Kelly Ruoff is partner and chief creative officer at Ologie, an 80-person branding firm in Columbus, Ohio. Ruoff has helped shaped the brands of Food Network, University of California, Susan G. Komen, Finish Line, University of Notre Dame and Smith College. Her work has been recognized by One Show, Print and How. With an editorial background, her career started at Hearst Magazines, then on to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She holds a BA in journalism from Penn State, but built her advertising portfolio up through lots of night classes at NYU and School of Visual Arts.
Branding Martha Stewart’s French Bulldog
How did copywriting at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia prepare you for the world of branding?
You can teach strong branding skills, but to have an appreciation for meticulously flawless and beautiful design, you need to be surrounded by it, immersed in it, for years at a time. And that’s exactly what the environment at Martha Stewart is all about. Every single detail is about the aesthetic. It was an interesting place to grow as a writer. I had to learn to make content concessions for the sake of design because that’s everything the brand stands for. That was a good lesson.
And the timing was right. I spent seven years there as it transitioned from a publishing brand to a publishing-retail-packaging-digital-experience-TV-home brand. The growth was fast, and so many retail branding lessons were learned along the way. Plus, you’re rolling up to the ultimate critic. I consider the fact that I had hundreds of paint color names approved by Martha one of my biggest successes. We only argued about one name: a black shade I tried to name French Bulldog, after her dog, Francesca.
Within your wide range of clients, what branding trends do you find most exciting?
Retail moves faster than any other industry, and that means trends die sooner. A brand can be crucified for hanging on to a certain type of campaign tactic for too long. So that drives a constant push for something new, fresh, bold. It’s challenging, but can be so rewarding when you make that next thing. Other industries play in a safe zone. I love being able to take a trend that a retailer has used and apply it to a bank or higher-education brand. It’s amazing what can happen when you push those brands out of their comfort zones—after they stop freaking out, of course.
How do you help university brands stand out when they're all essentially offering the same service?
Higher ed is such an interesting brand category right now. Ten years ago, colleges and universities weren’t worrying about their brands, logos or communications. Now it’s incredibly competitive. It’s an industry that has historically been so behind the times in terms of brand strategy, cohesiveness and overall impact. And on top of that, they have loyal alumni who lose their minds over any change to the institution they experienced as students.
Our task is to find the bridge that connects alums with the students today, all while staying authentic to what the school really is. It’s always interesting to hear their reasons for what makes them different, and sad when we point out that’s exactly what every school says. So we spend a lot of time on college campuses, talking with alums, students, faculty and staff to find the thing that makes them different. Sometimes it might not be the most differentiating thing, but we tell it in a way that makes them truly stand out.
How would you compare the advertising community in Columbus, Ohio, to its counterpart in New York?
New York can be so full of name-dropping. It’s all about the agency, or the of-the-moment photographer or this big brand you’re working on. In Columbus, it’s about the work. End of story. I love that.
What are your favorite types of campaigns to work on?
Ironically, I love ads that have as few words as possible in them. I hang on to the old-school belief that if you can’t get it quickly, then it’s not a good ad. I’m very proud of the outdoor campaign we just did throughout the state of California for the University of California. The term “public education” is such a loaded phrase. Public universities don’t get much public funding any more, and as their acceptance rates go down, they’re not as accessible to the public. So we built an entire campaign around "public" phrases ("Public Transit," "Public Speaking," "Public Affairs") to redefine what such a common word means. The headlines were paired with stunning photographs that offered a completely new interpretation of the word.