The atrium of the Instructional Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough serves as an exhibit space for the completed portrait series.
THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO Scarborough in Ontario, Canada, is a satellite campus of a major metropolitan university, and many of the business students participate in off-site learning and development programs, including co-op. When the school set out to design a new branding campaign, officials elected to create relatable student portraits that would telegraph the feeling of the intimate and connected campus environment—a home base for all students, no matter where their experience takes them.
“We wanted to celebrate these students’ stories within our own community,” says Kendal Egli, marketing and communications officer in the department of management. The new campaign was not just an opportunity to create a sense of school spirit, Egli adds. It was a way to refresh outdated marketing materials that were aging, not emotionally driven, and not accurately reflecting the school’s close-knit community.
Egli decided to build a campaign around photos of students showing their true, authentic spirits. “When I took on this role, I inherited a voluminous library full of perfectly posed students—camera-ready, with their starched collars and crossed arms,” he says. “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create portraits of students that looked like real people.”
‘YOU COULD SEE PEOPLE DREAMING’
For the portrait project, Egli and his colleague Manjot Bining began recruiting “highly engaged students with a volunteerism streak.” Many were part of the work-study program or the school’s 18 student clubs. “We wanted to make sure we had representation from all the specializations in our BBA, and the clubs cater to those discrete cohorts, so we knew that was a good place to start,” he says. “No one said no. They were all excited about the opportunity to participate.” A total of 13 students were photographed for the initiative.
He let students know the photography session would include a Q&A, told them to come in “looking and feeling like themselves,” and invited them to bring in some kind of personal touchstone or talisman that was important to them. He also shared the photographer’s recommendation that they wear light-colored clothing.
Students featured in the University of Toronto Scarborough’s marketing campaign are allowed to use
the finished photos for their own branding efforts and social media profiles. Says marketing and
communications officer Kendal Egli, “We just asked them not to deploy anything until the
campaign was on the market. We wanted to make sure they didn’t scoop us!”
Photo shoots unfolded in three steps. When students first arrived, they were shown to a traditional portrait setup, complete with a backdrop, and they were asked easy questions about why they wanted to be business students and why they wanted to attend UTSC. From there, they were moved to another room, a visually striking glass-walled setting where the students had all been photographed before.
But once the photographer captured a few poses in this room, Egli would stop the shoot and say, “It’s time to innovate. We’re going into the stairwell.” A stark contrast to the previous room, the stairwell was a utilitarian, unadorned, concrete space that featured natural light and a single upholstered chair that Egli had dragged in from another location.
“I wanted to disarm the students and have them let go of any preconceived notions about how they should look and feel during this experience,” he says. “I wanted them to really reflect on who they are and why they were here that day.”
“THE PHOTOGRAPHER CAPTURED THE IN-BETWEEN MOMENTS, WHERE STUDENTS WERE SHOWING ANY KIND OF EMOTION.”—KENDAL EGLI
During this final phase of the shoot, Egli would ask more existential questions, such as where students envisioned themselves in the next ten years or what they foresaw for the future of business. He also asked them to relate their own experiences to the department’s tagline, “Experience to lead.”
“Because we had built rapport during the first two phases, and because they were surprised to be in a completely different setting, they really started to open up,” says Egli. “I had briefed the photographer to capture the in-between moments, where students were being reflective, or where they were feeling grateful, determined, uncertain—where they were showing any kind of emotion rather than offering a perfect smile straight at the camera. We got portraits where you could see people dreaming.”
PORTRAITS ON DISPLAY
The final images and copy were used to create 9-foot-by-5-foot billboards. These were installed in the atrium of the business school building just in time for a major campus recruitment event. The photos also were used in the back-to-school campaign for the 2019–2020 academic year.
Egli has been pleased by the response the campaign has received from corporate partners, peer institutions, and the students themselves. “My best feeling in my university career so far was when I had a queue of students outside wanting to volunteer for the next photo shoot,” he says.
He hopes to do such shoots annually for the near future—making a few obvious changes. For instance, he’ll need to abandon the stairwell and find a different setting for phase three of the next photo shoot. “We would like to incorporate an element of surprise where students can let down any armor they have on, and we’ll do that by asking novel questions and shooting in completely unexpected venues,” he says. “But the content will be driven by the students and what they’re experiencing.”
For other schools to create a similar sense of authenticity in their marketing materials, says Egli, they first must know what they want to convey. That is, they should know whether they want to position their students as coachable, ambitious, creative—whatever aligns with their brands. Then, they should find students who live those values, ask them questions during the shoot, and actively listen to the answers to get a sense of who they truly are.
The results will be worth the effort, he says. “When your subjects feel comfortable enough to answer authentically, you will capture those in-between moments where they’re feeling real emotions. Even though a photo might be static, your audience will notice a photo where someone is dreaming. An emotion elicits emotions.”
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