Ask the Expert: Zehno’s Senior Strategist and Editorial Director Shane Shanks
Ask the Expert: Zehno’s Senior Strategist and Editorial Director Shane Shanks


Ask the Expert: Zehno’s Senior Strategist and Editorial Director Shane Shanks

Jun 24, 2019By mStoner Staff

Shane Shanks is a senior strategist and editorial director at Zehno — a strategic branding and marketing firm for educational organizations. Zehno teams with smart people at smart institutions to strengthen brands and marketing communications for universities, colleges, and other education organizations.

Shane, a CASE Crystal Apple award winner for outstanding teaching, is the bridge between strategy and creative at Zehno. He’s coached hundreds of institutions on how to improve their brands, publications, websites, and marketing strategies.

mStoner is teaming up with Zehno to show you how to bring your institution’s brand to life in an upcoming, free webinar, Making Your Mark: Unforgettable Branding. We recently got to know Shane a bit more — he’s co-presenting the June 26 webinar with mStoner’s CEO and Head of Client Experience, Voltaire Santos Miran.

Coming off a successful presentation at last month’s CASE Annual Conference on Marketing and Branding in Philadelphia, Shane is excited to chat about what it takes to build a brand that stands for something.

Get to know Shane and his hot takes on the current state of branding in higher education.

What are the most common mistakes you see institutions making in marketing? What would you do differently?

From a brand standpoint, a common mistake is being too bland or generic. More colleges and universities should step up to say: “We are excellent at this” or “This is what we’re known for.” If you’re truly great at something, why be too chicken to say so?

We once rebranded a religious order that runs a series of schools. It was challenging to make the sisters comfortable talking about all the great things they do for the community.

Even if you’ve taken a religious vow of humility, you shouldn’t be so shy about touting your organization’s good work!

Some of the trickiest projects are with institutions that are known for something that’s the opposite of who they really are. This might be a school that’s religious in heritage, but not religious now. Or a former two-year institution that’s now a PhD-granting university. When the outside world hasn’t kept up with how an institution has changed, everything is more complicated.

In an ideal world, which should come first: new brand or new website? In the real world, how does it usually play out?

In the real world, there doesn’t seem to be a magic recipe. At many institutions, branding and website are still in two different kingdoms, so it’s often just a question of which project got started — or received funding — first.

In the ideal world, both projects would be conceived at the same time. The brand concept would be created in tandem with the website, since that’s the communications tool that can have the broadest impact. The smartest institutions are already thinking this way — and avoiding that awkward phase when the brand and website are out of synch.

What’s your best advice to brand managers looking to strengthen their brand?

Your brand has to stand for something — and for someone. You can’t be everything for everybody, so focus on your best-fit audiences.

And your brand needs a sense of style that the world will notice (and remember).

How does Zehno get at the heart of an institution?

Our discovery process covers goals, research, interviews and the usual inputs. But seeing firsthand what happens in the classroom and hearing students detail their experiences in person gives us a more vivid understanding of the institution’s heart.

What’s the secret to making the brand come through creatively across all forms of media?

You need powerful stories, arresting visuals and a plan for moving the content through various channels.

But most of all, you need a strong creative concept that illustrates what your college or university stands for. The concept should capture attention, highlight distinctive aspects of your institution and drive your creative work.

From your portfolio of work at Zehno, what are you most proud of in terms of how well it communicates the brand?

Our work for Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, the first all-girls’ school in America, is pretty fantastic. It captures the wonder of learning and demonstrates the spirit of the place.

I also like how the Union College campaign communicates a vibrant academic experience. And University of North Georgia was cool because we were building a brand for a new institution formed through consolidation.

There’s also Bucknell Magazine, a winner of top mag awards from UCDA, Cuppie Awards, CASE and others. It’s a strategic redesign that made the magazine a central branding tool, not a coffee table curio.

Sources of Inspiration

1. Tools of the trade:

This sounds hopelessly retro, but I love a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. The lead is very dark, and the eraser never fails.

When the going gets tough, pencil on paper cuts through my brain clutter. It brings clarity and simplicity to my thinking.

2. What’s on Shane’s desk?

What’s not on my desk? When I die, I hope they can think of a tombstone inscription more interesting than “He kept a tidy desk.”

3. Recommended reading and listening:

  • NPR in the morning.
  • Pitchfork for lunch.
  • TV news and random blogs at night

(And if I’m on a plane, I like Entertainment Weekly or New York magazines.)

4. Where does your team turn to spark creative ideas?

Everywhere. If you’re not paying attention to everything, you’re missing out.

My personal crutch for brainstorming is The Synonym Finder. My beat-up book beats the online resources because it includes colorful, quirky phrases that can spark a cool idea. Whenever I’m drawing a blank, I whip out that trusty book!

Learn more

Get more great tips from Shane Shanks and mStoner’s very own Voltaire Santos Miran in this week’s free webinar. You’ll learn how to transform your message platform into compelling and captivating creative and how to make your website an integral part of your branding.