The challenge: Tapping into the student mindset.

As the University of Manitoba’s Trailblazer brand continued to evolve to feature professors and researchers, the institution’s recruitment campaign followed suit. High school students would first experience the brand via a social media contest. We aimed to reflect the excitement – and uncertainty – that comes with choosing a higher education institution.

After consulting with the university’s marketing officers (who work directly with recruitment officers), we learned that for high school students, the opportunity to chart their own path in post-secondary studies was a huge draw. After 12 years of mandated courses, and years of feeling misunderstood or mischaracterized for their ambivalence to ‘general studies,’ a university education offered them a chance to pursue their own interests and passions. 

The solution: Demonstrate the transformation.

To convey this we developed a creative approach that hinged on sharing a story of transformation. We imagined a ‘before’ and ‘after’ state for students to tap into some of their frustrations as they looked towards the end of their high school years, and their excitement as they looked forward to attending a university of their choice.

University of Manitoba: Trailblazer Recruitment – Phase 2

With simple and direct wordplay, we shared visual transformation stories that empathized with how they might be feeling:

  • People might see you as an instigator, who’s always pushing peoples’ buttons, but by bringing your defiant passion to the U of M you can define yourself as an innovator who doesn’t settle for status quo.
  • People might see you as a dreamer with your head in the clouds, so bring your dreams to the U of M and realize your visionary potential.
  • People might think you’re restless, impatient and unfocused, but we see that you’re a trailblazer, ready to go beyond the path that others have travelled.

In each creative iteration, the ‘before’ state was cast in colour. The ‘after’ state was displayed in the university’s new visual brand expression of a sepia-toned image on a Manitoba landscape – and anchored with a call to action that invited students to Define who you really are at the University of Manitoba.

To share the idea in awareness-based media (where you have a limited amount of time to grab attention and convey your idea), we selected media vehicles that allowed us to demonstrate a transformation. A lenticular poster was developed for movie theatres; a three-stage posting of outdoor boards showed the transition from before to after; and on an interactive landing page, a mouseover gesture erased the ‘before’ state, allowing users to reveal the ‘after’ state.

University of Manitoba: Trailblazer Recruitment – Phase 2

Current student execution.

On campus, we used a simple environmental application to engage with current students. Decals of the power words used in the campaign – TrailblazerVisionaryMaverickRebel, etc. – were posted on bathroom mirrors on campus. When standing in front of the mirror, students were emulating the creative approach that was used in the campaign in market. They were encouraged to take selfies and share them using the #umanitoba hashtag.

University of Manitoba: Trailblazer Recruitment – Phase 2
University of Manitoba: Trailblazer Recruitment – Phase 2


In its first three years, the original Trailblazer campaign evolved through several iterations – including a second phase for both the institutional reputation campaign and its recruitment adaptation. During that time, the university saw record levels of enrolment, and a surge in philanthropic support – leading to the Trailblazer campaign’s receipt of a prestigious CASSIES Award (now called Effie Awards) for Long-Term Success.

The awards program is squarely focused on results – participants must prove the effect their advertising has had on driving business objectives. The effectiveness of the University of Manitoba’s campaign was recognized alongside national brands like Westjet and Molson, and the win was the first for a Manitoba-based advertising agency in the awards’ multi-year history.

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 (2010-2022)