University of California

We helped galvanize the California public in support of the UC system

The University of California (UC) has long been regarded as the best public university system in the world. In 2012, after losing nearly $1 billion in state budget cuts over four years and struggling with several painful tuition increases, the UC Office of the President (UC systemwide office) reached out to SimpsonScarborough for help understanding and reaching Californians.

Many UC campuses were well-known across the state, but the University needed people to care about the system as a whole. Both in the short term — a crucial vote loomed — and for the long-term health of the system, it was imperative that voters understand the value of the UC system. We designed a benchmarking research project that would evaluate statewide perceptions of UC and identify opportunities to strengthen the brand.

Our research included a quantitative phone survey of California voters (which was conducted in both English and Spanish) as well as online surveys of alumni from each campus and of parents of current students. UC also conducted in-depth interviews with leaders in higher education, government, and industry that helped fill out the picture with perspectives from California influencers.

This research helped galvanize all the campuses and highlighted a clear opportunity: UC needed to strengthen its emotional connection with voters and show all Californians how it mattered to them. Given the challenges, it was time to make sure people statewide were aware of UC’s impact. The positioning that emerged focused on fostering a sense of pride in UC as a quintessentially Californian institution, on UC as the embodiment of California’s ambition and potential, and on the vast scope and reach of the system’s resources and research. Brought to life through a single message for Californians: UC has played a part in your day.

The resulting Onward California campaign, led by UC’s internal team was multifaceted and multi-channel and included paid media and advertising, digital and social, grassroots outreach, a video series, and media event sponsorship. The video series, a key content element throughout the multi-year campaigns, featured compelling interviews with researchers who work in fields that are deeply relevant to Californians. The series, which was designed to be shareable, was released biweekly over 12 weeks, with bonus content for social promotion and media outreach. The UC creative team built a website to house the series, which was also released on YouTube.

The video series got over 240,000 views in video plays, earned media, and PR opportunities. It proved to be the most compelling content ever shared through UC’s systemwide social media channels, and helped lead to exponential growth in social media engagement.

Taken as a whole, the constellation of efforts that grew out of the initial research helped drive a 6% three year increase in the perception that UC has a daily impact on individuals’ lives and a 15% decrease in negative opinions about the system. The research and insight from the benchmarking study continues to inform UC’s strategies and provide a valuable way to measure its effectiveness.

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