How We Made It - Athabasca University

Updated: Mar 12

Part of an ongoing series that gives a glimpse of behind-the-scenes production for projects past and present. One thing I'm very proud of is the quality of the clients we've attracted and had the pleasure to work with. That includes Canada's first online university, Athabasca University. Athabasca University was seeing many new competitors come into the online learning space when they came to us looking for a way to re-focus their brand, advertising and marketing strategies. As the competition grew for share of market, some thought that Athabasca University had rested a bit long on their reputation as Canada's first online university. Some well-known universities had crept into the space over the years, and AU needed a way to defend and grow their share of market while reclaiming their leadership position. Being the first online university is great; being considered the online leader in today's competitive market is another thing. We undertook a complete research, rebranding, and strategic revamp of AU, which was a very involved process. With so many stakeholders from students, staff, executive leadership, provincial government, and communities, we had to create a method to make everyone heard and gather the intelligence that would result in a more powerfully positioned and more competitive university brand. The Steering Committee we created was made up of a lot of people with PhD's who all had strong opinions, not always in concert; one of the big challenges we overcame was getting alignment with this group, to take all opinions on board and shape an outcome that everyone could feel good about. In total, I think we held 26 Steering Committee meetings, which is more than double the amount of meetings typical for a rebranding project of this size.


We looked at something like 65 different university brands around the world, many of them also online, to find out what the market was doing and to make sure that whatever we created didn't look, feel or sound like anyone else. We wanted to maintain the heritage, first-to-market history of AU, while telling the story that there is no better place to learn today, from everywhere you are, to everywhere you want to be. This was a really great experience as we had the opportunity to reinvent everything, from the logo mark and new positioning, to the new website look, feel and functionality across platforms, to all branded assets, a brand launch strategy, AU's international marketing strategy, and a post-launch advertising campaign that reached across the world in target markets. You can see a lot of the work we did for AU in our case study on this site.

AU print ads appeared in targeted magazines, outdoor, and online

For the launch of the new AU brand, we created a teaser strategy that included an interactive site for the new brand's vision and values, with a message from the President, advertisements and an email campaign that went to students, faculty and staff, and a new set of ads that backfilled the international marketing strategy. These ads introduced the new AU shield for the first time as a world itself, the portal from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. This is the strategic rationale for the open shield symbol, that Athabasca University is a portal from one world to the other, that your education with AU can be what you make it from everywhere you are. Having figures sit under trees on the shield, or celebrate a graduation, among other scenarios, helped us tell the story that AU is there to support you as a foundation to learning and achievement, everywhere you are in the world, and everywhere you are in your life or career. We used the slogan 'everywhere' at launch to help support the brand narratives of accessibility and global brand leadership.

The new brand that Donovan created for Athabasca University really resonated, especially with students. Many AU students bought the new swag, and there was a lot of social media chatter about the new AU brand, all of it positive. In the end, we achieved what we'd been tasked to do, while also raising international student enrollments for AU by an incredible 6% in the first year. It's testimony to the power of a well articulated brand on sales, since Athabasca's international student enrollment had been languishing, not growing, and even backsliding, prior to the Donovan rebranding. Athabasca University is one of the brands I'm most proud of creating. Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows that I draw concepts on any handy piece of paper I can find. (A lot of these things just 'happen', and when they do, one need to capture them before they're forgotten.) In the case of Athabasca University, the open shield concept is something I drew on a piece of hotel stationary when I was in San Antonio for an airport conference. I was waiting for a cab outside of my hotel at the time, and came up with this idea and developed slogans in a few minutes after a few days of mulling on an approach in airport terminals and on airplanes. The entire rebrand for AU took more than six months with reviews and drafts and all of the interactive and planning work we did. But the seed of the idea after the research was created in a moment of epiphany on a bench, in 30-degree weather, just steps from the remains of the Alamo. I hadn't even had breakfast yet.

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