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This past year, VCU Brandcenter students and faculty got involved with an interesting project. We were asked to work with Venture Richmond and The Martin Agency to help drive and effort to bring attention to the creativity and innovation that fuels Richmond.

The effort started when Martin Agency Partner, Matt Williams, worked with leaders from the Richmond area to begin defining those things that set the city apart. The effort identified characteristics that were seen as essential to the city’s future. Participants saw an opportunity to define a reputation that is “forward-looking, eclectic, dynamic and timeless” fueled by “a history of non-conformity”.

The process identified a growing momentum in Downtown Richmond and beyond. Anyone who’s paying attention has observed the dramatic rise in downtown living spaces, arts venues, dining, entertainment and innovative businesses, schools and organizations. The data is impressive and led the group to define the potential for helping Richmond become recognized as a center of creativity. That’s where the Brandcenter came in.

The folks at Venture Richmond and Martin wanted to go beyond the business and civic leaders involved in the first phase, to take a broader sampling from the street level up. We recruited Brandcenter professors Caley Cantrell and Mark Avnet to help guide teams of over 40 graduate students, and we charged the team with conducting research and coming back with a fresh approach to a civic identity.

Guided by Cantrell and Avnet, the students explored Richmond from every angle. From first thing in the morning at a local coffee shop, to last call at the clubs, the students interviewed residents, business owners, civic leaders, architects, urban planners, musicians, magazine publishers, retailers, venture capitalists, philanthropists, tattoo artists, historians, museum directors and computer programmers. They collected stories that reflected both passion and pride.

It’s important to note that the students were not asked to invent a new identity for the city – they know better than to attempt to make up something that doesn’t fit the brand – instead they uncovered a movement that was already well established, one that many residents and leaders have been talking about for some time. The student’s mission was to synthesize the information from all sources and to develop an approach for telling the stories in a way that would accomplish two primary objectives:

1. To help Richmond take credit for the creativity that has been part of both the city’s past and present.

2. To inspire even more innovation in the future, by encouraging community members to practice more creativity in their work and lives.

When the student teams presented their work, we were all moved by their efforts. They saw an opportunity to avoid the overused slogans and jingles of typical municipal branding efforts and instead to leverage the existing shorthand for Richmond’s creative community: RVA.

The students felt that any top down slogan would be more likely to inhibit creativity, rather than promote it, so they suggested that “RVA” could be customized to say whatever the participant wanted it to say. They also designed the logo to allow the visuals to be ever changing. Again, based on the creativity of the user. This user-generated approach to branding allows the minimalist “RVA” to be endlessly reinterpreted.

Of course brands are much more complex than logos or even advertising, so the real power of the brand is driven by the action, not the words, of those involved. While the effort is still in its infancy, there are already promising signs on the horizon. Business leaders and university heads have committed their support, arts organizations and creative individuals are fueling new projects, training programs and events are being planned and the Mayor has supported the effort and announced a plan to establish Richmond’s first Arts District, with tangible incentives and promotion for participating organizations.

These tangible acts are being combined with increased marketing driven by a team of six organizations, including outstanding Richmond businesses, like Elevation, Hodges Partnership, JHI and West Cary Group. The team’s work already includes a website, online video, rolling billboards, printed materials and social networking. Soon these efforts will be joined by mobile applications and even a fleet of eco-friendly garbage trucks, carrying the RVA logo.

To paraphrase Mike Hughes, “Branding is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” The success of this program will depend on continued efforts to engage the community. But, given the promising start, I look forward to the day when our Brandcenter alumni return to find a more dynamic city where originality is celebrated – or better yet, I hope they never leave.

Additional information:




Don Just is back on the cover of the Business Section. The VCU Brandcenter professor looks quite comfortable on the business pages in his in a crisp sport coat and starched white shirt. Don started his career in banking, back when bankers were conservative with their money and their politics. Mid-career, he unexpectedly left his post as a leader of one of the most respected banks in the region and passed on a job as president of Circuit City to join an emerging ad firm, The Martin Agency.

Don’s move must have seemed reckless at the time, but today we might think of him as prescient, since both the bank (which became Wachovia) and Circuit City are no more and The Martin Agency is thriving. Fortunately for students, Don Just left the agency after helping grow it to a nationally respected firm. He has become a fixture at the VCU Brandcenter, where he teaches students the business of advertising and creative brand management.

Here’s the article by Louis LLovio of the Richmond Times Dispatch:

Sam Walton's 1993 Autobiography

Sam Walton's 1993 Autobiography

The folks at Walmart have been working hard to improve their image of late. They’ve pumped up their public relations, hooked up with environmental advocates and launched appealing new ads with the help of The Martin Agency. The work is beginning to take hold, but as the deepening economic crisis casts shadows on the U.S. economy, Walmart may have an opportunity to take a giant leap forward with their brand. 

Imagine if Walmart announced a decision to work with its manufacturers to move 20% of their production back to the U.S. within five years. It would be a private economic stimulus that would have a huge impact on the economy and the brand.

Walmart would have no problem arranging a press conference with President Obama – the press would be filled with quotes from grateful consumers – and the actions might inspire companies like Target and Home Depot to follow suit. Goods sold under the program could be showcased under “Made in the USA” signs. And while consumers might pay slightly more for these products, they’d be contributing to bringing jobs back to their hometowns.

Walmart’s significant economic power could really make a difference in increasing employment and jump-starting a recovery, which would lead to stronger sales and a higher stock price. Think of it as a virtuous cycle that results in passionate admiration of the brand.

Am I dreaming the impossible dream? Maybe, but Walmart is working hard to reclaim the legacy created by Sam Walton, a man who titled his autobiography “Made in America.” In his time, Walton encouraged his company to buy domestically made goods and consumers rewarded the company for it. What a powerful statement it would make for the brand to signal its commitment to the consumers who buy its goods, by buying theirs.



Google's Robert Wong and VCU Brandcenter's Rick Boyko

Last week the folks at Google brought a small army of trainers and a truckload of technology to the VCU Brandcenter as part of their Google Campus program.

In the early morning hours, workers started unloading trucks containing loads of interactive kiosks, touchscreen monitors and – just as essential for attracting the attention of graduate students – buckets of candy and snacks. By the time students started trickling in, they encountered about 30 Google employees, and the Brandcenter had been transformed into the Googleplex for a day.

The students and faculty were treated to in-depth discussions of a wide range of technology from Google Analytics and AdWords to new features in YouTube and GPS applications tied to Google Android and Google Maps. For the Brandcenter’s 200 students and faculty, it provided great exposure to new methods of engaging consumers in an increasingly digital world. And for Google, it was a smart investment aimed at influencing the influencers who will help to shape the future of brand building.

Richmond advertising firm The Martin Agency co-sponsored the event and many of their leaders attended – I ran into Mike Hughes, John Adams, Bruce Kelley, Matt Williams, Steve Bassett and others. Robert Wong, Creative Director at Google Creative Labs, gave a fascinating talk that covered a variety of creative topics and demonstrated some of the ways Google tries to live up to its “Don’t be Evil” motto.

In all, it was an outstanding event that provoked ongoing conversations about shaping brands in a connected culture.

We just completed months of work for ESPN’s X Games with big presentations to marketing leaders, Robert Zajac and Kevin Kirksey, from ESPN. We were also joined by Steve Sanders and Rob Schapiro from The Martin Agency. Earl Cox and I coached 12 teams of passionate gradate students competing in the intense competition. Each team was required to conduct primary and secondary research, develop brand positioning aimed at growing viewers and increasing the cultural relevance of the brand, and finally executing a creative campaign using a broad array of consumer touchpoints. 

And the results are in: Every team did an outstanding job with their work and the ESPN and Martin Agency teams were excited by the quality of thinking, the originality of the creative solutions and the professionalism of the presentations. And I was blown away too. These teams identified key insights that mirrored the client’s own work, and they attacked the problem from a variety of interesting angles. I couldn’t be more proud of their work. 

To let the client have the last word, here’s a quote from Robert Zajac, Associate Director, Brand Development, ESPN:

“it was both energizing and inspiring to see such a great pool of talent put so much effort, insight and passion into our brand. The ideas were sharp and the presentations were very professional. it was a real pleasure being a part of the final presentations and we hope it was a great learning experience that they can build on to continue developing as marketers, creatives and strategic thinkers”