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December 18, 2015

The making of CHAMPS

In show business, the triple threat is singing, dancing, acting. Do all three well, and you can be a star.
In logo development, the triple threat is:
1) Project credibility 

2) Communicate an idea 

3) Evoke a feeling.

When a single logo accomplishes all three, it makes an indelible first impression for a brand.

But some identity projects are more challenging than others. Versal recently completed one such project for CHAMPS, a nonprofit global health enterprise that counts the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as its principal supporter. Earlier this year, the foundation awarded $75 million to launch the effort.

The idea behind CHAMPS is simple: Find out why too many children in the world are dying. In parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan African, 1 in 10 children never reach the age of 5. By contrast, that number in the United States is less than 6 in 1,000.

No reliable data exists to determine why life ends so early for so many kids. So CHAMPS is setting out to collect that data and put it to good use.

While it’s a powerfully simple idea, creating the CHAMPS identity proved remarkably complex.

The name carries the load of six words and 56 letters — CHAMPS stands for “Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance.” The words could not be randomly separated; “mortality” had to be paired with “prevention” and not “child health.”

And while the word “champs” conjures images of athletic triumph — celebrations, podiums, trophies – the meaning of the organization’s acronym has nothing to do with such imagery.
Even the simplest icon of a champion — arms raised in victory — posed a question: Would some cultures around the world interpret this gesture as an expression of surrender?
To address these challenges, Versal’s design team explored various points of emphasis. The final product emphasized strength (in the weight of the lettering) while communicating unbound good health (an exuberant child icon).
Here now, the CHAMPS identity, which will mark the organization's locations around the world:


March 23, 2015

Inside the minds of alumni

So much communication is created with only a hunch about how the audience will engage with it. Whether the message and method will work becomes a guessing game.
The development team at Oxford College at Emory University doesn’t want to guess. This spring, Versal is working with Oxford to gain new insight into why some alumni contribute to the college’s annual fund – and why others don’t. The project will inform future fundraising communications.
For colleges like Oxford, such insight is more important than ever.
The prevailing maxim in university fundraising these days is “dollars up, donors down.” Private-gift dollars pour into colleges and universities in increasingly generous amounts, but the percentage of alumni making those gifts is on the decline. So while colleges are still faring OK in their fundraising bottom line, they face the long-term threat of an eroding donor base.
Newer alumni are of particular concern. They tend to give less to their alma mater than older graduates do. One theory holds that the rising cost of higher education has made the relationship between student and college more transactional – I paid you well, you gave me an education, I don’t owe you anything.
Perhaps that’s true. We would add that competition for individual philanthropy is a factor, too – it’s never been more intense. Charities have become far more sophisticated in how they target and appeal to prospective donors. They also have so many new ways to reach their prospects.
This means colleges and universities have to up their fundraising communications game. It’s no longer enough to pluck the strings of yesteryear while slipping alumni a reply envelope. Communications must be better informed by research, and communicators must take some creative risks to engage their alumni.

Ironically, those two actions — pursuing knowledge, taking risks — happen to be defining hallmarks of the college experience. They are now just as crucial to the college fundraising endeavor.
* * *
Versal is very fortunate to have Irm Diorio working with us on the Oxford College project. Irm is a former communications and marketing professional with BellSouth whose alma mater is Cornell. She and her husband Paul have a college student and college grad of their own.


February 16, 2015

17 words of wisdom

The late media columnist and author David Carr, who passed away this week, called it like he saw it. One quote that stays with us:
“While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people.”
David Carr photo
The late great David Carr. (PHOTO: Ryan Pfluger, The New York Times)

Ironic that a man with powerfully individual gifts of insight and language would find greater value in the product of collaboration. But we would agree: The most effective communication is born from an alliance of ideas and inputs, rather than the lone genius.

More quotable Carr >


January 19, 2015

A missive that missed

Well-chosen words on a page – that’s all there is to a good solicitation letter, right?
Not exactly. The collective aesthetic of those words – how the language mass appears on the page – has a lot to do with whether the prospective donor will even begin to read your letter.
Here’s one we received recently from a local charity (intentionally blurred). From the first glance, the letter seems like a time commitment. The sentences and paragraphs form a tall wall to climb. Big blocks, narrow margins, no visual rest.

This may not seem like a big deal – come on, it’s a good cause, right?
But the look of a letter matters.

Consider the context of that letter being reviewed. It’s in a stack of the day’s mail. Processing that stack is a task of opening, glancing, sorting — a task often performed in a half-attentive state, with the TV on or a conversation taking place.
In such a context, capturing attention is critical. And a sea of copy makes a letter too easy to skip.
When developing your fundraising correspondence, keep in mind that a letter is more than language. It’s an exercise in design, too.