Published on October 31, 2016, at 12:08 p.m.
By Melody Schmidt
As more and more students apply to schools across the country and the recruitment process becomes increasingly competitive, universities have had to find new ways to stand out. Some schools have chosen to focus on academics, while others advocate their beautiful campuses and quality of student life.
However, sometimes the difference between a student choosing between schools can be something as simple as how that university makes a student feel. A university’s brand can thus become a pivotal part of the college recruitment and selection process. For The University of Alabama, that brand has evolved from its newest campaign: “Where Legends Are Made.”
The University of Alabama doesn’t take its status as a school of legends lightly. But what exactly defines a legend?
“A legend is someone who’s brought national and international attention to the university,” Linda Bonnin, strategic VP of communications for UA, said. “Alabama had to have a big, bold campaign, because this is Alabama and the bar is really high.”
As for how the “Legends” concept came to be, sometimes, the best ideas can come to you when you’re not even looking for them. For Bonnin, the inspiration for the “Legends” campaign came to her when she was least expecting it.
“Honestly, when I quit thinking about it for a couple of weeks was when it came to me, and sometimes you can think about something so hard that it just becomes more difficult,” Bonnin said. “Quite honestly, I laid down to go to sleep one Friday night, and it just hit me.”
A well-thought-out tagline can also perfectly sum up the heart of a university and what makes it special from other schools across the country.
“It was big, it was bold, it was prideful, but it was also aspirational,” Bonnin said. “It spoke to the aspirations of our students and their parents. It spoke to the pride that our alumni and our donors and our fans feel. It was like ‘Yes, this is what this place is all about.’”
The numbers behind “Where Legends Are Made”
- First-ever comprehensive marketing campaign for UA based on research dating back to 1975
- Social media engagement with an audience of 1.3 million for first campaign Facebook post, the highest engagement of any UA social media post
- Over 8 million viewers for first commercial airing during USC v. Alabama season-opener
- 31 currently featured legends with more to be announced
“Where Legends Are Made” has yielded significant engagement through a mixture of social media and advertising, with more tactics to come. But what did it take to reach that point? In the early planning stages of the campaign, Bonnin reached out to RSQ, a digital agency in Mobile, Alabama, to direct the first step of the campaign, a 30-second TV spot during the Alabama season opener. Upon owner Rich Sullivan’s recommendation, she found the ideal director for the commercial: an internationally renowned photographer and another talented alumnus of the university, Miller Mobley.
Sullivan’s and Mobley’s combined creative expertise was proved necessary to effectively execute the platform for the commercial: putting academics and athletics on an even playing field. Although UA is well-known for its successful football program and 16 national titles, the heart of this campaign is about also celebrating achievements outside of athletics.
“People know us for football, obviously, but we want to be more than a football school,” Bonnin said. “We want people to understand that, for instance, 40 percent of our freshman class this year had a 30 or higher on the ACT.”
Creating a commercial and campaign of this magnitude presented its own unique set of challenges during development. The project’s secrecy was a top priority, and at times, difficult to maintain. Film shoots during less crowded months at the university and non-disclosure agreements became essential parts of maintaining the secrecy of this project.
“The Alabama brand is so large that we knew people would want to be the first to tweet or talk about it,” Bonnin said. “We wanted to fly under the radar and not have people know we were shooting a new commercial. We actually pulled that off for about five months, which was unbelievable.”
Although “Where Legends Are Made” was originally supposed to be a stand-alone project, like many PR endeavors, it ended up evolving into something much more than that: a full-fledged campaign.
“As we began to develop the commercial, it was clear that ‘Where Legends Are Made’ was something that could be much bigger than that,” Bonnin said. “We began to think about things like billboards, print ads, digital ads and all the other things that we could use to tell the story about the legends here at Alabama.”
Following the commercial’s development, a comprehensive website and advertising campaign became the next steps in the communication team’s promotional efforts. The UA Legends website was developed as a central hub for the campaign, tying all tactics together to effectively promote the commercial, tell the stories of UA’s legends, connect to social media strategy and market merchandise.
“The website for ‘Where Legends Are Made’ is all about telling the story of how UA’s students, alumni and faculty members have made a difference in their communities and our world,” Andy Rainey, UA’s director of web communications, said. “We wanted to show how our great scholars, championship teams and innovative researchers are living out their dreams and creating a legacy for our university.”
Social media strategy is also key for this campaign and a unique outlet in which to tell the stories of UA’s legends. Facebook has been a particularly useful platform, generating the most social media engagement out of all of UA’s platforms and starting a conversation with followers to share their own experiences of what makes UA legendary.
“The initial Facebook post featuring the commercial spot had a reach of over 1.3 million users with almost 350,000 views of the video,” Rainey said. “Social media has been a tremendous vehicle for the Legends campaign, and has helped us successfully tell our story while adding depth and context to the campaign’s theme.”
At the heart of this campaign’s digital strategy are the legends themselves. Current legends highlighted on the website include notable alumni Harper Lee, Betsy Plank and Joe Scarborough. The key objective behind putting some of these legends in the spotlight is to recognize those alumni that some may not recognize by name, but who have made significant contributions to society, like Winston Groom, the author of “Forrest Gump.” A series of advertisements spotlighting these legends will be released in the near future. UA’s strategic communications department plans to continually feature more alumni on the website as the campaign further develops, including those suggested by social media followers.
“The website tells our collective story through individual stories of our legends, and it also allows users to suggest additional legends who have made a lasting impact on their communities,” Rainey said. “We continue to use social media to share stories of our legends and to engage with followers about their individual stories as well.”
The road to creating a successful rebranding campaign can be arduous but rewarding. If done correctly, the many hours of research, strategic planning and production can yield incredible results for a university or any company in need of a rebrand.
“If you do research on the front end, whether that’s formal or informal research, that certainly helps your chances for success,” Bonnin said. “You just can’t be afraid. Your brand is not so much your logo as it is about who you are, what’s authentic to you and what’s the value that you bring to the world and to the community. So think big, think bold and speak to the heart of who you are.”
Learn more about UA’s legends and the “Where Legends Are Made” campaign here.