This is the second in a five-post series on a direct mail make-over currently being tested by the University of California at Berkeley (Cal). Read Part 1 | This is Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The fundraisers at Cal have decided to break away from their standard business letter appeal and try a bold, full-color brochure to convince alumni to become new donors to the university. From their focus groups, they know that Cal alums consider themselves unique and diverse – not like the cookie cutter graduates from rival private schools. They’ve also decided to speak directly to the audience by using the word “You” prominently in the piece. So the creative team went to work.

In early drafts, the simple imagery of the cookie cutter was meshed with too many complex messages about alumni, says Amy Cranch, a principal editor with Cal’s development communications department. It said, “You challenge convention. You have an independent spirit. You think freely.” The whole idea was that your life has been transformed by graduating from Cal, but in a way that left you your own person, explains Amy.

“It just wasn’t working,” she recalls. “There were too many disconnects, and the concept of the cookie cutter itself was a cliché and not very strong. The copy made very strong assumptions about people. It was not an invitation to agree with the ideas. It felt too forced.”kneadingdough.jpg

Virginia Gray, Cal’s associate director of annual giving and regional programs, agrees. “The whole thing wasn’t holding together. It wasn’t telling the kind of personal story we wanted.”

This is where many people would have given up and gone back to the standard form letter. When you are creating messages, whether they take the form of a tagline or design theme or epiphany at the end of an essay, you have to keep kneading the bread dough. At this stage, Cal had a nice lump of dough, but it was still a sticky mess. But they kept kneading it, waiting for that smooth, satiny finish to appear that tells you that you are done.

Amy’s boss had a middle-of-the-night brainstorm. Instead of telling Cal alumni what they were and sounding presumptuous – just what Cal grads hate – they would use famous alumni who are often described as innovators, free thinkers, and creators.

Everyone has the ingredients for good bread, but it takes knowing how long to knead it to produce something delicious.

Coming Tomorrow: How Cal designs a piece all about famous alumni without abandoning the “You, the Donor” ideal.