Getting the word out: Brandcenter students create Out RVA

VCU Brandcenter students create Out RVA to celebrate Richmond’s LGBT community

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Bill Harrison, CEO of the Gay Community Center of Richmond, sometimes encounters skepticism from gay friends when he speaks about the welcoming atmosphere that they can expect in Richmond. He said those who have never visited the city frequently perceive it to be a much less tolerant place than Harrison and many others believe it to be. The question of how to correct that feeling is one that has puzzled city advocates. So they put the question to students at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, one of the most highly regarded graduate advertising and marketing communications programs in the country.

Students there came up with a unique response: The city should formally come “out of the closet” as LGBT friendly. The result is the Out RVA campaign, an ambitious effort developed by students and managed by Richmond Region Tourism to market the Richmond area as a tolerant and congenial place for the LGBT community. The campaign launched earlier this year with a website (, video and on-the-ground marketing efforts and will transition this fall into a major advertising push targeting potential visitors in major cities around the country.

The early response to Out RVA has been enthusiastic. Several media outlets have reported on the campaign, local residents have participated and helped spread the message through social media, and businesses have stocked free “Out” stickers and displayed them in their windows. In May, Out RVA was named one of 10 winners of the first-ever RVA Creativity Awards, which recognize the area’s top examples of creativity, originality, imagination and risk-taking. The Brandcenter students and Out RVA also were honored by the Richmond Business Alliance, which supports businesses and professionals affirming to the LGBT community.

“I think it’s been extraordinary,” Harrison said. “I think this has a lot of potential to bring more people to Richmond and to help the area feel a bit more welcoming. I hope this campaign has an effect locally, too, and shows people that this is the right direction for us to be moving in. We want to show that we are an inclusive place.”

Katherine O’Donnell, vice president of community relations for Richmond Region Tourism, said the Out RVA campaign is a culmination of work that began four years ago when Richmond Region Tourism, the tourism office for Richmond and surrounding communities, began a concerted effort to market the area to the LGBT community.

O’Donnell took the challenge to the Brandcenter, part of the VCU School of Business, this past academic year. Kelly O’Keefe, professor of creative brand management, had helped steer the creation of RVA, the wildly successful Richmond marketing effort that Brandcenter students played a major role in developing, and this time he put up the project to students as an opportunity to volunteer to work on it – not as part of a class, but just in their free time. Several Brandcenter students stepped forward, forming interdisciplinary teams that included students from each of the program’s graduate tracks – art direction, copywriting, communications strategy, creative brand management and creative technology.

The teams pitched their campaigns, and Out RVA emerged as the brightest idea, though O’Donnell said the project ultimately incorporates components of each of the student teams’ efforts. The Out RVA team included second-year students Jimmy Burton, Frank Guzzone, Trey Keeler, Liam Schaefer and Blair Warren.

The campaign launched earlier this year, and the students themselves were central not only to its design but to its initial implementation. They created the website and video (“It’s time to see the LGBT community we’re proud to call our own. And the people who rise up to support it.”), handed out stickers, spoke with business owners and local community members, and oversaw social media outreach. O’Donnell said the students managed an “organic” launch to Out RVA that felt natural and helped create an early groundswell of support for it. At the outset, she said, “they were the ones who were doing everything.”

“The students have done so much more than just come up with an idea,” O’Donnell said. “They stayed on and put in a lot of work on the project.”

Guzzone said he quickly fell in love with Richmond when he moved to the city to enroll in the Brandcenter, and he was pleased to have a chance to help burnish its image. Keeler, a local native, said he found that the negative views of the city he sometimes heard from others did not match his own experiences. There was, he said, “a disconnect.”

The students decided that the disconnect meant that they could not simply design a straightforward marketing campaign. “That wasn’t going to convince people to visit if they already had a negative view of the city,” he said. Instead, he said, they needed to lay the groundwork for a more traditional campaign with something that targeted existing impressions and sought to change them. They would need to show the city “the way it is, not the way people think it is,” Guzzone said.

“We decided to be the first-ever city to come out,” Keeler said. “It means more for a city like Richmond than it would for somewhere like New York or San Francisco – places that have been out. It’s more surprising.”

As the students navigated the soft launch of the campaign, they were pleased to see immediate signs of support. A first issue of 800 Out stickers, which fit neatly alongside the ubiquitous RVA stickers, was gone in a week. Then 2,500 stickers vanished just as quickly. Finally, an order of 5,000 stickers disappeared.

When the students visited businesses about stocking the stickers, they invariably received positive replies. Guzzone said he expected more resistance, but even businesses they approached somewhat warily were excited to participate.

Soon, Out RVA received emotional personal responses – from as far away as Australia – contributing to the campaign and thanking organizers for its existence, as well as requests from around the state for the stickers. The #OutRVA hashtag became entrenched in local social media.

“People just want to be a part of this,” Guzzone said.

Part of the appeal of Out RVA, O’Donnell said, is that it fits so well with the experiences of LGBT individuals. Coming out to family and friends is a significant milestone. Consequently, Out RVA has created a forum for locals to share their own stories of coming out. The campaign is clear and deceptively simple, O’Donnell said.

Keeler and Guzzone said it was gratifying to view the response, particularly the way people made the campaign their own – the same way locals latched onto the RVA effort before it. Out RVA, Guzzone said, would continue to grow and develop without them, though the team will keep tabs on it.

When Guzzone chose to attend the VCU Brandcenter, he was well aware of the RVA campaign and its widespread adoption in the Richmond metro area. He knew that the Brandcenter gives its students the opportunity to take on community projects and create campaigns with real-world effects. So when O’Keefe offered the chance to take on a similar project, he was eager to participate.

Guzzone said the campaign was the highlight of his Brandcenter years. When recruiters visited campus, it was the project he could not stop talking about.

“This was important for me,” Guzzone said. “Touching people’s lives directly has been beyond great.”

O’Donnell said one of her favorite parts of the Out RVA idea is that it is authentic. Harrison said he appreciates that the campaign does not pigeonhole the LBGT population in its effort to reach out to it. Trying to attract LGBT tourists is not about attempting to suggest to them that there are activities and attractions particular to them here, O’Donnell and Harrison said. “Gay tourists like what other tourists like,” Harrison said. “Good food, good culture, fun things to do.”

Harrison said he was impressed with the boldness of Richmond Region Tourism in embracing the campaign and the intelligence and know-how of the students who engineered it. “I’m so proud of VCU,” he said. “It’s absolutely typical of the way the university steps up to the plate here.” These five students, he said, have made a lasting impact with their work.

“They’ve done this city an extraordinary favor,” he said.


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