Insights — Hot Mics and High Fives: Launching a Brand in the Middle of a Pandemic

Hot Mics and High Fives: Launching a Brand in the Middle of a Pandemic

Client Work , Strategy , Branding / July 16, 2020
Kristen Creighton
Kristen Creighton

"The mic is still hot!"

The urgent message started streaming through the comments feed on our live event "backstage" platform. Of the approximately 402,331 details we'd meticulously planned and scripted over the past several weeks, the ONE thing we all forgot: the logistics of the event's ending.

But before we get to that, let's go back to the beginning.

When we begin brand work with any client, there is usually the need to educate the institution that this is not a marketing communications initiative. Nor is it an administrative exercise. A brand is the culmination of perceptions about who you are, what you do, and why you do it. This means that brand strategy requires the alignment of all key stakeholders, which is why thorough quantitative and qualitative research is vital to the process. How else could you develop an authentic brand that truly encompasses an institution's place in the world?

At Stan State, that conversation wasn't needed. In fact, it was Stan State who wanted to ensure that our process wouldn't simply be a marketing communications initiative or an administrative exercise. That this would be a process that would encompass the whole campus and ensure that every person who touched the institution would have a voice.  What we didn't know at the time was how transformative that commitment to the campus community would prove to be just a few months down the road. 

Fast forward to late February 2020. After a semester and a half immersed in survey research, focus groups, strategy building, writing and designing, and multiple cycles of presentations, reviews, and revisions, Stan State University President Ellen Junn gave her blessing to a new, campus-community-approved university brand.

It was all-systems-go: We began orchestrations for an early-May outdoor campus launch celebration and planned a weeklong shoot for an anthem video that would serve as the centerpiece of the public rollout in the fall. But, you know what comes next: COVID-19.

As the university immediately turned all attention to evacuating campus and shifting to online learning, the prospect for the launch started to look bleak. At SimpsonScarborough, we were canceling campus visits and reconsidering every survey, website, and brand launch, asking, "Should we do this now? Is that going to appear tone-deaf during an international emergency?" 

After an initial blur of sleepless weeks turned to weary acceptance of this "new normal," we hopped on our weekly call with Stan State to assess the campus community's state of mind. 

The previous week, the university had posted a Twitter poll asking, "Warriors, how are your virtual classes going?" More than 60% answered, "I'm overwhelmed." 

It was clear that the campus needed to find a way to come together in the midst of all the madness — could a brand launch really be the right way to do that? 

But then we reflected on the inclusivity of the branding process itself: everyone had a part. Everyone played a role. And the brand that was developed after months of research, strategy, and creative execution was the inspiring, enduring, and authentic depiction of Stan State. It belonged to every student and parent, every professor and adjunct, every community partner, staff member, and alumnus — each of them equally. It transformed our thinking from, "Is this appropriate?" to "This is the very thing we need to bring us together in this moment of crisis." 

The brand that was developed after months of research, strategy, and creative execution was the inspiring, enduring, and authentic depiction of Stan State. It belonged to every student and parent, every professor and adjunct, every community partner, staff member, and alumnus — each of them equally.

Our decision was unanimous: The launch would go on, albeit in a different format than we'd planned, but still with the same intention of celebrating the diverse and inclusive Stan State culture, where everyone is welcomed and students and faculty support one another in pursuit of personal and academic success.

Lead project sponsor Rosalee Rush, Stan State's Senior Associate Vice President for Communications & Public Affairs, convened her branding committee to get planning and added new members from alumni relations, student government, and — probably most important — information technology. We could not have pulled this off without the university's Media Production Specialist, Jerry Anderson! It was uncharted territory, but once the brainstorming started, we became more and more excited for the Stan State Virtual Brand Launch. 

Our communications articulated that this was a chance for the campus community to come together during a challenging time, draw strength from their Warrior family, and celebrate the year's accomplishments before heading into final exams. We put together a series of event teasers that were posted to university social media channels every other day leading up to the launch. 

Stan State Brand Launch Teasers

Before we knew it, the big day arrived. The event started off with a welcome from President Junn, who then handed it off to co-emcees Karlha Davies, the university's high-energy Alumni Director, and Wonuola Olagunju, a senior Biology major who's active in student government.  

Stan State President Junn Virtual Brand Launch

The brand was unveiled with a video we had produced without a shoot, utilizing university b-roll, language and graphics from the new brand concept, an upbeat soundtrack, and some drone footage serendipitously captured pre-pandemic. The script presented the event as a "first look" at the brand for the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who had provided extensive input on its creation. 



Next on the program were recorded-from-home video messages of support from alumni, staff, and faculty, including the Dean of the College of Science, who composed and performed a humorous yet sweet song about learning and teaching by Zoom.  

Dr. Evans playing guitar

A highlight of the virtual launch was a musical performance by the Stan State Chamber Singers. Backed by a five-piece band made up of music faculty and staff members, the 16 student singers each used their cell phones to videotape and record their part of a spirited Brazilian samba-rock piece. Our video team edited all the clips and audio tracks into a seamless, inspiring performance.

Stan State Band Virtual Performance

Stan State Chamber Singers Virtual Performance

Eventually, as scripted, Karlha and Wonuola signed off, and Jerry returned the screen to the static event graphic. But the one little thing we forgot to script was exactly how long it would take to shut down the live feed (hint: it's not immediate). Those of us watching from home were privy to the Stan State team in the studio erupting into post-show cheers and high fives, prompting a barrage of panicky "hot mic!" comments from the planning team. Our nerves turned to delight, however, as viewers posted kind and funny comments about the spontaneous moment of elation.

Judging by the several hundred people watching and the amazing, positive comments streaming through the Facebook Live Event feed (including props for including an ASL interpreter), the virtual event was a success.

Alumni Director with ASL Interpreter

It not only achieved what a brand launch is supposed to — uniting the university around its authentic values — but also allowed us to stay on track with the university's overarching marketing agenda, setting the stage for growing and amplifying brand awareness and engagement even during an extremely challenging time for U.S. higher ed. #WarriorStrong!

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