The day we became Augusta University was momentous. On Sept. 15, 2015, a unanimous vote by the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents changed the institution's name from Georgia Regents University. The decision, effective immediately, restored the university's connection to Augusta, Georgia, which the institution has called home for generations. But a daunting task lay ahead of the 8,500-student university, particularly for the Division of Communications and Marketing. Rebranding a large university and health system is a difficult mission under any circumstance, but we faced additional challenges because we weren't starting with a clean slate.
University constituents already were dealing with tremendous change fatigue. The board of regents' 2010 decision to consolidate Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University and the merger process that created Georgia Regents University had taken a toll on community members, many of whom felt marginalized because the institution's name no longer included Augusta. For some stakeholders, the switch to Augusta University was the institution's third name change in five years. All the disruption had muddied the university's identity and drained the community's energy to participate in yet another rebranding initiative. AU's communications and marketing staff needed to establish an enduring identity for the university that would inspire pride and excitement, mend and deepen its connection with constituents, and unify an institution with four campuses in Augusta, satellite campuses in five cities across Georgia, a university medical center, and a children's hospital.
The communications and marketing team met to map out a rebranding strategy the morning after Augusta University became the institution's official name. As we developed our plan, we spoke with key constituents and looked at brand engagement measures to evaluate previous branding efforts. The implementation of the GRU identity had been abrupt, leaving little opportunity to thoughtfully manage its execution. More problematic perhaps, the effort hadn't created an emotional connection between the institution's identity and its stakeholders. One indicator of this failure was the dearth of licensing royalties paid to GRU—in 2013 the total was $1,600.
Following the August 2012 name change to GRU, a group of prominent Augusta residents and business leaders started the "Save the A" campaign, complete with yard signs and bumper stickers. University supporters believed the renaming process had ignored community input and failed to recognize the city's significant brand equity. The September 2015 vote to restore Augusta to the university's name offered an opportunity to reconnect the community to the institution.
We began gathering opinions from thousands of people through surveys, focus groups, and meetings with faculty, staff, alumni, students, and community members. We asked them to describe the institution, what they valued about it, how they engaged with the previous brand, and more. Despite the turmoil of recent years, we learned that our constituents highly regard the institution's core identity—an affordable university that provides a high-quality education and medical center that delivers first-rate health care.
Stakeholder committees offered honest feedback. The conversations were difficult at times, but we wanted our constituents to feel heard and valued. Our audiences wanted to see a brand that matched their pride in the institution and their city. This exercise in shared governance required a greater investment of time from university leaders, staff, and stakeholders, but it also demonstrated the institution's commitment to its constituents and the community. With the help of the local creative firm Wier/Stewart, we developed a strategy for AU's new visual identity that would articulate the spirit of the university and its hometown.
Our plan was to weave together a shared heritage that would unify the institution's disparate entities. AU's academic programs became the cornerstone of our visual strategy. We sought a new academic mark that our diverse audiences would find relevant, that would ignite their pride and passion, and that would be easy for them to adopt as a lasting symbol. But finding such an inclusive image was challenging. There wasn't an immediately recognizable symbol that could represent everything.
Then a bell went off, figuratively, in our minds. The ringing of bells is a tradition that spans AU's history. A bell on the Summerville campus rings for important events such as a university president's inauguration. The student newspaper, known as The Bell Ringer since 1957, derives its name from the same bell tower. In past decades, a bell at the university's medical center rang when babies were born. Oncology patients ring a bell inside the cancer center when they finish their last chemotherapy treatment. The design team expanded on the idea, incorporating architectural details from around the city of Augusta. The result: an A-frame bell tower inside a U-shaped shield. Our new academic mark became the institution's unifying logo. The tower differs from the one that sits amid the activity of the Summerville campus, but it feels familiar because it reflects the area's aesthetic. A bell tower like the one in our logo is planned for the Health Sciences campus in the next decade.
We also created an institutional seal that combines elements of the university's diverse legacy into one symbol: Oak leaves signify the 250-year-old Arsenal Oak that predated the university and stood on the Summerville campus until 2004; the Greek columns and pediment of the Old Medical College, which was established in 1828, denote AU's Health Sciences campus; and a torch represents education and research with rays emanating from it to illustrate the power of healing. These icons are enclosed in a segmented circle that commemorates a sundial on the Summerville campus and symbolizes the university's history, progress, and potential. We commissioned a life-size version of the seal made of wood from the Arsenal Oak, Georgia quartz, and iron reclaimed from the Summerville campus. The unique piece, which debuted in 2016, stands outside President Brooks Keel's office and commands a prominent place onstage during commencement.
Most important, the design team brought back the "A" the community wanted to see again. The "Victory A" is the university's primary spirit mark. Augustus, our jaguar mascot, has been updated and streamlined. He now has a "game face," according to our athletic director.
As the visual identity iterations were underway, we strove for transparency and accountability throughout the process to help restore our constituents' trust and confidence. We created a public rebranding website with FAQ and feedback sections. We read and considered every comment. We posted survey results, summaries of the listening tour responses, and drafts of the visual elements of our brand identity. We also included a master calendar of our work, issued progress reports as milestone dates approached, and shared information about delays or schedule changes with stakeholders. I listed my direct office phone number and email address in campuswide email messages and personally answered every inquiry—approximately 50—about the project. Our internal communications website, Jagwire, featured stories about our progress.
The rebranding process is expensive, and we were committed to controlling costs, particularly since this was the second name change in three years. We encouraged units to use up materials from the previous brand and recycle items they could not use.
A motley collection of campus signs featuring various names and visual identities were a source of confusion to visitors, emblems of our change fatigue, and fodder for sarcastic jokes. We worked with campus leadership and our Office of Institutional Effectiveness, which makes evidence-based planning decisions for the university, to devise a master list of all brand assets that needed to be updated across the various campuses. A four-box framework helped us evaluate each item according to brand value, replacement cost, and strategic priority. A schedule for replacing each element kept us accountable and on budget. Our chief financial officer weighed in on high-value and high-cost items, such as the beacon signs on university buildings and the mascot logo on the basketball arena's floor. Existing annual budgets absorbed the replacement of high-value but low-cost items like business cards and department letterhead. We identified some creative and inexpensive solutions to help bridge the brand transition. There was no way to change all the parking lot signs across the university at once, for example, so we covered old signage with high-quality stickers featuring the new visual identity until they could be replaced.
After four months of work, we unveiled the new brand identity on Jan. 21, 2016. To make it immediately and widely accessible, we released videos introducing the new marks and thanking the community for participating in the process. Meanwhile, communications and marketing staff members delivered 1,000 brand starter kits filled with items such as notepads, pens, and stickers to every department on campus as well as to community stakeholders, including the mayor, local legislators, and the convention and visitors bureau. We also shipped about 200 kits to AU's satellite campuses and to key donors and alumni across the U.S.
Students and staff were greeted with banners hung by the campus facilities crews the night before. The university's bookstores opened with the new AU merchandise. We hosted Jag Swag Swaps on the Summerville and Health Sciences campuses where people exchanged legacy-branded apparel for AU T-shirts. The stock of 10,000 shirts disappeared in two hours. AU's social media channels buzzed with the hashtag #newJagSwag, generating five times our typical traffic. Our media relations team earned coverage of the launch on TV, in print, and online, resulting in more than 6 million digital impressions.
The website brand.augusta.edu became the official source for information about the brand, including everything from comprehensive brand guidelines to templates for PowerPoint slides. The site also featured videos, photography, and leadership team interviews that media relations staff could leverage with reporters and producers. During launch week, the communications and marketing team staffed a phone hotline to answer questions about implementing the brand. We used those inquiries to improve the information on the website's FAQ page.
While launch day marked the start of a new phase for the university, the branding process is a marathon. As we work to establish AU in the higher education marketplace, we turn brand milestones—such as hanging beacon signs and rolling out bus wraps—into campus celebrations and media events.
We have worked through many brand implementation questions with campus units and university partners and checked off major items on our task lists. In the push to implement AU's new identity across the university, we've discovered how difficult it is to eliminate remnants of the previous brand. They lurk in hidden corners and lesser-traveled hallways, unnoticed by people accustomed to passing them. So we got creative and enlisted help. In October 2017, we began a brand scavenger hunt of sorts, offering small prizes to people who reported the locations of non-AU-branded signs. Such efforts not only distribute the workload but also produce new brand ambassadors.
Our data show that the majority of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and supporters have embraced the AU brand. Since December 2015, alumni giving is up. The number of new donors increased from 900 in FY2016 to nearly 2,400 in FY2017. Faculty and staff giving has grown significantly—gifts during a recent two-month campaign raised more than $1 million, surpassing the university's goal. AU's consumer awareness numbers have steadily risen. Nearly 80 percent of prospective students recall the university's advertising. We have exceeded our undergraduate enrollment targets the past two years. It's now common to see community members wearing AU apparel. Our gross licensing royalties in FY2017 totaled almost $40,000. A city that had a diminished connection to the university is again becoming a college town.
As President Keel—an alumnus of the two institutions that merged to become the university he now leads—likes to say: "AU is a 6-year-old institution with a 190-year history." Community and history are enduring and essential elements of our new identity. Our decision to focus on relationships and to be transparent and inclusive while envisioning a new future for AU is helping us forge strong bonds that will yield meaningful results for years to come.
Augusta University's visual identity architecture won a 2017 Circle of Excellence Award, Gold, in the visual identity systems category. Judges called the finished product, which was developed by the university's Division of Communications and Marketing and local creative firm Wier/Stewart, a "high-quality brand guidelines book on par with those produced by many of the nation's most well-known brands. It outlines just about every possible branding scenario, so there is absolutely no ambiguity about what is acceptable and what is not."
Karla Leeper is executive vice president for strategic communication and chief marketing officer for Augusta University in Georgia.