What’s the role of a Catholic university in a secular society?

"We would need to be supremely good at only two things – at being Catholic, and at being a university. There is no choosing between these two ambitions – both matter and are inextricably linked."

This is how the Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) Vice-Chancellor outlined his vision in his inaugural lecture. It set our year-long project in motion.

Fulfilling this vision would require significant focus for a young institution that’s also the nation’s only publicly funded Catholic university. Australia is an increasingly secular society, with little tradition of prestigious Catholic universities. Could stronger performance as a university and a deeper sense of Catholic identity go hand in hand?

The project ran in close collaboration with the university’s leadership team right from the start. The first step was framing goals and challenges to overcome.

We needed a narrative that would resonate with people of different religious beliefs, or no belief at all. A narrative with increased relevance and universal appeal, yet confidently Catholic. The Catholic ethos had to be translated from a perceived barrier into a positive driver to choose the Australian Catholic University among high performing students – especially postgraduates.

It was time for ACU to step out of the shadow of bigger, more conventional universities. To do it, ACU needed to own a clear idea of leadership. No easy task given the university’s close connection to professions such as nursing and teaching, that regrettably are seldom associated with positions of leadership in our society. And this new expression of leadership would have to permeate a larger portfolio of disciplines; from the well-established faculties of health sciences, education, philosophy and theology, to new areas such as business, law and arts.

With the challenges ahead of us clear, we engaged with ACU staff, partners and opinion leaders to explore possible answers.

Over 250 ACU staff joined in ideation workshops exploring what makes, and could make, the University unique, and what attributes it should invest in. A series of themes emerged and were assessed by those with an external perspective: corporate partners and opinion leaders were recruited from public intellectuals, journalists, policy experts, demographers, business leaders and the Church itself.

As the thinking was funnelled and refined, a sense of confidence emerged in ACU’s potential to develop a powerful narrative within the academic world and society.

"Religion appears to be returning to the public conversation in ways unimaginable even twenty years ago. In Australia, two factors may be contributing... First, there have been some signs of a pulling-back from the rampant consumerism of the past thirty years... At the same time, new research coming from the field of positive psychology is challenging the wisdom of our obsession with the pursuit of personal happiness and restoring some common sense to the debate about the sources of life’s deepest satisfactions."

Hugh Mackay
Social Researcher
in ‘Beyond Belief’

Armed with several hypotheses, we immersed ourselves in the lives of students and their families.

Two streams of market research were integrated: a segmentation study by the research firm Fiftyfive5 and an ethnographic study by PUSH. We met people at home to discuss their priorities in life and choice of university. We asked ACU students to film a typical week on campus and organised campus tours pairing ACU students with sceptical prospective students. These actions revealed expectations and misconceptions surrounding the University and its Catholicity, and ways to best overcome them.

Hard data and a deep immersion in people’s lives helped prioritise some attitudinal segments and define the overall mindset for ACU to engage with: ‘ACU wants to be the university for people who look beneath the surface and are stronger than external expectations and superficial measures of success. They march to the beat of a different drum – a beat that comes from within. It pushes them to pursue a life-long journey of personal growth, to engage with others with curiosity and generosity of spirit, and ask what makes a life worth living.’

ACU would have to better resonate with people possessing a strong inner drive and deeply motivated by a quest for personal development and career achievements. Through its brand, culture and curricula.

'Impact through Empathy’.
A new brand idea – deeply Catholic yet truly universal.

A new brand strategy emerged, centred on the idea of ‘Impact through Empathy’. ‘Impact’ signifies that ACU is a community of staff, students and partners who are dedicated to making a real and positive difference. ‘Empathy’ explains the kind of intellectual and emotional engagement with the world that ACU believes in and promotes.

This idea echoes the Catholic ethos while framing it with universal appeal and suggesting action and results. It speaks of the type of leadership the University advocates – empathetic leadership. It articulates how this type of leadership should play a bigger role in the professional world and in a contemporary society so often bitterly divided and unequal.

Video credits: Creative direction: PUSH Collective | Sonic identity: Samplify | Motion: Gramm

Our new brand strategy inspired the creative idea of ‘Different Perspectives = a Different World’. It’s both a new look, and a new way of looking at the world.

The ACU masterbrand has evolved to provide greater clarity, distinction and enhanced functionality in the digital environment. A new colour palette has been introduced, with purple providing a soft contrast to the strength of the red.

The new verbal identity speaks from two different points of view, inviting people to be open-minded and engage empathetically. Instead of stopping at the face value of things, it asks people to engage more deeply to reveal new meanings.

The visual identity elaborates on this thought by using juxtaposed images housed in ‘perspective shapes’ where one shape affects the other. It encourages people to explore new possibilities by finding commonality within difference.

"Impact through empathy...these words have a relevance and appeal that’s truly universal and urgent in society...They have inspired us to evolve the way we communicate. But the implications of this brand proposition run deeper than that. It will truly shape the reality we live in: from curricula, to our research priorities, to our choice of partnerships, and how we interact with each other."

Professor Greg Craven
Vice-Chancellor and President
Australian Catholic University

The new brand strategy and identity combined to drive an overhaul of ACU’s brand architecture.

New brand architecture principles and protocols have been established. These aim to give greater prominence to the parent brand while recognising the breadth and diversity of ACU’s portfolio of learning and teaching programs, research entities, partnerships and facilities.

We’re particularly pleased that our work has brought new clarity and energy to the expanding world of student engagement - from counselling and career advice to sport, clubs and student associations.

The new brand was first rolled out internally, then released through the 2017 Open Day campaign created by PUSH and the ACU in-house team.

Tracking after Open Day shows how ACU’s evolved brand drove a remarkable increase in student attendance of the event, shifted deeply entrenched perceptions and raised enrolments, including within the important postgraduate segment.

The ACU project demonstrates the power of brand thinking in shaping an organisation’s sense of identity.

The project’s success went well beyond its Open Day results. The evolved brand has been embraced by the university’s leadership and staff. It’s also begun to influence curricula, research priorities, partnerships and culture. ACU’s brand now gives this young university greater clarity and confidence on its path to becoming a more successful Catholic institution and a high-performing university.

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