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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Shedding light on ‘For the Times’ brand campaign

Josh Kotler
The newly painted UMass Boston mural on the side of Quinn Administration Building. Photo by Josh Kotler / Mass Media Staff

Katrina Sanville: What is your name, pronouns, and official position at the university?

Megan Delage Sullivan: My name is Megan Delage Sullivan, I am the Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Engagement, and my pronouns are she/her/hers/ella.

Skylar Bowman: What inspired the university to change the logo that many students had come to know and become comfortable with?

MDS: The landscape of higher education has really changed. It is about—it is, at the end of the day, a business, and there are different modalities. There are so many different offerings for graduating students to choose from, that having strong awareness is critical for our ability to grow.

When I came here, one of the first things I quickly realized is that UMass Boston is the best kept secret in higher education. It’s the third most diverse campus in the country, [it] has a local endowment on the water in Dorchester-slash-Boston, [and it] has incredible faculty [in] some of our areas—our Manning Nursing School is more competitive than some of the other names you know for Boston University. In this changing higher education landscape, it’s critical that we no longer be the best kept secret.

It’s important that we look at ourselves as a brand, and that makes us look at our story. Two years ago, our story was the same, but it was being told in so many different ways that it just wasn’t resonating. People knew us, but they didn’t know why. People had name recognition but no true understanding of what our mission was, what our vision was and who our students are.

Our demographics here at UMass Boston are an actual, true reflection, a mirror image of the changing demographics of this country. There are many schools that pretend to be that in their glossy brochures, however, we actually deliver on that. If you walk into any classroom or any event on this campus, you will see that as our reality.

We took some time to meet with what we call `stakeholders,’ which includes faculty, staff, current students, prospective students, prospective parents and alumni, and talked to them about what UMass Boston means to them. Through that exercise and research, we were able to come up with a brand strategy that was cohesive and that could allow us to all tell one story.

The reason for building a brand is so that we can go out and share with the community, in a cohesive way, who we are: Why a student should want to come here, and why, most importantly, a degree from here has incredible value.

KS: What does “For the Times” mean, and can you give a real-world example for students to understand what you mean by that?

MDS: “For the Times” is derivative of the original mission of the university. If you go back to when the university was founded in the 1960s, we were founded because there was a hole. There was an empty space in the public higher education that was being offered in this area. There was an underrepresented group that did not have access to high quality public education in or near Boston. That’s why the university was founded.

When it was founded, the mission talked about being of and for the city because that’s where most of the underrepresented students were coming from. There wasn’t necessarily an affordable, accessible university that met their needs that was close: That offered the relationships with the city, that offered the relationships with the potential internships, potential job growth, there just wasn’t an offering. It was founded for the city and for the times.

What “For the Times” originally meant, and what it means now, is that we are the reflection of how society changes. […] We have continued to evolve with our application pools, having 60 percent first-generation students and over 140 languages spoken, that is not something that other universities can say. The numbers may not have been exactly that high when we were founded, but that was the original intent. To serve that population, because that is the population that is growing in this country.

“For the Times,” in my mind, is a campaign idea and who we are, that will never let us rest on our morals. It is an action statement. It is a statement that says we have to continually evolve, we have to continually innovate and we have to continually progress to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the changing higher education landscape and the changing demographics of this country.

SB: What was the reasoning behind the evolution of the logo?

MDS: The reasoning behind the evolution of the logo was to highlight the Boston piece, that we’re Beacons, and to really give us something ownable that rallies our community. If you look closely at the logo, we did try to include the U, the M and the B. I know it’s very subtle, and not something that we talk about a lot, but we felt that was important. The reason it’s continuous in its swoops is symbolic of being on the harbor and a Beacon being a symbol of bringing those to a safe harbor. That’s what a lighthouse is intended to do; it’s the idea of encompassing Boston and bringing those to a safe harbor. This is a place of safe harbor. There’s so much richness in this that we want to, over time, continue to evolve. It’s just hard to tell everybody everything at once, especially when it’s new.

The other reality is that we’re now in a digital world. In a digital world, the previous logo was very challenging from an actual usage perspective. When we made it very small on social platforms, it was really hard to use. But that didn’t drive the decision; the decision was really about elevating the brand and emphasizing the Boston piece. That is one of our greatest assets, really.

SB: In the commercial, why did you use different dorms instead of our own, since we have these brand new, beautiful dorms?

MDS: I’m so glad you asked. When we did the filming, it was during COVID-19. We were not allowed into the dormitories, because think about it this way: the residential students weren’t allowed to have their parents [visit] because of COVID-19 protocols. So, how could we possibly make a case for traipsing in there with a film crew of 50 people? We did our best to recreate a space that very much felt as true as it possibly could.

There is nothing more that I would love than to get in the dorms and do more videos, which is something we absolutely will do.

KS: Why was the logo and campaign released now, rather than waiting until after the 25 year plan was completed?

MDS: It takes a long time to build a new brand campaign. We wanted to get to the market as quickly as we could, to start impacting enrollment. The broader strategic plan, master plan, we 100 percent wanted to align with, but by launching this first, it also helped us start to create language that is becoming more universally adopted. […] We were able to take learnings from that process and include it in some of the campaign marketing space. It also gave us a look into the campaign look and feel as we launch these really important strategic initiatives and ensure that it feels cohesive and it feels like it’s coming from a modern, high quality university.

If you think about where we were before, what, visually, the strategic plan looked like, the ideas would always be there. Visually, it wouldn’t necessarily have the same cohesiveness. We felt it was important because, one, it takes a very long time to build a brand, to gain that level of awareness, because we don’t have all the money in the world, even though there are the dollars that you’ve heard [of]. It takes a while to build up a brand.

SB: Where did the money come from? A state grant or university money? Student tuition?

MDS: The budget for the marketing campaign, brand campaign or whatever you want to call it, is part of the existing university budget. These dollars have always been a part of the university budget. What we did when I came in, is look across the university at how these dollars were dispersed and being used. And they [the marketing budgets] were being used […] inefficiently.

What we did, was we centralized the dollars from divisions and departments across the entire university, within the existing budget, into a centralized marketing budget. […]

By buying media the way that we were doing it, we were paying premium prices. There were existing dollars that were centralized, so that we could put them towards a university campaign, so that we had one message out there, bought very efficiently and in bulk, if you will, to streamline the message that is out on the market. There are no new dollars added to support this campaign launch, and it comes from the university budget.

KS: There has been some criticism about the budget towards this campaign, would you mind explaining what this money went towards and how it bettered the students and the university as a whole?

MDS: The dollars are used for television advertising. Television advertising can be very expensive. […] If you buy nationally, it’s expensive—we are not buying nationally. We are buying what’s called spot programming, so we analyze and negotiate each spot and time that we air the commercial. Those are local rates with the local stations. We are being very selective in the programming; looking for high-profile live events where we know there is a captive audience. This comes from my background and knowing how to efficiently do this.

We also did some billboard advertising, like the billboard on the highway. The amount of people driving versus using city transit during the time we started to air is now shifting, but we bought a few—and I really mean a handful—for that audience that is usually stuck on I-93.

There is also a significant amount of digital, because that’s where we know we’re going to be able to find our prospective students. We did a large content buy, through different content providers, that pushes it out to target students that we’re looking to bring in and build awareness with.

The last piece goes to what we call word of mouth. In particular, for spring, it was the internal launch. The internal launch included some wall murals we did […]. We painted a few walls with the logo. We hung the bangers around the campus for aesthetic, for building campus pride and for really stating that all of this is our campus. There were also launch events in the Campus Center, where we gave away a lot of promotional material to students. I never knew how much students loved sweatshirts. We were really adamant about that—that it had to be a part of the money that we were spending. I am happy to say that there will be two Beacon spirit days the first week of November, where we will also have [promotional material], student performances and a few other things that we’re working on.

[Some of the promotional material] is about alliances with local brands and big brands, like Patagonia. There’s not a brand that’s more mission-driven than Patagonia. It is so important to be associated with those brands and for people to see UMass Boston at that scale. There’s absolutely no reason that UMass Boston shouldn’t be seen publicly associated with that; that’s really the goal.

Somebody asked me originally, “What was my goal?” Frankly, my goal, and what we briefed the team on, was I want a sweatshirt on every person I walk by, and a bumper sticker on every car in the parking garage. I want them carrying a water bottle, wearing a pin and a hat. As much as you hear people saying, “I want to be a Fighting Irish,” or “I want to be a Boston College Eagle,” I want people to want to be a Beacon and feel that that has meaning. There’s no better person to carry the message than the students.

SB: After the campaign, some students were concerned the school was prioritizing rebranding for future students over tackling campus issues (i.e. poor infrastructure, high CO2 levels, etc.) for the students who have already committed here. Is there any truth to these concerns?

MDS: My answer to that would be: We did not prioritize one over the other. The health and safety of the university is first and foremost. There is a considerable amount of the university budget that is dedicated to that. The [marketing budget] is smaller than a pinpoint, in comparison. I would never want anyone to think that the university prioritized these dollars over the health and safety of anyone here on campus. That’s simply not true. There is a considerable amount of work being done related to air quality and infrastructure.

There is a campus brown bag lunch coming up with our Vice Chancellor for finance and administration to talk about SDQD, and to talk about the air ventilation questions on campus. We also shared, in the campus update on Thursday, that there are $173 million worth of projects in the pipeline—infrastructure projects. That’s not marketing stuff, that is ‘fix the building, fix the classroom’ kind of stuff.

KS: Were students or staff included in conversations regarding the new logo, and are there plans to include them in future conversations?

MDS: We did what we call stakeholders—those are the important groups that we think need to be included in that. This included faculty, staff, students, prospective students, prospective parents, alumni and the community at large. We did that in two ways: We did both qualitative and quantitative.

Quantitatively, there was a survey asking questions about what you think about the school and what the school stands for—those types of questions. Those went out to faculty, staff and students and also to the population at large. We also did qualitative, and by that, we mean focus groups. We met with several groups—faculty, staff and students—to ask them questions about what UMass Boston means, what you think our story is and what you think our core pillars are. All of this input got synthesized and aggregated into what we call a brand architecture, which is a strategic document that we use to brief a creative team to come up with a campaign.

In addition to that part, which I would call the research part of a campaign, we then go into creative development. During creative development, when we had several concept ideas, we also shared those qualitatively with several groups, including students, staff, alumni and faculty. They saw the concept before it was proven, and certainly before any filming took place.

I will say, the feedback that we got was illuminating. There’s love and loyalty that comes through when people talk about their time here at UMass Boston. When we shared creative concepts, and in post-launch, the feedback in both cases was very similar. It was, “you authentically captured us.” There was a lot of appreciation that it was so student-focused. There was also a lot of appreciation for putting us on the map and finally letting our story be told.

We’ve heard from very notable alumni, the governor, the mayor and the board of trustee members about how much they are enjoying the campaign and seeing UMass Boston on this stage. The feedback we’ve received has really been positive.

KS: Are there any plans to integrate the new logo into merchandise at the bookstore, if you have any say in that? If so, do you have any idea of a timeline on that?

MDS: We are working very closely to, as quickly as we can, transition the merchandise. We are thrilled that there has been a demand for the new branding, and we are working as fast as we can to get merchandise stocked.

I can’t speak exactly, because I don’t oversee the bookstore, but I will tell you that the supply chain is a challenge. It’s not the bookstore’s fault. We have ordered and we work very closely in terms of approval of that type of merchandise. The intent is to have as much as possible transitioned over this year.

SB: Is there anything you’d like to add?

MDS: When I came here, and I learned about all that is coming to the point here, it was very clear to me that this place is about to take off. With our new leadership, the investment in the new quad, and the new master plan, there is no doubt that this university is one of the elite universities in the Boston area.

It’s time to tell our story, and it is such an easy story to tell. It’s such a gift to work here with these students and be able to tell their stories. That’s the story of the university—the story of the students. They are a true reflection of this country and will be the leaders to take us forward. The students deserve a brand that ensures that their degree is seen with the highest value.

About the Contributors
Katrina Sanville, Editor-In-Chief
Skylar Bowman, Managing Editor
Josh Kotler, Photographer