The New Startup Institute Brand: A Chromatic Shift

When I attended my first Startup Institute TalentExpo, I knew I was going to take the job. The energy and excitement in the room was palpable, and having attended a few student rehearsal sessions just prior to the big event, I had a pretty good sense of just how far the grads had come in just a few short days of tutelage under folks like Program Director Allan Telio, founders Katie Rae and Reed Sturtevant, and instructors like Miro Kazakoff. From stuttering nervousness, to complete command of their narratives … the Summer ’14 cohort’s commencement was an inspiring and joyous thing to witness.

And so, as I made the decision to change careers and assume the mantle of CMO at a small, upstart school, I felt surprisingly secure in the important stuff. Our product works, unequivocally. It solves a real problem for real people. Our alumni are engaged, successful, and evangelistic, often self-organizing to spread the word about Startup Institute on social media and sites like Reddit and Quora. It was obvious to me that we enjoy the kind of brand loyalty and enthusiasm that most companies only dream about, and the sort of behavior that I spent years trying to engineer in some form or fashion in my career as a ad agency creative director.

Here, I knew, I would be able to focus on the parts of storytelling that feel good to craft: not the generic promises or gimmicks that inspire most folks to fast-forward through commercials and tune-out banner ads, but simply the transmission of honest and amazing results that are verifiable and repeatable.

The biggest challenge we had, in my estimation, was the branding itself; more specifically, it was the aesthetic of the brand that was not pulling its weight. From top to bottom, the art, copy, and code did nothing to convey the alchemy inside the classroom. It did nothing to communicate the chromatic shift we see in every individual that walks through our doors, from Day One, to Day Fifty-Six. It was blue—with gray and dark gray compliments—alongside black-and-white photography.

Today, I am very excited and more than a little proud to announce that we have re-launched the Startup Institute brand. Unlike many re-branding efforts, however, this does not mean that we have shifted product strategy, or market strategy, nor does it mean that we have finessed our brand pillars or values . . . they remain as virtuous and accurate as ever: Honesty, Community, Personal Transformation, Humor and Joy. No, this is a merely a “truing up” of our visual design, language, and functionality-- one that aims to bring our methods of storytelling closer to the actual spirit of the stories that we’re telling.

Naturally, such an effort required a redesign of our website, which we have launched as a public beta today, and all affiliated digital touch points (emails, landing page, banners, etc). The modern equivalent of a brand’s shingle, it is on StartupInstitute.com that the large majority of the uninitiated will become familiar with Startup Institute—what we do, how we do it, who it’s for, and the impact our program has had on our alumni’s lives.

Our new homepage

It is early days, yet, but I feel confident that we’ve improved upon the old site considerably, and I am excited to roll out continued improvements and features over a series of sprints spanning the next four weeks, and beyond. We invite you to come visit, poke around, enjoy the new content (especially our new blog, The Whiteboard), pick apart the stuff that we haven’t had the chance to fix yet (or maybe aren’t even aware needs fixing) and to send us your feedback. The whole point of launching something that’s a work in progress is open one’s ears to the audience and incorporate their feedback into future designs; anything less would be a total miss on our part. By that rote, though we hope to officially remove the “public beta” tag within a month or two, we will never stop listening and making iterative improvements.

Additionally, we’ve been applying the new brand aesthetics and voice to a variety of other media, both online and in the real world. If you live in Chicago or Boston, you may encounter our new Out of Home (OOH) ads on commuter rails, subway stations, metro buses and trains; if you’re a regular WBUR or WBEZ listener, you may also hear our :15 and :30 spots running during popular programs and podcasts. If you’re a consumer of content from sites such as the Muse or the Next Web, you’ll likely see our sponsored content running throughout the month, as well.

MBTA In-Situ

Finally, we are expanding the functionality of our brand to better align with the pillars I mentioned earlier in this post, with a particular focus on “Community”. In the first quarter of 2015, my team will be working hard to expand our digital service offerings to alumni and hiring partners alike, creating platforms and resources that allow for deeper collaboration between graduates from different cohorts or geographic regions, and providing even greater value for the incredible companies with whom we have developed relationships in each of the cities that we call home. In truth, these efforts will never end, as our philosophy of “marketing” is that utility, in whatever form it takes, is the most trustworthy and direct measure of a brand’s credibility and worth, on the whole.

It has been a busy few months revamping the brand and installing marketing blocking and tackling that has never before been brought to bear (tagging strategies, SEO considerations, conversion mechanics, et al.—all efforts that have been run in parallel with the big picture stuff I’ve talked about here in this post). And even still, we know that there’s more work to be done.  There are still black and white photos mixed in with newer, full-color, shots of alumni and instructors, for example; our database of both could be more robust, and consequently our filtering and indexing of either could, and should, be stronger. There are countless testimonials and videos of in-class scenarios spanning our two-year history that are not currently on display. Our FAQ could include a few more oft-asked questions. Indeed, work to implement improvements and inclusions such as those is already underway, and progress will be shown on a daily and weekly basis as we move through an array of features and content upgrades. But, true to our identity as a startup: we know that the best way forward is not always one defined by perfection and completion, but by determination and the will to constantly improve.