A scene from the Made by McGill anthem video

On Campus

How ‘Made by McGill’ got made

Discover the thinking behind the University’s new “Made by McGill” brand platform – “[We need] to express in a very compelling way who we are” – and why it became “a huge passion project” for the creative agency that dreamed up “We the North”

Story by Brenda Branswell

October 2019

McGill asked, you answered – in droves.

In 2018, the University queried alumni – and many others – about how they perceived McGill and felt about the institution.

“Within three days, we had to close down the survey because we were already well over the number of responses needed to provide us with statistical accuracy,” says Derek Cassoff, managing director, communications, at McGill University Advancement.

That input was the first step in developing McGill’s first-ever, university-wide brand platform – “Made by McGill.”

You may have caught a glimpse of the “Made by McGill” visuals and the stirring McGill anthem video during Homecoming Celebration Weekend when they were unveiled with the launch of Made by McGill: the Campaign for Our Third Century.

It’s a bold new look for McGill: post-modern red lettering with striking photos of students, alumni and faculty displaying an easy confidence.

Made by McGill and its French counterpart, Forgé par McGill, will be used to promote McGill and showcase the success of students and researchers. The anthem video, which is on the University’s homepage, may also be shown at other occasions – student recruitment events, for example.

McGill’s fundraising campaign, with its ambitious $2 billion goal, is one of the main reasons for the creative platform, says Vice-Principal (Communications and External Relations) Louis Arseneault.

Another impetus is that higher education is increasingly competitive, Arseneault says. To compete on a level playing field, McGill needed a creative platform “to express in a very compelling way who we are,” the value of McGill and what sets it apart.

“It’s becoming more and more challenging to have our voice heard. The more we sing in tune, the more chance we have to be listened to.”

The third driver was McGill’s upcoming bicentennial in 2021.

Market research shows visibility gap

Sid Lee, the creative agency behind the NBA champion Toronto Raptors’ wildly successful ‘We the North’ campaign, was tasked with coming up with McGill’s brand platform. The Montreal-based agency received the market research conducted by Léger Marketing and McGill.

‘Don’t discount the role of market research’ is a message Cassoff had heard repeatedly from McGill alumni who work in marketing and communications.

“I think many of us would have said at the beginning of this process that ‘well, no, we’re McGill University. Everybody knows McGill. We’re a global brand…we don’t have a visibility issue.’

“But by going through the market research it actually opened our eyes to the reality,” Cassoff says, noting that McGill, while well known in Canada and parts of the U.S., especially the northeast, is less top of mind in some international markets when it comes to Canadian universities.

Resilience and McGill’s place in Montreal

A primary theme from the market research was the notion of resilience – alumni talked about how McGill is not an easy place to get into or graduate from, and it required a lot of effort. Living away from home for the first time, it also meant making a life for themselves in a new city.

Looking back, alumni cherish that, Cassoff says. “They really felt that McGill built a sense of resilience in them.”

McGill’s connection to Montreal also emerged strongly in the surveys.

“There was a real strong sense that McGill would not be the university it is, had it not been situated in a city like Montreal,” Cassoff says.

At the outset, staff from Sid Lee plastered work by universities on office walls.

“What was amazing was so much of the language and the visuals were so the same,” says Elana Gorbatyuk, BA’98, chief strategy officer and partner at Sid Lee.

“‘Excellence’, ‘impact’, ‘global impact’, ‘international’ – those are all the tropes of every university and they cease to have any meaning when you put them all up like that.

“What we really wanted to capture was less of what people say and more of how people feel when they go through a McGill experience. And that’s what we really focused on,” she says.

Sid Lee staffers were also familiar with McGill – the agency has many McGill graduates, including Gorbatyuk. “It was a huge passion project [for us], I won’t lie,” she says.

Resilience, determination, optimism really came though across faculties, says Gorbatyuk.

The anthem video, which features music performed by students at the Schulich School of Music, underscores that determined spirit, opening with “Born from a will, made here, by dreamers and risk-takers, by makers and big thinkers, through trial and error, we face what’s ahead…” There’s a also a nod to Montreal, including bagels, a revered local staple.

Made by the McGill experience

Sid Lee presented three different mock-ups to senior managers at McGill. “Made by McGill” was the runaway choice.

It’s a flexible brand platform “so it’s a great capsule for storytelling,” says Cassoff.

What also drew them to the concept, says Arseneault, was the “reciprocal relationship where people are indeed made by McGill – and McGill here, has to be comprehended as the McGill community, the McGill experience – and in turn, they shape what McGill is and will be in the future.”

Or as the anthem video puts it:  ‘Made by us, Made by you, Made by McGill.’

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