Eduvation Blog

Aspiring to Brand New Heights

Good morning, TGIF, and bonne Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day!

If you prefer, you can celebrate Pralines, Upcycling, or Fairies, Swim a Lap or Take Your Dog to Work. (Unless you WFH, though, better check with your boss first.)

As for me, I’m back in my Brand Chemistry™ lab, continuing this week’s round-up of higher ed branding trends during the pandemic. Tuesday we looked at efforts to decolonize institutional and athletic brands, and Wednesday at the way college brands are evolving, often dropping “community” or “college,” adding “university” when they can, or embracing new “polytechnic” status. (I also touched on new microcredential sub-brands.)

Today, I want to focus on Canadian university branding efforts from the past couple of years. I’m struck by just how ambitious, optimistic and aspirational they are in tone – and how often metaphors converge on climbing, defying gravity, elevating your future, in a world without limits…  

Amidst a pandemic, CdnPSE brands sound ambitious, optimistic and aspirational – using metaphors of climbing, elevating, or defying gravity without limits.  

Working Together

Some leading CdnPSE brands were focusing their messaging on collaboration, teamwork, and institutional unity, before and during the first year of the pandemic…

Made by McGill

McGill U launched its “Made by McGill” branding platform “and rallying cry” in Sept 2019, for athletics, recruitment and fundraising. (There’s a $2B capital campaign.) The launch celebrates 200 years of education and research, and sets a “daring, modern and optimistic” tone for McGill’s “trailblazers, dreamers and innovators.” The “Made” concept is intended to suggest “the reciprocity of people made by McGill, who in turn shape the university’s future.” The :90-sec “Anthem” video, by agency Sid Lee, highlights famous grads like Leonard Cohen, while others are invited to submit their own stories.  Strategy  |  Anthem vid  |  Sid Lee


uWaterloo launched a new brand expression in Dec 2020 to usher in upcoming brand awareness and annual giving campaigns. The previous “Beyond” platform has been replaced with a new slogan, “You+Waterloo,” to emphasize that “our greatest impact happens together,” so “let’s build the future, together!” Like many other pandemic campaigns I’ve noticed, this one focuses on “the connections and community that continue to advance Waterloo research and innovation at home and around the world.” Connections between students and researchers, across disciplines and out to industry, on a global scale. “You+Waterloo calls on creators, explorers and boundary-pushing thinkers to join us in driving real-world solutions that meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”  uWaterloo Bulletin  |  Brand Guide  |  Youtube Vid

“You+Waterloo calls on creators, explorers and boundary-pushing thinkers to join us in driving real-world solutions that meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

Leading with Purpose

uAlberta launched its new “One University” master brand strategy in May 2021, with the assistance of agency STC. It describes an institution full of people who seek out challenges, question and test the status quo, overcome barriers, collaborate and together “create new purpose.” uAlberta “will never be satisfied with the now,” but will “always be seeking, always be challenging and, most of all, always be leading.” The video features some silent, engaging, almost ASMR-like scenes of students and researchers working late (or maybe early). Prospective students are asked “What’s Your Purpose?” “Where will you be when the future shows up? Tomorrow is too late.”  YouTube  |  Brand Toolkit  |  STC Storytellers

Reaching New Heights

Perhaps it’s inevitable that “higher” education thinks in terms of climbing – whether in the university rankings, or in terms of social mobility for students. Quest U starts from a literal sense of place, while SMU, uToronto and Dal are describing their limitless ambitions to make the world a better place…

World Without Limits

Saint Mary’s U (Halifax) launched a bright, ambitious new brand identity and platform in June 2021, also developed by Toronto agency STC. (It must have been a busy year for Marsh and team!) The coat of arms was significantly streamlined, fonts went sans-serif, and bold waves dominate page layouts to suggest SMU’s Halifax location. The brand personality is “energetic” and “global” with “maritime informality,” and the promise is “to create the space for possibility.” The tagline, “World without Limits,” is intended to suggest “limitless discovery, support and belonging” – not just world-changing research, but also “acknowledging and tackling the very real limitations placed on diverse and marginalized cultures and peoples, and addressing the mental health issues that many grapple with every day.”  SMU News  |  Anthem vid  |  STC Storytellers  |  Brand Toolkit

“World without limits… [means tackling] the very real limitations placed on diverse and marginalized cultures and peoples, and addressing the mental health issues that many grapple with every day.”Robert Summerby-Murray, president, Saint Mary’s U

Elevate Your Future

Quest U (Squamish BC) is capitalizing on its inspiring mountain setting with a new brand identity that removes the peak from within the “Q” and instead adds line art of the Stawamus Chief, a local landmark and one of the world’s largest granite monoliths. This 3-min brand reveal vid showcases the “new look for Canada’s most unique university,” one that “prioritizes education, not just the granting of degrees.” (I’ve written and spoken many times about Quest’s unique interdisciplinary “block method” of course delivery.) The Quest brand mission is “to equip students for their brightest possible future,” emphasizing discovery, critical thinking, innovation, individuality and community. “Education is a journey, not just a destination… There are no wrong routes when it comes to the diverse paths students may take in the process of reaching the summit of their dreams.”  YouTube

Defy Gravity

uToronto launched its first university-wide brand platform in more than a decade in Dec 2021, replacing the “Boundless” campaign that preceded it. “Defy Gravity” will inform awareness, recruitment and fundraising campaigns across all 3 UofT campuses (including a $4B capital campaign). The slogan is shorthand for UofT’s inclusive community-building efforts, and the ways UofT works together to overcome obstacles, limits, and expectations to create meaningful change. (So, not just “stepping up to solve intractable global problems” and “effect meaningful change” but also to help students overcome obstacles and adversity, to “defy gravity.”) An alumni engagement campaign launched in December, and digital, social, and out-of-home ads have begun appearing across the GTA. A 2-min widescreen vid, “Together, We can Defy Gravity” (above), highlights the accomplishments of UofT alumni through almost 200 years, and a series of research and social “firsts.”  YouTube  |  Strategy  |  Defy Gravity campaign  |  UofT News  |  Marketing News Canada

Infinite Ambition

Dalhousie U unveiled a brand refresh in June 2022 that positions it “for the global stage, a digital world and a third century of achievement.” The visual identity has been updated with more legible sans serif type (Public Sans), simplified black and gold colours, a streamlined eagle shield (which seems to pluck a few tailfeathers from the last version), and a curvy lozenge shape (the “Dalcon”) that combines the eagle’s beak and wingtip, and produces “limitless” wallpaper patterns. (It looks especially good on the billboard.) Dal’s brand pillars include research impact, academic excellence, engaging community and extraordinary location, and its new brand promise is “where infinite ambition meets global impact.” (Portraying the brand as curious, driven, and aspiring will be easy, compared to communicating the concept of “inclusive excellence.”)  YouTube  |  Dal News  |  Brand microsite

Fusing Paradoxes

As I said, “inclusive excellence” is a paradoxical concept. I can’t count the number of CdnPSEs I’ve worked with who wrestle to balance equity of access and excellence of achievement in their brands. Considering that incoming grade requirements are the “academic currency” that are top-of-mind for prospective university students, it’s tough to convince them that an accessible place is also an elite, aspirational one. But I’m struck by just how well 2 of these recent brands simultaneously connote stratospheric excellence AND supports to help students overcome obstacles – to “defy gravity” and explore a “world without limits.”

Nicely done, folks!

Thanks for reading – even though I know this kind of material would be much better suited to an episode of Ten with Ken than a newsletter. I’m working out some technical kinks, but I hope to convert this week’s issues into a few videos before long. That’ll let me incorporate a lot more examples, and plenty of clips and excerpts to give you the feel without having to watch all the vids individually.  

Have a great weekend. Stay safe – and cool! – out there…


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