Geek is Chic

Library cards are cool again, thanks to alumna Tina Thomas

Tina Thomas (photo by Rob Hislop)

A teenager in skinny jeans scans stands at a kiosk scanning a bright purple card with the tagline, “Chicks dig big brains.” Next to him, a young woman throws a tall stack of video games and CDs into a totebag that brags, “Library lovers never go to bed alone.”

If it seems like the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) has suddenly become hip and cool, you can thank Tina Thomas (‘96, BComm). As the library’s director of marketing and fund development, she led a massive rebranding effort that transformed how Edmontonians see their public library and helped EPL snag the coveted Library of the Year award in 2014. Although, Thomas is quick to note that the library has always been cool (or, at least “geek chic”): “All we did is reflect what was happening already. This has been a place of innovation and interesting people for a long time.”

Thomas joined EPL not long after returning to her hometown to start a family with her husband. The Edmonton native had spent a decade in Ontario where she’d completed an MBA at Queen’s University and held several marketing positions at Nortel. Back in Edmonton, Thomas worked for the company remotely until it took a nose dive in 2009. That’s when she took a buy-out and decided to move on.

The position at the public library came up almost immediately and offered her an opportunity to move out of the private sector. While she enjoyed marketing challenges of all kinds, Thomas wanted to work for an organization that focused on people, rather than profit. But even so, she wondered if EPL would present a long-term challenge: “I thought, ‘How much could I possibly do? How much could they possibly need?’ ”

Thomas soon discovered that the challenge was significant. Public perceptions of the library didn’t reflect the vibrancy of the century-old institution — in fact, they seemed to reflect tired stereotypes. People seemed to think EPL branches were stuffy places staffed by uptight, bifocal-wearing librarians. As a parent who frequented the library with two young kids, Thomas knew this was far from the truth. But when she took the position, and met plenty of staff members and customers, she discovered the very opposite was true: EPL attracted fascinating people from all walks of life. The library wasn’t nerdy — it was cool.

It was time to change things and, luckily, there was room in the budget.

epl-cards“We had an opportunity that year to put out some TV spots we’d been running for the last couple of years and they were terrible — they reinforced all the negative stereotypes about libraries and library users that we were trying to eliminate. I didn’t want to use them,” she says. “I thought, ‘We’ve got this money we’re not using for these TV spots, what can we do to refresh and help people think about the library differently?’ ”

Through an RFP process, she hired a local marketing agency, to help rebrand the library. Their market research revealed that Edmontonians loved EPL, but had some negative perceptions. Customers didn’t find the library as welcoming, warm or fun as they’d expected, and staff didn’t see themselves in how the organization was portrayed, she says.

It was time to take a closer look at EPL. “We started from the inside,” she says. “ ‘Who are we? What do we value? What do we do better and different from anything else?’ ” They realized that what the library did best was sharing — not just materials, but programs, conversations and space. And they determined that EPL’s personality wasn’t stiff and corporate, like its ancient grey-and-navy logo, but fun and fresh — and unabashedly geeky.

With the brand-identity hammered out, Thomas launched a marketing campaign in 2010 geared at getting Edmontonians to think differently about the library. The “Spread the Words” campaign emphasized clever language and simple, bright colours. Taglines like, “Beyonce’s latest. Beethoven’s greatest” and “Be an information ninja” appeared on buses, billboards, print and online media, and library swag, like tote bags and t-shirts.

Edmontonians loved it. Within a year, program attendance was up 25 per cent and overall borrowing was up 13 per cent. Card orders had climbed 200 per cent. The campaign snagged advertising awards. Thomas herself was named one of Library Journal’s 2011 “movers and shakers” and joined the ranks of Avenue magazine’s “Top 40 Under 40.”

But Thomas isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She says the strength of EPL’s brand it is built on the kinds of things and people you can find in the library already – smart, clever, witty language and bright, happy colours. While EPL worked with an agency for the first part of its brand development, the bulk of the ongoing work has been developed and implemented by Thomas and her marketing team, including U of A alumni Craig Pinder, Kit Walton, Gaby Wong and Karen Martinez – producing several award-winning marketing programs along the way.

These days, her team is moving forward with a big effort to “bring the brand inside” and ensure customer experience is consistent across all EPL locations. “People think of the library as a not-for-profit, city organization — and we are those things. But we are also a large retail space,” she says. People enter a library expecting to find what they need quickly and easily, but there’s inconsistent signage and visual communication across branches.

It’s a project that requires a lot of strategic thinking — something Thomas has in spades. In fact, it’s likely the biggest reason for her remarkable career success. “Marketing is creative, but I think it’s a false perception that marketing people are creative by nature,” she says. “I think marketing is just as much, if not more, about strategy and analysis.”

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