Trying to stand out in Australia’s university circuit is barbed with expendable resources, exclusivity, and prestige.
This was the challenge tackled head on by Angelo Kourtis, Western Sydney University’s VP of People and Advancement, who had a clear vision for his institution. “My critique of the current branding strategies that universities have is that they default into this position of preparing people to get jobs. It’s not a narrative that we actually should own.”
The ensuing university rebrand – and the Unlimited campaign – has produced industry awards, inspirational advertisements, and even triggered an Archibald prize-winning portrait.
If you haven’t seen the outstanding video from the campaign yet, take a look for yourself…
In this special episode of The CMO Show, Mark Jones is joined by WSU’s Angelo Kourtis and George Betsis, creative director at VCD+We, to shine a spotlight on the “retro-brand”, the business drivers behind the campaign, and how hard it can be to reframe internal and external brand perceptions.
Tune in for a healthy dose of inspiration as the three talk about why philosophy underpins marketing in the education sector, what the campaign has meant for the university and how other institutions can learn from what has fast become one of the most popular campaigns of the past twelve months.
- Western Sydney University’s Unlimited campaign
- Video story of Deng Thiak Adut and other WSU alumni
- University of Sydney brand campaign
- Deng Thiak Adut’s portrait wins 2016 Archibald Prize People’s Choice
The CMO Show production team
Audio Engineer – Jonny McNee
Design Manager – Daniel Marr
Got an idea for an upcoming episode or want to be a guest on The CMO Show? We’d love to hear from you: email@example.com.
Mark Jones (MJ)
Angelo Kourtis (AK)
George Betsis (GB)
MJ: I have two guests this week, is Angelo Kourtis, who’s Vice President, People and Advancement at Western Sydney University, and George Betsis, Creative Director at VCD and the We Collective. Thanks, gentlemen.
AK: Well thank you. Pleasure to be here.
GB: Hi, Mark.
MJ: So the reason we’re talking, of course, is this really amazing campaign that has been getting all sorts of attention. WSU’s Unlimited campaign.
GB: That’s right.
MJ: And it was a big deal. It was a re-branding of the entire university and I’ve got to confess upfront: I, of course, am a graduate of Western Sydney University, formerly University of Western Sydney. And so there was this big shift.
MJ: Now I want to go to you, George. How did you approach this journey? You know, what was the problem you saw? And how did you approach it from that sort of strategic communications perspective?
GB: It’s impossible to park my deep understanding of the experience of growing up in Western Sydney, and then leaving Western Sydney to be educated at a so-called, you know, ‘top university’ from the strategic objective and an understanding of what Angelo’s, not vision, but real philosophy. How I got activated in this mission, if you like, was when I asked Angelo a simple question at the end of our credentials presentation. And he had been silent for an hour and a half. I said, “What is it about this assignment? What do you want out of this? What matters to you?” And without missing a beat, this client said, “I want to destroy the ATAR as the basis for judging the potential of human beings”. Now, I got goose bumps when I heard that. And I think what other marketers might learn from that was that how you galvanise and extract the maximum amount of creative potential out of your partners is to present them with a high order meaning for what you’re doing such that any agency, had they absorbed and got that, would’ve performed at 200% of normal capacity because something in the spirit, and the creative spirit gets activated in solving something worth solving.
AK: At the time when the university last re-branded which was in 2002, I was the manager of marketing at the university. And it was a really good case of how not to do a re-brand. It was a change in logo. We moved to what was, in many ways, called the ‘book and bird’ logo. That’s all it was: It was just a visual treatment. And so I had this burning desire to re-position the university for about ten years, but I wasn’t in control of the means of production back then.
AK: So for 10 years, the ambition was fuelled by a desire to redefine Western Sydney; that was the first objective for me. A region that was overlooked for generations by politicians and policymakers, and a lot of people who lived in Sydney.
MJ: So you actually saw an opportunity not just to re-brand the university, but actually to help cement the influence of the greater Western Sydney, as it’s fondly called.
AK: Absolutely. Western Sydney is such an important part of not only the Australian economy, but the nation itself. One in ten people lives in Western Sydney. One in ten dollars is generated in Western Sydney. There will be more people west of the M-7 in the next 30 years than live in Perth and Adelaide currently. So it is a powerhouse. So the ambition to raise the profile of Western Sydney for me, was almost symbiotic with redefining the university as well. And that was the second objective: to lift the lid on the best kept secret in higher ed.
AK: And the third ambition was to really lift the narrative around university. My critique of the current branding strategies that universities have is that they default into this position of preparing people to get jobs. It’s not a narrative that we actually should own.
MJ: Why is that?
AK: Well, because I don’t think we do prepare graduates to get jobs. When you actually unpack it, the university curriculum is not actually geared to do that. What we should be aiming for, and what we should be describing to the rest of the world, that we prepare people for life. We prepare people to be active engaged citizens in their communities. Getting a job is part of that, but it shouldn’t only be that.
MJ: I’m interested, also, as part of this unpacking your starting point is what were the business goals, the drivers?
AK: So there were a number of objectives. One is to reclaim our share of the market. The other objective was to reinvest in the marketing of the university and the branding of the university. We were being out-spent by our competitors. And to build a more sophisticated infrastructure around marketing, not only in terms of print, ads and a couple of events, but actually get really sophisticated and forensic about how we approached our market; the building of a new marketing architecture, a digital transformation of our marketing capability.
MJ: So let’s talk about this incredible bit of video. And if you haven’t seen it, it’s this incredible story of a man called Deng Thiak Adut.
MJ: This incredible man who comes from Sudan as a child soldier. So how did it come about?
AK: I met Deng in 2010. It was brought to my attention by our alumni manager at the time and I had lunch with him a restaurant in Parramatta. And he proceeded to tell me his story, and I did not pick up my fork for the rest of the day. I was stunned. I was gobsmacked. My jaw had hit the table and I was mesmerised by the story. So I gathered my thoughts afterwards and I tried to re-frame it and I tried to make some sense of it and I asked him a question, I said, “Well, Deng,” I said “what does education mean to you?” And this is what sent chills up my spine. He said, “Angelo, for me the difference was that education meant life and not death. That’s what it means to me.”
MJ: And you went large. There was TV.
AK: TV and we made the bold decision of going with a 90-second slot, which was up until then a bit passé, a bit outdated.
MJ: So George, how did that go? What was the outcome?
GB: I think it sent a shot across the bow of the entire category. And the statement of launching on 60 minutes with a 90, with some quite powerful, emotional stories shook up perceptions very quickly. I think it was designed to disrupt whatever belief system the world had, both in Western Sydney, about themselves, and then out of Western Sydney. Such that the idea that you could start from anywhere – which is what all of the stories are about – that you could start from anywhere and through your hard work, determination and all the values that we have – we attribute to coming from Western Sydney and from the university, that your ambition, and your confidence and your work ethic can carry you forth; and that an ATAR, for example, is not a limiting factor in your success. And so the idea that a child solider refugee, a six-year-old, can come and become a lawyer thanks to the transformative experience at Western Sydney, just redefines how success can be defined. We’re defining it on our terms, which isn’t where you come from, which private school you went to, what part of the eastern suburbs you grew up in, it is that success is accessible to anyone with potential and willing to work.
MJ: Yes and do people actually believe the messaging, right?
AK: Absolutely and that was a big part of our campaign. We launched the brand internally a month before the public launch and we knew that it was going to leak; that’s just the nature of you know, the workplace. And whatever my views were of the old identity and the brand architecture weren’t necessarily shared by everyone. So there was an affinity to the book and bird. There was an affinity to University of Western Sydney. So when I was using the word ‘re-brand’ I actually noticed quite quickly that there was a level of disengagement. And this is during a week of presenting to nearly 3,000 staff over a week. So I decided I had to think quickly to not refer to it as a ‘re-brand,’ to refer to it as a ‘retro-brand.’ And the reason why I used ‘retro-brand’ is because this is going back to the origins of the university. This is going back to the values that founded this institution.
MJ: Very clever.
AK: Values we have been dining off for the past 25 years and no one else has had access to this. So, and it’s just putting it in a sharper context, and a more contemporary context in a way that is accessible to the rest of the world.
MJ: What’s the lasting impact been like?
AK: Certainly the sentiment about the university has shifted. We can measure that a number of ways. The anecdotal evidence is abundant, the comments we’re getting on our social media sites, but more importantly, in policy circles, in influencer circles where people are talking differently about the university. And an example is when we went to market for procurement of – I won’t say what it was – you know the top global brands in this category were knocking their door down to get our business.
MJ: There you go.
AK: Two years ago I doubt that would’ve happened. All right, so that’s a proxy. The other proxy, and this might be glib, but for the year leading into open day, we probably sold 400 hoodies with the old logo on it. A year since, 4,500.
MJ: Nice. So the pride factor is really coming through there.
AK: Yeah, that is, that speaks to pride.
MJ: And what about the enrolments themselves?
GB: So the campaign was in market for essentially a month, so when we launched last August, applications closed at the end of September. Notwithstanding that, we saw a 6% bump in school leaver first preferences, which is always, for universities, is a proxy for brand equity and success of a campaign. We’re now waiting for the next results which is at the end of this month. The other important metric is the number of alumni who’ve reengaged with the university. The LinkedIn activity, LinkedIn actually contacted us and said you need to understand what’s actually going on here.
MJ: I’ve actually been on the receiving end of that, right. I’ve actually been proactively approached. My wife and I were onstage at an alumni event recently.
MJ: So it’s that digital transformation piece that you see as well.
GB: Absolutely, absolutely. And the pride factor amongst our alumni who are coming out of the woodwork now saying, “I too went there and I’m going to update my LinkedIn profile”. And the Western Sydney University qualifications are actually going to be at the top. I’m going to download the new logo.” Whilst we got a lot of criticism over the logo, especially when it was leaked, it’s part and parcel of an overall strategy, which is about building pride, and presence, gravitas. Yeah, it’s been an amazing journey.
MJ: What would be the lessons? Top three things that you might have taken away, for example?
AK: Classically I would have, if I’d done this according to the textbook, the work that we’re doing now around digital transformation, you know, the implementation of the new digital capability, the automation of our marketing systems and the rebuilding of our marketing capability in terms of teams, and processes and approaches, normally I would’ve done that first, and then lead with the campaign.
MJ: So a bit more housework.
AK: Yeah but in hindsight, I don’t regret that decision because what the re-brand has done has actually catalysed an enormous appetite for change and transformation within the university. And it would’ve been harder for me to make a case to mount a digital transformation project because it would’ve been abstract.
MJ: So George, what were lessons for you then?
GB: This agency relationship went perfectly. [Laughter]
GB: So the lessons for the agency is to find a client, and a brand, and an organisation that understands its higher purpose and looks for meaning. And that’s hard in some categories. However, you know, when an organisation and a marketing team can find a personal meaning and find a greater purpose for the impact a business can make, if not individual brands, then you have the basis for what I think the world now pays attention to.
MJ: Where to from here? Is there more stories?
AK: More stories. I think one of the key ingredients to the success here is the alumni story. And up until now, universities have told, such as it is, their story by showing buildings and things that go bling, are shiny, and academics in towers. Which is all great. But I think where we’ve shaking up the category is actually using a powerful narrative to lift the profile of very important institutions in societies. The alumni story is key to that and it’s a proof point for people who are considering university. So whereas, how do you demonstrate success? What are your alumni doing? What impact are they having? The stories that we’re telling through this campaign is about lifting not only the profile of the university, but I think more importantly the profile of the broader category.
MJ: A bit of fun. Angelo, I’m going to pick on you because it’s hard to do 21 questions for both of you. George, you’re off the hook.
GB: Thank you.
MJ: Angelo, what are you grateful for?
MJ: Do you like rain?
AK: Love rain.
MJ: In the movie of your life, who would play you? And it can’t be George.
AK: Who would play me? I don’t know, I don’t know. My goodness. Al Pacino.
MJ: Beach or mountain?
MJ: Mountain man. What is your greatest career fail?
AK: A really embarrassing typo in a brochure that was promoting the school of education. And the word that I got wrong was ‘literacy.’
MJ: Oh that is perfect!
AK: It was painful.
MJ: Awesome. Chocolate or strawberry?
MJ: Best ever career advice?
AK: Best ever career advice. Don’t lead with your ego.
MJ: Summer or winter?
MJ: Who is your hero?
AK: My hero is a guy called Thomas Payne, who was instrumental in establishing the American republic and leading the enlightenment.
MJ: Scrunch or fold?
MJ: If you weren’t a marketer you’d be a…?
MJ: Of course. What did you have for breakfast?
AK: I had a very healthy smoothie; a protein shake.
MJ: What would you rather have had?
AK: A full fat natural Greek yogurt.
MJ: Last conversation with your parents?
AK: My dad’s in Greece at the moment, so it was, “Where did you leave the key?”
MJ: If you could change one thing about the marketing industry, what would it be?
AK: Move the focus to long-term.
MJ: Can you ride a bike?
AK: I can.
MJ: What’s your greatest frustration?
AK: Not being able to play a musical instrument.
MJ: Interesting. You’re at a university; you could fix that.
AK: Yeah, they sort of do different instruments than the one I’m interested in.
MJ: Dogs or cats?
AK: If I had to choose it’d be a cat.
MJ: Touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell, which would you sacrifice to save the rest?
MJ: Favourite book?
AK: At the moment, a book written by – oh my God his name… Christopher Hitchins, ‘God Is Not Great.’
MJ: If you had to change your first name, what would you change it to?
AK: Well I should change it to Mario because everyone calls me Mario when they forget that my name is Angelo. Probably Mario because for utility more than anything else.
MJ: Just to make it easier. Well, fantastic. Well, our guests today have been Angelo Kourtis, who is Vice-President of People and Advancement at WSU, and George Betsis, Creative Director at VCD and WE, the WE Collective. Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us on the CMO show. It’s been a fantastic conversation and I wish you all the best as an alumni myself.
AK: The secret handshake, Mark, though we can’t see it.
MJ: Exactly right. Go the WSU.
AK: Excellent. Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
MJ: Thank you.
GB: Thank you, Mark.