How Do You Boil Down the Essence of UT to One Word?

I was never any good at selling.

As a boy, I was cripplingly shy, and when it came time to sell M&Ms or Hershey’s bars to raise money for the school choir or orchestra, rather than go door to door, I just forwarded my allowance to whatever organization had enlisted me and ate all the product myself.

Probably as an extension of that inadequacy, I never fancied myself a marketer. Rather, I had the soul of a journalist, a longing to tell the unvarnished truth. Marketing always struck this Generation X cynic as the opposite of that: heavy on the varnish, light on the truth. As some of you old-timers might recall, I got to be a journalist of sorts for a long time, as editor of this very publication. But professional cabin fever eventually set in, and in 2009, I finally, reluctantly moved along.

For a few years, I had the honor of being the speechwriter for President Bill Powers, then I moved again to serve in two other areas, development and—wait for it—marketing. Somehow the introvert who had eaten all the M&Ms to avoid having to sell them had become a professional marketer. Luckily, I was selling something I’ve always thought was pretty great, at least as good as M&Ms.

It was February of this year when word came down that a new sheriff would soon be in town to guide the university’s marketing efforts. Teresa de Onis had been marketing director for Dell’s big data, analytics, and storage division and would now be putting her talents to work for her alma mater. In our very first meeting, Teresa sat me down and offered me a new title: messaging architect. I had only the faintest idea what such a person would actually do between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and no idea if this would be a fit, but I knew the train was leaving with or without me, so I got on board.

First, a quick explainer about our office, University Marketing and Creative Services, because it is fair to ask why a university that has to turn away four out of every five applicants needs a marketing operation at all. The word “marketing” is somewhat misleading, because our task is subtler than getting someone to part with $80 for a pair of cross-trainers. Rather, we use the tools and the strategies of marketing to raise the institution’s reputation. Our success is measured in dollars, yes, but also by the quality of students we attract, the caliber of the faculty, in our reputational rankings, and in a lot of other ways that are hard to quantify but are still important.

Teresa hit the ground with an ambitious vision for telling more of the world about the university. Our first project together would be our most important. Like every brand, ours needs a reboot from time to time, and it was time to breathe new life into a campaign that had been running in different iterations for 13 years: What starts here changes the world. Specifically, she wanted to uncover what it was that allowed us to say something like that.

Marketing campaigns are incredibly complex organisms, moreso than I ever imagined. Brand campaigns like this one run for years, are visible on an ever-growing number of platforms, and have a tremendous number of “deliverables”—TV ads, print ads, billboards, websites, brand content marketing, and sub-campaigns. And they have to have a coherent look and feel. But before any of that happens, you have to start by uncovering the “brand essence.”

When Teresa first mentioned the university’s brand essence, I thought it might be a cologne that suggested Bevo. But I soon learned what a brand essence actually was. It’s an idea—a feeling you want people to have when they see your name. It’s usually a few words, sometimes even just one.

Apple’s brand essence was “Think different.” They want people who use their products to feel like they’re revolutionaries, iconoclasts, women in red running shorts throwing hammers through screens projecting Big Brother. “Think different” actually became their tagline, or slogan, but not all brand essences are found in taglines. The essence of the Dell brand is “democratization of technology.” While Nike’s famous tagline is “Just do it,” their brand essence is “authentic athletic performance.” The brand essence then is sort of like an operating system, always running in the background, informing and animating all of the communications that come from a company, or an organization, or a university.

What was our brand essence? If you had to describe the university in one word, what would it be?

There’s something about the notion of essence that occurred to me right away, and that is that if you look at a childhood photo of someone you know as an adult, you can see that person in there. When you look at a photo of your mother as a 6-year-old, you recognize her, you can see her inside that otherwise unfamiliar person. I wondered if the same was true for institutions.

The first photo ever taken of UT

So I found the first photo ever taken of the university. The exact year is unknown, but it was probably taken in the late 1880s. A few things struck us right away. First, the lone building that housed the university’s 200 students and eight faculty members was erected on the highest point available, where the Tower now stands. Next, despite the scrubby surroundings, which include a cow grazing in the bottom of the frame and a couple of modest ranch houses in the foreground, Old Main itself appears as a gothic “city on a hill,” immediately suggesting the great universities of the East. The building made us think of the oft-invoked phrase from the Texas Constitution, drafted just a decade earlier, that established UT as a “university of the first class.” The high ground, the vaunted style of architecture, and the goal of a “university of the first class” in the midst of what was then little more than a vast frontier, all suggested something profound about this place.

I then looked at a modern shot of campus. As high as Old Main once stood, of course, it was no longer there. In its place a 27-story skyscraper soared above a 434-acre campus. Gone, the livestock and the rickety wood houses, replaced by a 100,000-seat stadium, and a sea of Spanish red-tile roofs and limestone, and gigantic dormitories and arenas and museums and theaters, stately malls and enormous edifices housing supercomputers and libraries and classrooms. How did this happen? What explains the change?

Many things do, of course. The population boom of the state itself. The windfall of Santa Rita No. 1 and its descendants that infused the university with oil money. But all of that might have happened and we still might have wound up with a much more—modest university.

Off and on for the next six weeks, Teresa and I sequestered ourselves in the campaign war room in Walter Webb Hall and worked through numerous exercises she hoped would reveal our brand essence. The first was like a huge, weeks-long Mad Libs, and went like this: “For (stakeholders), The University of Texas at Austin is a (noun). Unlike (our competitors) our university is (adjective).” Filling in the blanks of just those two sentences took multiple work sessions. Just filling in the first blank took an entire meeting because we ticked off no fewer than 10 audiences we had to consider: prospective students, current students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, legislators, corporations, foundations, and Austinites.

Surrounded by whiteboards and markers, we talked and drew diagrams and talked some more, from demographic trends to personal histories. We talked about leaving our hometowns—McAllen and Denton—as teenagers and coming to Austin and all the reasons we did, to get out of where we grew up, because our siblings had, or our friends were, because we wanted not just any diploma but that diploma. We talked about our student experiences, hers in liberal arts, mine in communications. Adds and drops in the Erwin Center. Scholarships versus student debt. Her extroversion versus my introversion. The time I was holed up in the Student Health Center alone for a week with mono and why I refused to go back home for a semester to recuperate. Chopping lettuce in the basement of Jester Center Halls at 6 a.m. Playing along with a Stevie Ray Vaughan cassette in my 13th-floor dorm room while watching an electrical storm move over downtown. Trying to walk from one end of the West Mall to the other during noon-hour activism. Touring with the Chamber Singers during my first spring break. We talked about her MBA experience at McCombs and my career at Texas Exes and in the President’s Office, and how we both came to be sitting in that war room at this time in our lives.

When the Mad Libs was done, it was two PowerPoint slides so jam-packed they looked like the “legal” side of a pharmaceutical print ad. This document became affectionately known as “the sausage-making.”

The next exercise was building the “brand pyramid,” a three-tiered structure that would lead to our brand essence at the apex. We started by listing our “tablestakes attributes,” a term borrowed from poker that means the characteristics every organization must have to compete in its space. For us, the “table” at which we were playing was that of flagship American universities. The attributes were access (moderate cost), prestige (relative to other institutions in the state), and a robust research enterprise.

But because those are attributes all the players at our table must have, by definition they do not help differentiate us. If we could put our fingers on those differences, we would be on our way to finding our essence.

There was an unmissable boldness of spirit at Texas, a spirit it inherited from the young, vast frontier state that created it. Everyone intuits this boldness and its connection to the state. Beyond that, we felt there also was a distinct restlessness about the university. That helped explain the difference between that first photo and the campus of today. We were never satisfied. We had a stately, elegant Main Building, but it wasn’t 27 stories tall, so it had to go! In 2014, we had 17 outstanding colleges and schools that taught almost every field under the sun except truck driving and medicine. So we built a medical school. And it wasn’t enough to train doctors—no, we had to transform health care itself.

Swirling all the while with this boldness and restlessness was a third quality that had been there from the beginning, and that was a spirit of service. Scan the list of our Distinguished Alumni, and you can’t help but notice how many have made their careers in public service and leadership, from Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving Speaker of the House in American history, to Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The LBJ School of Public Affairs and our many interdisciplinary units focused on service, from national security to urban studies, were a big part of this public service thread. This spirit of service harnessed the boldness and the restlessness and focused it on the public good.

As a final exercise, Teresa asked me, “If UT were a person, who would it be?” I couldn’t settle on one, but I did come up with four. The first person who sprang to mind was LBJ. There was no doubt he was a big person with a big personality. Ambitious and restless? Check. Spirit of public service? Check. And like us, he came from poor, rural beginnings and ascended to world leadership. He became worldly, but never lost his accent.

Sam Houston was physically big too, 6’6″. Restless? Oh yeah. Humble beginnings, a spirit of public service, and assumed leadership wherever he went.

Another one who came to mind, someone without a Texas accent but with very similar DNA, was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Don’t think of the Conan or Terminator clichés—think of the man. From humble beginnings, he just assumes he’s going to be a leader in whatever he does. First he becomes Mr. Universe. Then a Hollywood A-lister. Then—why not?—governor of our largest state. He’s thoroughly cosmopolitan but never lost his regional distinctiveness. Replace the Austrian accent with something from Midland or Waco and you have the very incarnation of our brand.

There was one more person I couldn’t get out of my mind, one of our most distinguished faculty members, who had once been denied admission because of her race, who had pulled herself up from Houston’s Fourth Ward and had risen to leadership and great moral authority: Barbara Jordan. “Brand” seems much too shallow a concept for her, but she too embodied every bit of the Texas brand.

What did it all mean? What was the single word—the idea, the essence—we were feeling when we thought about this place and all of the people who made it what it is?

One night, after our fifth work session, I awoke at 3:30 a.m. with these phrases floating through my semi-conscious mind: big-time collegiate experience, big science (Giant Magellan Telescope), big data, Big 12, go big or go home. Big personalities. Big dreams. We got here by thinking big. By going big. The Tower, DKR upper deck, Dell Med. I fell back to sleep.

Two hours later, I was standing in the shower, shaving in the predawn dark, and the word came to me: Audacity.

That was Texas in a word. Crazy-big goals and the nerve to go after them, and the discipline to make them reality. Above all else, we were audacious. Audacious to think we could build a university of the first class in state that then had fewer people than Mississippi. Audacious to think we could say that what starts here changes the world.

Audacity was boldness—yes—but not just any boldness. It was a boldness about the future. It was a boldness that didn’t wait around for others to go first. It was a boldness that just assumed we would be leaders in whatever it was we set out to do, whether that meant forming a Quidditch team or resolving to become a world center in neuroscience at a time when our medical school was less than a year old.

Audacity ran through our students. After some of them “borrowed” a cannon from the Capitol grounds in 1897 to celebrate Texas Independence Day, their new president, George T. Winston, quipped: “I was born in the land of liberty, rocked in the cradle of liberty, nursed on the bottle of liberty, and I’ve had liberty preached to me all my life. But Texas University students take more liberty than anyone I’ve ever come in contact with.” Audacity.

Audacity ran through our faculty and staff, the earliest of whom forewent comfortable lives in the East and Midwest to move to this virtual wilderness and build a university from scratch. Their efforts resulting in us being admitted to the Association of American Universities, the arbiter of prestige, in 1929, more than 50 years before any other institution in Texas. Audacity.

Audacity ran through our alumni, who, after Gov. James Ferguson vetoed the university’s appropriation because he didn’t approve of a few professors, essentially got him impeached. Audacity.

Audacity was our modus operandi, our operating system, our continual assumption. This was the attitude that was there in the very beginning and the one that drove us ever on.

Once we had uncovered our essence, phase two of the campaign sprang to life: look and feel. Jennifer Singer and Christine Yang took audacity and made it visual. With photographer Marsha Miller, they assembled a representative sample of students, faculty, staffers, and alumni and captured them as the complete and total bad-asses they are. They came up with type treatments and color palettes and layouts that said audacity and that underlined “What starts here changes the world.”

After establishing the look and feel of audacity, Teresa decided that, in addition to pushing our message out through traditional methods like TV and print ads, we should take our message to the next level by audaciously exploring the central idea embedded in our tagline—what starts here changes the world. How do we as an institution take an idea as broad as “change” and “own it”? Along with Teresa, Jamie Lay, Chad Schneider, and I are creating content that explores the fundamental forces of change. We’re going to use the experts and resources of the university to explore ideas about change we hope people—even those who have no connection to the university—will read, watch, listen to, and share. This deep dive will likely take the form of articles, podcasts, videos, and maybe even a book.

For 25 years I’ve been writing about this university, using thousands of words to describe it. The good Lord willing and Waller Creek don’t rise, I’ll write a few more before I’m done. But if I ever need to get it all on one sticky note, I’ll know the word to use.

Avrel Seale, BS ’89, Life Member, was editor of the Alcalde from 1993–2009, speechwriter for the university’s president, and is now messaging architect for University Marketing and Creative Services.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer; Photo by Paul McCombs, Prints and Photographs Collection, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin



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