By Jeongyoon Han (Photos by Daniel Mezzalingua)
Header Image: Maya Huyge, Emma Gross, and Ella Pisciarino wear their different MPH colors on a Friday “Spirit Day.”
When the Parents’ Association was creating prototypes for new Campus Shop merchandise, a volunteer asked Head of Upper School John Stegeman if he wanted anything. He requested a customized Manlius Pebble Hill vest.
Stegeman wore his vest the first day back from December break, surprising students who passed him in the halls. It featured a Pantone bright green, dark green and turquoise inscription of “MPH” in the upper left corner, a complete departure from the iconic Farmhouse logo and the school’s red-and-white colors.
This was the debut of MPH’s new green-themed logo. Many, including senior and lifer Lilly Maresco, were confused and shocked because in the past, they had seen only red and white represent the school.
“It was just confusing to see a new logo for the first time,” Maresco said.
Stegeman explained later that day during Upper School assembly that the logo and colors were part of a new marketing campaign launched by MPH and partner Crane MetaMarketing in an effort to emphasize MPH as a place of intellectually driven students and a thriving community. Red and white, however, would remain the school’s athletic colors.
Given the school’s financial crisis during the 2014-15 school year and the subsequent drop in enrollment, the administration felt the school needed rebranding.
While assessing how MPH could best attract prospective families, Crane determined that the red in MPH’s beloved red and white was too aggressive: think red as in a stop sign. In addition, Crane experts told the seven-member MPH administrative staff overseeing the campaign that the Farmhouse logo painted MPH as an overly traditional institution when in reality it’s a place for organic and dynamic learning.
“We’re so many things, and [Crane] wanted to make sure that when people drove down the road and saw our billboard, or they went on syracuse.com and saw our ad, or got a promotional piece in the mail, [that we would] stand out,” Neuner said. “We didn’t want to identify with public schools, or any school for that matter.”
Yet the reaction within the MPH community is mixed. Some like the aesthetic of the new logo and feel that it signifies a new chapter for MPH, especially with enrollment already beginning to increase. Others are confused by the school having both the red and white and the greens and blue. Those who disapprove of the new colors feel that they have no correlation with the MPH identity, which is closely intertwined with the red and white. Adding to the confusion, students and faculty noted, was ineffective communication from the administration, which created a sense of disconnect between community members and the decision makers.
The administration and Crane agreed that the new colors and logo would, as Crane program manager Christina Albetta said, “convey a sense of possibility and growth” at MPH.
“The shades of green and blue represent possibility, opportunity (the sky’s the limit!), energy, life and development—as in the spring, green [signifies] growth,” Albetta said in an email.
Arriving at these colors and building the marketing campaign was a delicate process. When Crane first pitched the green-themed color scheme in June following months of on-site interviews with 17 different focus groups, the administration members were taken aback.
“There wasn’t one single person in the room at this presentation that didn’t fidget a little bit when they first saw these colors,” Neuner said. “It was uncomfortable. It was a hard thing to grasp.”
But ultimately, these same people became sold on the idea that change was necessary to represent MPH as a school moving forward.
“I wouldn’t have accepted the color change had [Crane] not been so persuasive,” Head of School Jim Dunaway said.
Stegeman views the campaign as a necessary departure from MPH’s recent troubles.
“I think that sometimes breaks from tradition can be a very good thing,” he said. “Part of what this marketing campaign was intended to do was separate us from the difficult financial turmoil of two years ago, and so if that’s what [we’re] trying to do then that break is a good thing.”
However, a considerable portion of the MPH community interviewed by the Pebble questions the school’s decision to introduce the new logo and colors, as well as the concept of having two sets of colors. The Pebble interviewed 24 community members, and of the 24, only four said they liked the addition of the new colors. In an online Google survey conducted by the Pebble, while 67 percent of 111 respondents (mostly student) said they understood the reasoning behind the new colors and logo, only 19 percent said they supported the decision to introduce the new colors and logo. Thirty percent said they supported it somewhat, but 43 percent said they did not.
Some students, including senior Spencer Krywy, said the new colors highlight the disconnect between the decision makers and the student body.
“I think they represent the new administration. I don’t think they represent the students,” Krywy said. “The administration is pushing a very different angle than how we feel.”
Annie Weiss, senior and Student Council President, raises similar sentiments.
“It’s almost like we have two different schools in some way: one that we know MPH as, and the other that we’re trying to market MPH as,” said Weiss, who has been at MPH since third grade. “It kind of makes MPH less wholesome.”
Long-term implications are also on students’ minds. Weiss said she’s concerned by how strong MPH’s identity and sense of community will be in the future.
“In a couple of years, I worry [the red and white is] going to lose its meaning,” Weiss said.
Ariel Sealing, who graduated in 2007, has similar concerns. She said she’s indifferent to the new colors since they have no meaning to her in terms of her strong feelings for MPH. Yet, at the same time, she senses MPH taking a different path compared to the one she was a part of as a student.
“I don’t feel as connected. It makes it feel like a different school, [and] in a lot of ways MPH [has become] dramatically different in the 10 years since I graduated,” Sealing said in an email. “Change isn’t bad, of course, but it does affect your connection when something you were so spirited about is no longer the same, even if [it] is something as simple as a color or a logo.
MPH and Crane agreed that it was time for rebranding. In 1970, when the Manlius School and Pebble Hill School merged, MPH adopted the colors red (from Manlius School’s red and black colors) and white (from the latter’s green and white). Since then, besides a 2012 marketing campaign with the theme “Uncommon to the Core,” the school hadn’t updated its look or logo since the early 2000s, when it wrapped “Manlius Pebble Hill: Think, Imagine, Learn, Grow” around the original Farmhouse logo.
As a result, Neuner said, the external community viewed MPH as having an “old-school” and “failing” vibe; with the crisis that almost closed the school, it was imperative to prove to the external community that MPH was thriving.
That one of the Pebble Hill School’s colors was green, however, was not a source of inspiration for Crane as it sought the best colors to do this. The overlapping letters and three different colors in the logo, rather, is a nod toward the close relationship between MPH, Pebble Hill School and the Manlius School.
For English teacher and department chair Fred Montas, had Crane chosen the green tones with that connection in mind, the choice might have made some sense. But this not being the case is only further proof to Montas that the colors have little or no connection to MPH.
Montas said he understands that the colors are meant to present the school in a fresh way to the community, but he doesn’t understand what those particular colors convey about the school. In addition, he doesn’t agree with the notion that MPH needs two different color palettes. But, he said, he leaves those decisions to the experts.
“Especially since it’s targeted for people outside the school who might not know it well, it’s hard to say what it’s trying to convey,” said Montas, who has taught at MPH for 16 years. “As someone who’s been at the school for a while, it’s hard for me to see it with fresh eyes. And you know I’m not the audience for it. So it’s hard to see what that’s intended to say, because I see the representation of the school in a particular way.”
Dean of Students Alex Leclercq has similar sentiments—he doesn’t understand the motivation behind the particular color choices, but also said he leaves it to the experts. He said he is glad the school retained the red and white for sports teams, but after being at the school for 16 years, he will dearly miss seeing the Farmhouse logo.
“I think it’s been the most enduring symbol of our school since its inception in 1970,” he said.
For some alumni, including Sealing, seeing a lack of red and white and Farmhouse references on the website is upsetting.
“Red and white is something that is so iconic and intertwined with my memories,” said Sealing, whose fondest recollections of her MPH years include wearing the school colors on the sports field. “I was also sad to see the Farmhouse image was not included in the new logo. The Farmhouse was and always will be something I associate with my time at MPH.”
This strong connection alumni have with the building is why the school, depending on the context, still uses the old letterhead, which includes the Farmhouse, when sending out mail to MPH alumni. In fact, depending on the event and audience, the school may use one of five different MPH logos: the Farmhouse, the Manlius School logo, the Pebble Hill School logo, the MPH Athletics logo, and now, the new logo. It’s a tough responsibility that the school took on even prior to the marketing campaign. Neuner, however, says that the extra work to balance all these different logos is worth it.
“It’s nostalgic to come back and visit your high school, and we don’t want to lose that,” she said.
Yet the new logo meant for the external community is now found internally—on report cards, letters sent to students, email signatures and on items for sale at the Campus Shop. While some students and faculty object to this cross-over, Neuner said with the marketing campaign emphasizing the new colors, this aids in consistency and efficiency. To promote the campaign, the Campus Shop has also released green-themed merchandise. But Hana Sultan, an MPH parent and Campus Shop volunteer, thinks that having two color schemes is a poor choice for the school.
“To have one solid color [palette] … shows solidarity in the school, [rather] than having two kids wearing two different colors for the school,” Sultan said.
The Final Product: A Long Journey
Following the crisis, Dunaway knew that something had to be done to improve MPH’s image in the local community.
A donation from John Mezzalingua in 2015 specifically for marketing gave MPH the means to contact Crane, who has extensive experience with private schools and colleges. When Dunaway first called Crane President Patti Crane, he knew that MPH would be in good hands because of her expertise: she knew the Syracuse market for schools, immediately referencing Christian Brothers Academy as one of MPH’s main competitors.
Such familiarity, Dunaway said, was crucial, as MPH would need to work with a marketing firm that could help the school convince prospective families to send their children here because they see the school as one-of-a-kind.
“We wanted people to be willing to drive right past F-M or J-D to come to us, … and one of the things that we wanted to do was to have a distinctive and consistent kind of brand,” Dunaway said. “I hate to use that word for a school, but brand, so if you see a Coca-Cola can from a hundred yards, you know that’s a Coca-Cola can.”
Capturing MPH’s strengths and reflecting them in the marketing campaign was crucial, said Crane’s Albetta. The focus groups and on-site visits made it clear to Crane officials that MPH is a place for creativity.
“MPH is a thoughtful, organic place headed into a new future and full of nuanced teaching and insightful students,” she said.
Red, they concluded, wasn’t the best color to reflect this, as it can be perceived as uninviting, overly traditional and shrill.
“MPH’s athletic colors are vibrant and strong—but that strength and saturation of the red makes it a bit hard to work with in brochures, advertising, and posters,” Albetta said. “And with that red, we were limited in finding companion accent colors we could introduce.”
It was important to brand MPH as a modern and thriving school to improve the school’s credibility in the eyes of the Syracuse community, Neuner said.
“It wasn’t our programs, it wasn’t our teachers, it wasn’t our students,” she said. “It was our reputation that was on the line.”
That being said, Dunaway and the administration wanted to ensure that the campaign would depict MPH authentically.
“You can advertise something and make it sound really good,” Dunaway said. “There are lots of things that have great advertisements but when you buy them, they’re not very good. We didn’t want that.”
While the logo and colors underwent only about 10 modifications, coming to the final draft for the written component of the marketing campaign—one that would perfectly encapsulate the essence of MPH—was a much more meticulous process. But the administrative team ultimately felt that each and every revision was necessary in order to better represent MPH.
Some Unintended Results
Stegeman maintains that the new colors and logo are in the best interest of the school, as they help marry the external and internal community’s views of MPH: in other words, the external community will see all of the great aspects that current MPH community members already know.
“When the newspaper prints stories about how the school might close … then on the outside people think, ‘What’s going on at that school?’ And so I saw [the marketing campaign] as a way to tell them, ‘Hey, no, we’re doing all right. … This is still a phenomenal school, and we’re coming back, and … the future’s bright.”
The administration tried to reach out to faculty, students, parents and alumni through various meetings and email communications to explain the new campaign.
Dunaway met with employees on Dec. 22 to notify them of it, and on Jan. 4 an email went out to alumni. With the new website launched two days later, Neuner scheduled separate meetings for parents and for students in January. Around 25 to 30 parents attended their meeting, and only one student showed up for the student meeting, which Neuner held anyway.
Other students, like senior Nick Jerge, spoke with Neuner one-on-one about the campaign. He said he understands the marketing standpoint of the new colors being more psychologically appealing and thinks the marketing campaign is of a very high quality. However, he wishes the school had chosen options in which MPH didn’t adopt different colors because he feels that the change represents a shift in the school, one that is gravitating away from a “red-and-white school.”
“Ms. Neuner said that people saw the Farmhouse and thought of a school that they didn’t know was going to open anymore, but I thought that was really weird,” said Jerge, who has attended MPH since Pre-K. “[The Farmhouse is a] symbol that you can’t just get rid of. I’m a little concerned that we want to purposely shift away from that.”
Many agree that the initial communication was poorly conducted: the Pebble’s survey found that two thirds of respondents said the changes were poorly communicated and introduced.
As the Pebble reached out to Neuner with questions about the campaign, she realized that another explanation was necessary through a second assembly presentation.
Some said the second presentation changed their perspective, but others had always liked the new colors, including parent Jennifer Reid, whose child has attended MPH for two years.
“I think it represents a rebirth or a renewal,” she said. “[MPH] had gone through a rough patch for a while, and in the past few years the school has really tried to make [itself] whole again and set a foundation. … It’s kind of a new start for MPH. … It reflects the direction the school’s going. I think the school is expanding and really broadening its outreach.”
Junior Jared Amankwah likes the colors as well.
“It’s probably more of a positive and welcoming color scheme; it’s visually appealing,” Amankwah said.
Amankwah, however, said he thinks that a better explanation is necessary of how the colors are positively impacting the community.
“I think that the green and blue colors, while a very good color scheme, can sometimes be misleading about our traditional school colors, so if there was a better way to present [them] as a representation of our growth as a school, then that would be a much more ideal situation,” said Amankwah, who has been at MPH since Pre-K.
Others, including senior Amina Kilpatrick, have mixed reactions or serious concerns regarding the additional colors and logo.
“I still am having trouble with the whole ‘two-sets-of-colors-to-represent-one-school’ idea,” Kilpatrick said.
Those with similar viewpoints suggest that the new logo and additional colors may be an inaccurate representation of MPH, since red and white dominate many aspects of school life.
“I find it somewhat dishonest because it does not represent the actual school colors, which is strange to me,” Krywy said.
Brian Sheehan, professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said that having two sets of colors is not only confusing, but an unwise strategy.
“In the business of marketing you can’t be half pregnant … meaning having half of one foot in the modern progressive camp of a new logo and new image, and then still be using the red and white for sports teams, for example,” said Sheehan, one of the industry’s most sought-out experts.
Sheehan is a former account executive and CEO for Saatchi & Saatchi, a global advertising agency, where he worked on iconic campaigns for corporations like Toyota. He called it a terrible mistake for the school to keep the red and white along with the new logo.
“Either … you … go all the way into a new era and redo your school, or [you] decide you’re a school with a tremendous amount of tradition that you want to keep,” said Sheehan, whose son happens to be an MPH alum. “And don’t get mixed messages into it. So you’re ultimately red and white or you’re whatever this is, blue, green and teal. Trying to be both is really a dreadful idea.”
Crane representatives and Neuner both said they disagree. Pam Mason-Norsworthy, Strategic Partnerships Manager at Crane, said that marketing campaigns for established independent schools need to respect the schools’ history while also moving forward and that marketing schools is different than marketing products.
“We often need to contemporize a school’s visual presentation and messaging while still honoring the institution’s history,” Mason-Norsworthy said. “That doesn’t mean there’s a foot in the past and one in the present, but rather that we respect the beloved visual representations that have come before.”
Other schools that have worked with Crane and implemented advertising-specific colors appreciate this balance. St. George’s Independent School in Tennessee, like MPH, has two sets of colors, and communications director Sarah Cowan said that this has been successful for the school thus far.
“It’s not uncommon for institutions to work within their school colors, but I think it’s fairly limiting for an institution or corporation to feel constrained by a specific color palette,” Cowan said. “Recognizing tradition or history is important, especially in a school; being constrained by it in a difficult and competitive market is not smart.”
An Administrative Analysis
Looking back, Neuner and Stegeman agreed that the school could have better communicated the campaign with the MPH community; Dunaway said the communication was “good: not great, not bad.” Neuner noted that the reception of the new colors might have been even more positive had the school presented in front of small student groups and had discussions begun earlier.
But, Neuner said, the school also had to balance its approach.
“It’s a little bit of a catch-22, because the bigger deal you make it seem, the bigger deal it is,” she said. “We thought that the more we brought it up, the more we made a bigger thing about it, the more it would appear to … students that we were changing everything.”
Dunaway added that it would’ve been impossible to take into account everyone’s individual thoughts and that Crane was capable of best showcasing MPH in its true form.
And for him, Crane did this through the campaign’s language more so than the new colors or logo, such as the main catchphrase, the “MPH Effect,” which has also been more specifically defined as the “tenacity effect,” “integrity effect,” “readiness effect” and “preparedness effect,” among several other descriptors.
“I’m amazed that there’s so much interest in the colors, that we’re not talking about the language, because that’s what describes the school,” Dunaway said. “The colors are absolutely secondary. When … prospective [families] read [the viewbook], they’re looking at more than the colors. They’re looking at the way it describes what it means to be a student at this school, and that’s what’s compelling about this: the kids we have here.”
That language was given special attention by the administrative team members, as they agreed that it is the primary way to convey what’s special about MPH.
“Lots of things have an effect on you, but the school has had an effect on you, and it’s sometimes hard to define what that is, but if we all say the ‘MPH Effect,’ you know what we’re talking about. We want people, when they hear MPH, [to think,] ‘MPH Effect,’ ” Dunaway said.
And prospective families seem to be buying the Effect. MPH has enrolled seven new students since the campaign began, the highest number of mid-year enrollees in at least five years, Neuner said. Dunaway added that there has been a 60 percent increase in inquires into the school from the same time period last year.
Now it’s a matter of time to see whether or not the greens and blue and Farmhouse-less logo will continue to draw in new families and if the red and white can remain strong. While the school has said that nothing has changed in terms of MPH’s identity, the Pebble’s survey results seem to suggest that students disagree.
Forty-eight percent of respondents said that the new colors are changing the MPH community and identity, while 37.8 disagreed and 14.4 were unsure.
Senior Caroline King simply does not believe the two sets of colors can coexist.
“I don’t think there’s a way to have two sets of different colors,” she said, “which is a shame.”
Questions remain, but perhaps most importantly, will the campaign’s new colors, logo and words succeed in increasing positive external perceptions of the school and increasing enrollment? The MPH administration and Crane feel that the answer is yes, but only time will tell.