Website and Brand for The Commons Win Two 1st Place National ACUI Awards with Expertise from Recent Brandcenter Grads

The Commons won first place in Logo/Brand Identity and first place in Websites professional division as part of Steal this Idea, a national, annual contest sponsored by ACUI (Advancing Campus Community), the national professional association for college union and student activities professionals. Nearly 300 entries from college student unions were evaluated based on concept, design, content, and effectiveness.

In 2019, Dr. David Greene, director of University Student Commons & Activities (USC&A), a department of the Division of Student Affairs, hired a new marketing team. The team included Brandcenter students Chris Cole and Lex Coelho, both marketing & design graduate assistants, and Laura O’Brien, marketing & special events manager, and challenged the team to re-brand the department.

From Kalamazoo, MI, Chris Cole is graduating with a Brandcenter master’s degree in business/branding with a focus on Art Direction. From Chapel Hill, NC, Lex Coelho is graduating with a master’s degree in business/branding with a focus on Experience Design and is starting her career as a UX designer/art director.

“At the time, many people thought of The Commons as a building. And yet, through our programming and events, we provide a gateway for VCU students to find new friends, learn new skills, get involved in the community, and more,” said Dr. Greene. “To help expand and deepen student engagement at VCU, we had recently launched RamsConnect, a student activities engagement platform for VCU events and groups, and that provided a comprehensive online resource for student engagement.”

With a collective belief in authentic branding and the importance of a student-centered point-of-view, the marketing team got to work.

“Almost immediately, the team recommended adopting The Commons as the name of the departments and dropping the acronym USC&A, ” said Laura O’Brien, marketing and special events manager for The Commons. “Inspired by ACUI’s Role of the Student Union statement, we felt like student sentiment about our nickname, The Commons, complements the concept of a welcoming gateway for students to engage in life-changing experiences at VCU. In January 2020, after sharing this direction with staff and student stakeholders, we got the green light.”

Working closely with Bob Saydlowski, brand identity manager in University Relations, the marketing team learned that USC&A previously had been granted flexibility beyond VCU’s identification mark standards as a sub-brand. Mr. Saydlowski consulted with the team regularly, guiding the work to align with VCU branding.

With a collective belief in authentic branding and the importance of a student-centered point-of-view, the marketing team got to work.

“When Laura and her team brainstormed new brand graphics, once again, the answer was obvious. The brand imagery for The Commons was literally on the steps of the student union building on the Monroe Park campus,” said Dr. Greene. “The new marketing team saw the power of embracing and elevating the imagery of our beloved Ram Horns sculpture.”

The Ram Horns sculpture was installed in 2009 and is the work of the late Timothy Blum, a 1992 VCU Master of Fine Arts graduate. The sculpture consists of two 14-feet-tall bronze, spiraling cylinders weighing approximately 3,500 pounds.

Today the Ram Horns sculpture is VCU’s most popular selfie spot. To get the photo just right, students stand about 30 feet from the Ram Horns Sculpture and sometimes stand on their toes. Standing in just the right “selfie spot,” it looks like the Ram Horns are attached to your head. The sculpture is also the site of the Ram Horn Wish, a tradition where new VCU students touch the mammoth horns during orientation and make a wish.

It required dozens of hand-created versions to translate this monumental, one-of-a-kind, non-symmetrical sculpture into an icon. The selection of the font and the placement was painstaking. Still, in early 2020 the marketing team revealed The Commons brand book and earned support from stakeholders in the department, the division, and in University Relations. Lex included the re-brand in her professional portfolio.

“With the ultimate goal of helping students find engagement opportunities, we put the new branding graphics on hold, and the marketing team invested ten months building a new website from scratch,” said Dr. Greene.

“With the ultimate goal of helping students find engagement opportunities, we put the new branding graphics on hold, and the marketing team invested ten months building a new website from scratch,” said Dr. Greene.

“Supported by April McIntosh, web developer, and designer with the Division of Student Affairs, we painstakingly created 47 pages of content, a navigation map, a family of custom icons, and a themed photo series,” said Ms. O’Brien. “VCU rolled out Compass, a new framework for websites during this period, so we maximized those new features too. By teleworking during COVID-19, we had fewer distractions and could focus on the millions of steps required to build out a top-notch website.”

Launched in November 2020, thecommons.vcu.edu is a student-centric and responsive online resource to help VCU students engage with the university. Fully integrated with RamsConnect, VCU's student engagement platform, between January and May 2021 more than 7,000 unique users visited the new website for The Commons. Nearly 40,000 users visited RamsConnect during the same period.

The Commons marketing team also won third place in Steal this Idea’s interior/wall art student category for the “Find Your” Campaign, which is currently on display in the atrium of The Commons building and is presently the featured campaign on The Commons website.

In Spring 2021, the marketing team at The Commons created new branding for Intercultural Festival, a student-organized event established in 2003 to celebrate the diversity of VCU and the surrounding community, and a new brand book and website for Weeks of Welcome, the annual series of events and programs for new students. Word is that there is also yet-to-be revealed work on a branding refresh for VCU Homecoming.

The Commons marketing team, known as uncommon creative, is hiring two graduate assistants and five graduate-level student employees for Fall 2021.

Laura O’Brien, who is new to higher education and has 30-plus years of experience in marketing communications, including 14 years as president of a public relations agency that won the Public Relations Society of America's Silver Anvil Best in Show, leads marketing communications for The Commons.

Interested in working with The Commons?  VCU grad students can email Laura at lbobrien@vcu.edu.

Images: photos of Lex Coelho and Chris Cole, images of the home page for The Commons website, ACUI Steal this Idea graphics and ACUI logo, previous USCA& Logo and new The Commons logo, Ram Horn Plaza, drawings of ram horns, icons including SGA, FSL, APB and more, interior photo of The Commons lobby with Find Your Flags, Weeks of Welcome logo, ICF logo,