One huge team effort

The story behind the brand

Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School is now Vlerick Business School. But the decision to rebrand didn’t come out of the blue. “It was an integral part of our growth strategy rather than a stand-alone initiative. And we didn’t change our brand from one day to the next either. Mentally, we started preparing back in 2010.” Hilde Van Lysebeth, Corporate Marketing Manager, assisted by right-hand man Matthieu van den Bogaert, has been coordinating the entire process from the outset. It has been one huge team effort.

team effort“It all started with a marketing audit project undertaken by our students in the spring of 2010,” Hilde recalls. “They reviewed the different brand elements such as name, logo and strapline, and analysed brand perception, thereby benchmarking us against other business schools worldwide. The results and conclusions were presented to the School’s Board members, who gave the go-ahead for a formal rebranding exercise.”

An internal branding steering committee was set up comprising Hilde Van Lysebeth, Matthieu van den Bogaert, the School’s management, some faculty members and the alumni general manager. This committee would play a central role in decision-making. The Board would also be involved throughout the entire process to ensure their buy-in at every stage.

How are we perceived?

Hilde: “A rebranding exercise should not rely on an internal analysis alone. To avoid bias, we decided to involve an independent consultant. We chose CarringtonCrisp, a London-based firm specialising in market research for the education sector, since few other companies are as specialised as they are.”

In a desk study, they first reviewed the students’ findings as well as competitor activity by analysing the websites of business schools worldwide. Through a series of one-on-one interviews, they then examined how the School was perceived by its internal and external stakeholders. Existing and prospective corporate partners, past, current and prospective students, staff, accrediting bodies, journalists and representatives of the parent universities all had the opportunity to share their views. Finally, they conducted an online survey, which received about 1,200 responses and allowed quantitative data to be gathered as well.

CarringtonCrisp presented its final findings in May 2011. “There were no major surprises,” says Hilde. “They confirmed what management had suspected. But it’s only when you have objective confirmation that you can take action. One of the key challenges identified was to enhance the School’s international reputation. We’ve already come a long way; now we have to raise awareness.”

What makes us different?

Hilde Van LysebethIn the meantime, a branding agency had been brought on board. Several candidates had competed in the two-day pitch process. How did Vlerick decide which agency to choose? “We compared their methodology and their proposed timing, budgets and deliverables. We also looked at their references. But ultimately, having a fit, the right feeling with the team is what counts.” The London team of Landor Associates, a leading strategic brand consulting and design firm, won the brief. Hilde explains why: “They’d already thought about how to address our specific needs and asked some very pertinent and challenging questions. They didn’t just rattle off a standard sales pitch.”

Starting in spring 2011, the Landor team immersed themselves in a pile of documents to take on board the lessons learned from the CarringtonCrisp study. By conducting their own interviews with key people at the School, they identified the attributes that best sum up what we stand for, i.e. our brand drivers. Together, these set the foundation for a new identity that differentiates us from our competitors. “They describe what we are and what we aspire to be. First, to be relevant, we must be international and show it. We’re on the right track, but there’s room for improvement. The second brand driver we identified is openness. There’s a true connection between the faculty and the students. Professors are very open and approachable, helping students not only to understand the challenges they face, but work through them together in a relaxed and open way. The third is vitality. Anyone visiting the School will notice that there’s a buzz about the campuses. We want to express this special energy and sense of belonging in our new identity. And finally, what also sets us apart is our pragmatism. Our approach to teaching is very much centred on practical solutions and not just on theory.”

FOUR KEY DRIVERS

International
An outward-facing school of world-class quality and with global recognition.

Openness
Flexible, dynamic and approachable.

Vitality
Energetic, sociable and a joy to work with.

Pragmatism
Going the extra mile to bridge theory and practice, tailoring knowledge to individual needs.

 

He who dares

Landor used the four brand drivers as a catalyst for the creative design of our new visual identity. “That’s when the real fun began!” Hilde still brims with enthusiasm as she recalls the mood boards and creative concepts for the new look & feel being presented to the steering committee. “We unanimously chose the most daring proposal of all.” The multicoloured concept with its bold logo and typeface was indeed a radical break from the past and brought an unprecedented vitality to the world of business schools. “With the approval of our parent universities, we changed our name to Vlerick Business School, a more international name in the European business school environment.”

A brand is expressed not only through its visual identity, but also through its tone of voice. “What we say and how we say it,” explains Hilde. “Here we had another opportunity to stand out. Landor brushed up and redefined our tone of voice, weeding out the jargon and injecting vitality and emotion. As the icing on the cake, they also provided us with a set of detailed brand guidelines, so we wouldn’t stray.” And to ensure that everyone writing or designing for the School would be on the same page, Landor organised workshops on tone of voice and visual identity.

Bring home the message

Branding is one thing, advertising another. With Landor’s work well under way, the question then became how to communicate the brand message. After careful consideration, it was decided that BBDO, a Brussels-based international advertising agency, fit the bill. Having familiarised themselves with what had been done so far, BBDO then interviewed Vlerick’s business unit managers to get to grips with the market and its challenges, discuss our ambitions and get a feel for our culture. Armed with that knowledge, three creative teams spent two days off-site brainstorming with the steering committee. During short iterative sessions, they debated different options. Hilde chuckles: “I still remember how the walls were covered in ads for other business schools and how they all looked and sounded the same.”

In striking contrast with the bland and conformist advertising of business schools, the business world is undergoing unprecedented change. BBDO felt that of the four brand drivers, “openness” lent itself best to a campaign with real stopping power. The concept that was presented to the steering committee in May 2012 was designed around provocative and intriguing statements about trends and future changes (see back cover of this magazine). Hilde: “These statements should make you realise that we’re living in a rapidly changing world where openness and adaptability to change has never been more important. Vlerick invites people to embrace those changes and to be prepared.” The advertising campaign is being rolled out via different channels such as magazines, brochures, posters, the website and social media. “To really bring it to life, we’ve also invited our staff and faculty, students and alumni to come up with ideas about trends and changes to generate additional statements.”

BBDO was also involved in the internal and external brand launch events. The premiere was held for Vlerick faculty and staff on 30 August 2012. And at the official opening of the academic year on 12 September 2012, students, business leaders, and government and other officials witnessed the unveiling of the new brand identity during a special event in Brussels, in the presence of HRH Prince Philippe of Belgium.

Hilde Van Lysebeth is well aware that a brand is only as strong as its advocates, so she realises that internal communication is just as important as external communication. “The internal launch event was a start, but ensuring everyone is living the brand requires ongoing effort. That’s why we’ll be working with some brand champions to engage the rest of the organisation until everyone is a true brand ambassador.”

Bricks, mortar and beyond

But what’s a new brand without a new website? The website redesign was a complex project in itself because of multiple languages and new technology. “We needed a partner who had experience in developing websites catering for an international audience. LBi Belgium seemed to be on the same wavelength from the start.”

LBi Belgium is part of LBi, a global marketing and technology agency, specialising in building brands online. To gain a better understanding of the requirements of the website’s diverse target audience, they set up a survey with online market research agency InSites Consulting. An online panel with respondents from different target groups answered questions about what they felt the new website should offer. In addition, LBi conducted face-to-face interviews. The findings of both initiatives were summarised into recommendations for improved functionality for every target group. They also formed the basis for the new information architecture and website structure. The result is a radically new website that is the online translation of the brand and its new visual identity. Landor was involved from time to time to check consistency with the brand guidelines.

When developing the visual identity, Landor had also provided ideas for some of the merchandising. After all, it is the total experience that builds a brand. “It was a great moment when I received a sample of the new umbrellas, bags, sweatshirts, you name it,” Hilde says, smiling broadly. “All of a sudden, it became tangible.” The campuses in Leuven and Ghent have also been rebranded according to Landor’s guidelines. “It’s now colour galore!”

As always, there’s more to it than meets the eye. “This new brand identity runs through every single aspect of our communications; every brand carrier is affected. Kandesign, our graphic design agency, translated the brand guidelines of Landor into concrete templates for many of our communications and set up an online brand centre centralising and archiving all communication output. For months before the launch, many people worked behind the scenes, rewriting web content and brochures, redesigning PowerPoint presentations, banners, the intranet and so on, to make sure we’d be all set for the new academic year. We provided them with access to the brand guidelines via our online brand centre, so they’ve been privy to our new identity long before anyone else.” She smiles. “But they all managed to keep it a secret.”

Olympic circles

“In a horizontal organisation like ours, with collective decision-making, the whole project wouldn’t have been possible without a proper project management methodology. So it was good that we agreed on an approach in advance, assigned clear roles and responsibilities, and that we carefully planned and monitored all activities.” Hilde has dubbed their approach the Olympic Circle Model: “With so many people involved, it’s like building a house - making sure there’s some overlap between the start and finish of the involvement of the various parties, as this ensures smooth handovers. CarringtonCrisp and Landor have stayed involved on an ad hoc basis even well after their work was done, just to make sure that everything we developed fits in with the new brand identity.”

Hilde sums up what the experience has meant to her personally: “Coordinating the rebranding was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All in all, it’s been a huge undertaking, but well worth the effort. I’ve known about the new visual identity for over a year now and I’m still as enthusiastic about it as I was when I first saw it. Now that says something, doesn’t it?”

CarringtonCrisp: Open up our world

Andrew Crisp, founder and owner of CarringtonCrisp: “When we were coming down to Ghent to present our final report, there was this advertising campaign run by Heineken going on. Its strapline was ‘Open your world’. In many respects, this was exactly the message we wanted to get across to Vlerick. Internally, within the School, people knew that there was some very good work going on. Within Belgium, people knew Vlerick was a strong brand and had a very strong offering. But externally, that knowledge or awareness just wasn’t there. And so what Vlerick needed to do was open up its world to the rest of the world. Let people discover what Vlerick has to offer and show that it’s an important competitor. One of the companies we interviewed said ‘We see Vlerick on a par with INSEAD, but it’s not considered in the same league. INSEAD is top 10 or 15, while Vlerick is top 50.”

Landor Associates: Great first impressions count

“Our most important contribution to this rebranding exercise?” Richard Taylor, Client Director at Landor Associates, smiles. “In truth, the most important contribution came from the School, in firstly embracing the need for a new identity and then investing time and energy in it. For us, it was a great opportunity to make a creative difference in an industry bogged down by traditional corporate branding from a bygone era.

“There’s a saying that you often ‘can’t see the woods for the trees’ and in this instance it feels apt for Vlerick. The senior management team are extremely busy running the School, minding the trees, as it were. We helped them stand back and see the woods from an outsider’s perspective. We then provided the tools of a new identity to create a brand that will compete at the top table of world business schools.

“During the programme I noticed how there seemed to be a lack of gung-ho US-style bullishness to sell, sell, sell. I kept being reminded that the ‘Vlerick way’ is more soft sell, which I had to point out is difficult when a lot of your audience are in different parts of the world and don’t know you. The marketing team are no doubt sick of hearing me say ‘You only get one chance to make a great first impression’. I believe the new identity will do just that and open the door to the next exciting chapter in the School’s history.”

LBi: Optimised user experience

“For this redesign project, we focused entirely on optimising the user experience,” explains Antony Slabinck, CEO at LBi Belgium. “Visitors to the Vlerick website should easily be able to find what they’re looking for. That’s easier said than done, as the website caters for many different target groups. We therefore reviewed the entire navigation structure, finding a balance between the different needs and the available information. On a functional level, core features like the programme finder were redeveloped from scratch. In the My Vlerick module, it’s now much easier to create and update a profile. And finally, the websites of the School and the alumni association will in a second phase be integrated into one.

“The new website is also future-proof, allowing easy integration of different media types and content. In fact, there’s no better way to share the real vibes of the School than through video and social media. Besides introducing new formats for content, we also considered its relevance. So the website is ready to support ‘behavioural targeting’, enabling personalisation based on a visitor’s navigation behaviour or profile. This means that content that might be of interest to a particular user or user profile will be highlighted. All these improvements in terms of content, functionality and design should help to greatly enhance user experience.”

BBDO:A campaign with stopping power

Hilde Ransschaert, Client Services Director at BBDO: “Most of our clients target a wide audience, which means we have to downsize their communications in order to appeal to as many people as possible. Vlerick, however, has a target audience that wants to be challenged intellectually. This meant a totally different approach for our strategic and creative people.

“Another challenge was to find a smart way to achieve maximum impact with the available budget. We therefore wanted to differentiate Vlerick from the conformist communications of other business schools. How? By choosing a provocative campaign inciting people to find out more about Vlerick. Naturally, this approach only works if it fits the brand and the company. I remember presenting the creative concept to the steering committee, which of course scrutinised our proposal, and one of the marketing professors in the team enthusiastically started providing theoretical back-up for the proposals we’d made. Then all of a sudden, everyone began thinking up new statements on the spot. That’s when you feel you’re working together as a team! For me, it’s proof that the concept fits the brand and company culture, which is crucial to a successful campaign.”

Some tips

  • Appoint a dedicated project manager
  • Ensure senior management support and buy-in
  • Agree on proper methodology and project organisation
  • Keep a tight rein on the budget
  • You need specialists, but try to strike a balance between external experts and internal creative input
  • Pay attention to project documentation and communications (post-it wall, checklists, extranet, intranet, online brand centre, etc.)
  • Internal communication is just as important as external communication
  • Every project is different; learn from others, and adapt their advice to your organisation

Thank you! Many more people were involved, of course. A special thanks to all those not mentioned here: without you we wouldn’t have succeeded!

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