Western exploring its ‘story’ with community

The University of Western Ontario knows what story it wants to tell the world about itself; now it is exploring ways to tell it. And university officials are turning to members of the community for help.

“In a sophisticated visual world, having a deliberate strategy on the type of image we will choose to portray the university is important,” says Kevin Goldthorp, vice-president (external). “What is our point of view from an image perspective? That’s the question right now.”

For the last year, Western has been engaged in a bit of self-reflection; a rebranding process for the entire institution. Goldthorp, who has pushed this initiative almost since his first day on the job, calls it a search for a “point of difference that is Western.”

“We believe we are different. Faculty members, deans, leaders across campus talk to me every day about how Western is different,” he says. “Our job is to elicit from them a very succinct way of describing that difference. Why Western? We need to have that discussion, so we can have a very clear answer when someone is looking at us saying, ‘Why should I study at Western; why should I move my career to Western; why should I give you a dollar to invest?’”

It’s a desire for clarity shared across university administration.

Describing Western as “a complex organization,” Western president Amit Chakma sees the ultimate goal as quite simple. “We’re not just talking internationally, although that is important, but we have some work to do in Canada. The question is ‘How do we raise our profile?’ When you have multiple identities like we do, it becomes a problem. But while we have distinctive identities, voices, we have some common elements,” he says. “The challenge is to find those and communicate them clearly.”

“Establishing a more unified visual identity for Western will be of great assistance to us as we strive for greater recognition as a world-class institution that makes an impact both at home and abroad,” says Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president (academic). “We are disadvantaged in this regard, in part, by the lack of a clear, cohesive and overarching identity for our university. This sometimes undermines our ability to effectively promote the outstanding work done here at Western and tie back to the institution as a whole.

“If we can do a better job of leveraging more of the great individual stories we have to tell in a way that connects them back to the Western brand, it can only help our collective efforts to increase our global impact in substantive and meaningful ways,” she adds.

Most of the recent effort has been spent engaging senior leaders on the university’s future direction and mission, and how to communicate that at a high level. Next steps include engaging the entire university community on how to portray Western and its mission visually.

“We have an incredible story. We are a university that is rapidly moving from being a regional powerhouse to a provincial powerhouse to a national powerhouse. And now we have clearly decided we need to be in the top-ranked schools globally,” Goldthorp says. “We are competing for the best-possible teaching and research minds; we are competing for the best possible students; and we are competing for the attention of everyone who controls our world – be it our funders in Queen’s Park or Ottawa or granting institutions or alumni and friends. We need to make sure our story is compelling, interesting and engaging.”

A big part of that is the university’s visual identity.


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Following a competitive process, Hahn Smith Design was selected in May as the lead agency on the visual rebranding process. The Toronto-based firm has worked previously with the CBC, Whitney Museum of American Art and Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as higher education entities like the University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Upper Canada College and The Ontario College of Teachers.

Throughout July and August, Hahn Smith representatives are conducting workshops with faculty, staff, alumni and donors discussing the rebranding process. The input from deans and students will be sought in September, culminating with a consultation with Board of Governors later that month.

In addition, September will also feature an online survey to faculty, staff, students and alumni as well as face-to-face ‘streeters’ with random individuals around the main campus.

A website will launch in mid-September for members of the Western community to stay informed. Social media also will be utilized to provide another opportunity to share ideas.

Chakma and Deakin stress the importance of wide-spread involvement.

“We need to have a consistency we currently do not have,” Chakma says. “You can call it a ‘rebranding,’ but I prefer calling this a ‘communications exercise.’ We need to look at a better way to tell our story. And who generates those stories? Members of our community. So how can we do it without their help? We cannot.”

“For us to be successful, we need the contributions and support of our entire campus community. And that’s why the consultation process we’ve embarked upon is so important,” Deakin adds. “The Provost’s Working Group is reaching out to engage and consult with as many faculty, staff, students and alumni as possible to help ensure that all members of our community can see themselves represented in the process. We want to get this right, and providing the opportunity to share their views and experience is key to producing a positive outcome.”

“The involvement of all faculty, staff and students is critical,” says Michael Milde, Faculty of Arts and Humanities acting dean and member of the Provost’s Working Group. “To date it is clear to me that this process really is open, and people’s suggestions will have an impact. If you want to make a contribution, then you have to participate; there is simply no reason to feel disconnected. But if you choose not to engage, then you have to be prepared to live with the results.”

Goldthorp agrees this is where the bulk of ideas will be generated. “Collectively – alumni, students, faculty, staff – we are 300,000 people worldwide. There will be a huge divergence in opinions, but there will be common themes,” he says.

Everything, as they say, is on the table when it comes to reviewing the university’s visual identity – typefaces, fonts, wording, the menagerie of logos splattered across campus and colours (although purple is still a favourite, just maybe not as much), as well as ‘The Tower Logo.’

Goldthorp admits deeply held attachments to the iconic image, but says the university would be neglecting its duty not to consider a replacement.

“We will ask the questions: Is The Tower still serving our needs? Does it need to be updated, changed? Does it reflect the university we want to reflect? So we are not afraid to ask the question,” he says. “We are an academic institution. We should be held accountable to doing research on this and asking the questions, facing up to the answers, and then taking action based on those answers.”


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In the end, Goldthorp hopes this process offers Western clarity and cohesion.

“The ideal world is where we have a much more connected visual representation of Western that signals – from the look, colour and feel of all our publications and media – where Western wants to go.”

He hopes to better connect the occasionally disparate pieces of the university into one unit, all while respecting the individuality of its units.

“I am looking for something that captures the fact that Western is an institution that is firmly situated in its local community, but makes an international contribution at the highest level,” Milde says

Deakin echoes those sentiments. “Through the collective wisdom of our community, my hope is that we will find some creative solutions to tell and frame the infinite number of remarkable stories that emerge from our university in a more clear and cohesive manner,” she says. “We want to improve the means for ensuring individual and collective success stories reflect back on the university as whole, which is something every member of the Western community will benefit from.”

“The story you tell matters,” Chakma says. “Story-telling is important. I know it; we know it.”


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The process is now more than a year old.

In June 2010, Western selected Level 5 Strategic Brand Advisors, a Toronto-based marketing firm, to develop a new communications and positioning strategy for Western. The total cost of the contract was $265,000. This money came from the advertising/communications budget for Western’s $500-million fundraising campaign.

The following month, the company spearheaded an unconventional, somewhat controversial, survey sent randomly to 40,000 staff, faculty, students and alumni by email. Of that number, 4,500 people responded. Those findings proved valuable as Western’s Strategic Communications Working Group, who received Level 5’s final report in February, started shaping the next phase based on the data. These results were then rolled out to various groups across campus in March and April.

In April, Western’s Provost Working Group was created. The group, lead by Deakin, is charged with sharing their insights into how best to communicate what Western is today and what the university aspires to be; clarifying and establishing key messages, as well as a unique visual identity; and advising on how best to engage the broader campus community in this work.

In addition to Milde, Deakin and Goldthorp, working group membership includes; Joy James, Visual Arts, chair; June Cotte, Richard Ivey School of Business, marketing professor; Jane Rylett, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Physiology and Pharmacology chair; Gerhard Pratt, Department of Earth Sciences, professor and chair; Cynthia Dunning Zwicker, Faculty of Engineering, mechanical and materials, biomedical associate professor; Victoria Meredith, Don Wright Faculty of Music, associate dean (academic); James Patten, McIntosh Gallery, director; Stephanie Hayne, experiential education, coordinator; Lori Gribbon, undergraduate recruitment and admissions director; Jennifer Ashenden, residences, assistant director; Vivian Peters, Indigenous Services, coordinator; Earl Noble, kinesiology, director; Adam Parachin, Faculty of Law, associate professor; Catherine Ross, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, adjunct professor; Katina Pollock, Faculty of Education, assistant professor; Michael Buzzelli, Canadian Policy Network, director of education; Kris Dundas, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, communications officer; Terry Rice, marketing and creative services director and Helen Connell, associate vice-president, Communications & Public Affairs.