less than a year, virtually every Faculty that had previously been doing its own marketing was working to integrate the “Trailblazer” look and feel into their communications. Students, staff and alumni began to self-identify with the words featured in campaign. The brand story became a fixture in the President’s speaking notes. The campaign’s theme was integrated in the university’s strategic planning framework. Finally, the entire institution embraced a common platform, and spoke to alumni and other stakeholders with a consistent voice.

The alignment paid off; alumni opinion surveys demonstrated an increase in pride following the launch of the campaign, building momentum for an upcoming capital campaign outreach. Based on the success of the approach, “Trailblazer” was used for seven years, with adaptions for student recruitment, profiles of researchers and professors, and celebrating alumni accomplishments.

The Trailblazer brand has changed how we think about ourselves, how we speak about ourselves, and most importantly, how we act. It’s challenged us to go beyond the expected and has made a huge contribution to our success.
John Kearsey,
VP External, University of Manitoba