BrandJRNY’s work with the small West Virginia town has shed new light on the Pineville experience
Written by Samantha Stocksdale
Within minutes of meeting Dr. Rita Colistra, you become well aware of her West Virginia pride and her commitment to students and the public relations profession. Nobody epitomizes the WVU College of Media mantra of pursuing passion with a sense of purpose quite like she does.
In January 2015, a grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation helped Colistra, an associate professor in the College of Media, combine all those passions into a single, impactful project: BrandJRNY.
The goal of BrandJRNY is to revitalize rural, West Virginia communities while giving students a real, client-agency experience. College of Media students and faculty work with community leaders to showcase the best features of the town. The process involves research, immersion trips, roundtable and community events, brand ideation and development and the creation of logos, ads, social media, websites, t-shirts, billboards and whatever else is needed to put the branding plan into action. The ultimate goals for each community are different, but BrandJRNY's efforts have led to increased tourism, improved economic development and a greater sense of community pride.
"Branding is especially important to communities in Appalachia because it allows residents to take control of their own stories. Often there are misconceptions about West Virginia and Appalachia that are simply not true. Creating a brand identity allows a community to come together to tell the world what they are really about," Colistra explained. "These projects are especially important to small towns because they often do not have the resources or expertise to take on a project like this."
In 2018, the American Electric Power Foundation also saw the value in this project and awarded the college a $250,000 educational grant to sustain and expand BrandJRNY's work to communities within its service area for two more years.
Most recently, the "Colistra Kids," a term of endearment reserved for her past and present capstone course students, teamed up with College of Media instructor David Smith's brand storytelling class to work with Pineville, West Virginia. The course was created as a part of the grant when Colistra recognized the need to create authentic visuals to help bring the brand, and the project’s stories, to life.
An ideal destination for adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts, Pineville is nested along the Guyandotte River and is home to the Hatfield-McCoy Trails' Pinnacle Creek Trailhead, a gathering spot for ATV riders from near and far. It's a town at the intersection of adventure and southern hospitality – a unique place in need of a fresh brand that would showcase its charm to the world.
Outsiders to Insiders
The first step in any BrandJRNY project is earning trust and buy-in from the community and establishing a branding committee of residents and town leaders who have a vested interest in the process. These individuals, with time, become brand ambassadors and help see the project through.
On September 13, Colistra, Smith and the BrandJRNY capstone and digital storytelling students made their first three-hour trip from Morgantown to Pineville together. But they weren't going in blind. The students had done extensive research, and Colistra had visited and vetted the community through the targeted BrandJRNY application process.
During this initial trip, the WVU team hosted a community kick-off event to introduce themselves, the project and the grant to Pineville-area residents and local media outlets. Community members opened up about their hopes and dreams for the place they called “home.”
"I was so excited to visit and learn more about the town's residents, but the experience didn't become real for me until I visited Pineville for the first time," said Kayla Asbury, a BrandJRNY student. "We were met with such kindness and hospitality that I immediately felt at home."
The strong sense of community and pride was infectious. Pineville was no longer just a place on the map or a Google search term. It had a personality and a flavor that radiated through the students. It was their town now, too.
As the weeks passed, the WVU-Pineville relationship strengthened. There were weekly meetings – in-person or by teleconference – with the newly founded Pineville Community Branding Committee. Together, this empowered team hosted community events and organized creative workshops, roundtables and surveys.
But to really understand a place, you have to fully immerse yourself in the community's culture. Colistra worked with members of the branding committee to plan an immersion trip where students lived like locals. They toured the geological landmark Castle Rock, explored the Guyandotte river, visited businesses and experienced the thrills of ATV riding along the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System with Pineville Mayor Mike Kodak and other residents.
The Colistra Kids were gaining a whole new understanding of what it meant to be a Pinevillian. They learned about the land from ATV guides and shared campfire stories with David “Bugs” Stover, a local storyteller and the Wyoming County Circuit Clerk. They were making friends in an unexpected place that was offering a truly unique and impactful professional experience, and the community members were gaining real advocates in the northern part of the state.
"They're coming down from Morgantown and they're excited about our town. It makes the locals stand back and go 'gosh, maybe we should be excited,'" Jill Hendrick, a local business owner, said.
Before long, Pineville-BrandJRNY events started with hugs and ended with students reminding locals to “tell Bugs we say hello.” Local business owners no longer questioned the team's intentions but instead welcomed them and showed them the ins and outs of their store operations. But, while the relationship-building was an integral part of the process, the BrandJRNY team still had to prove their understanding of the town and its needs through the development of a brand.
The "Brand" Part of BrandJRNY
When you think of branding, visual elements likely come to mind: color schemes, logos and slogans. But the visual elements were just the beginning of a rebrand that culminated with a nearly 450-page campaign book that combines all the knowledge from research and one-on-one interactions into a comprehensive guide that dictates all of the creative decisions.
"The goal was to give the community a cohesive identity that is authentic to their place and their people, while also providing them with the tools needed to maintain and promote that identity long term," Colistra said.
Throughout the branding process, the BrandJRNY team never lost sight of the relationship component. Each time content was developed, options were presented to the Pineville Community Branding Committee for feedback. But because Colistra, Smith and the students had spent countless hours with the Pineville community and understood the town and its people, approvals came quickly.
The team continued to develop the campaign plan by establishing measurable goals and a detailed roadmap to navigate through various strategic communications elements to implement the new brand. And after nearly seven months of research, strategy and creative thinking, they developed a plan that relied on storytelling, advertising and a mix of social, digital and traditional media to launch the brand.
On February 26, the team hosted a Brand Launch event at Pineville Elementary School, where they finally revealed the brand to the public.
Locals gathered in the lobby and filled the halls with whispers of anticipation.
As the doors opened, more than 100 community members flooded the gymnasium and experienced the newly defined, Pineville brand for the first time. With new Pineville t-shirts on their backs and branded stickers in hand, the community buzzed with excitement.
"There's always been a sense of pride associated with the people that live here. And I've been a Pinevillian all of my life, so I've always been proud of what I call home," one community member said. "And I think this [brand] really showcases home.”
Christy Laxton, lead of the Pineville Community Branding Committee, agreed. "Having this opportunity has brought a lot of new, positive energy [to the town] and is something Pineville wouldn't have been able to do on its own."
Colistra, Smith and the BrandJRNY students left an everlasting impression on Pineville, West Virginia, in the form of a timeless brand and unforgettable bond. Mayor Kodak validated that bond during the students’ final presentation in May when he presented the BrandJRNY team with a plaque that deemed them honorary Pineville citizens for life.
"We helped them drive positive change in their community and helped them realize a better present and brighter future for their town while maintaining their stories and roots," Colistra added. "We told their authentic stories, and in the end, we helped to bring the community together."
About Samantha Stocksdale
Samantha Stocksdale (BSJ, 2019) was the brand manager for BrandJRNY for both the fall 2018 and spring 2019 semesters. She will begin the M.S. in Data Marketing Communications program at WVU in fall 2019 and will continue working as a graduate assistant for Dr. Rita Colistra and BrandJRNY.