J2 Helms Massive Rebranding Effort for Jewish Federation


It’s been so long since the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia last underwent a dedicated rebranding campaign, no one can remember when it was.

“We did an initial audit of all our materials to begin this process, and looked back at materials from years and years ago, and the last thing that looks somewhat branded was maybe in 2005 or 2006,” said Rachel Calman, the Jewish Federation’s director of marketing and communications. “But I don’t think that was a true rebranding effort.”
The new identity that the organization unveils today is a true rebranding effort, that’s for sure. It was eight months in the making and involved thousands of community stakeholders. Jewish Federation Chief of Marketing and Jewish Exponent Publisher’s Representative Steve Rosenberg knew when he started at the Jewish Federation 20 months ago that rebranding was a top priority.
“We weren’t communicating properly, and visually we were a mess,” he said. “We have a very talented graphic designer here but he was reacting to, ‘I need this,’ ‘I want this color’ … we were becoming a production shop and not a marketing department. There was no question that was the first thing I had to do — to get that house in order.”
Rosenberg chose Philadelphia-based J2 Design, a firm headed up by the father-and-son team of Alan and Brian Jacobson.
Alan Jacobson has run the design studio Ex;it, which deals with placemaking, branding and the built environment, for about 16 years. His second venture came about roughly 10 years ago, when his son came to him and said, “Hey, Dad, I think we’d be a great creative duo. What do you think?”
Jacobson was thrilled.
“Of course, I just loved that,” said the proud Jewish father. But he wanted his son to be able to start from scratch, so they formed J2.
They mix strategic and design skills for their impressive client list, which includes the University of Pennsylvania, the Mural Arts Program, the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and now, the Jewish Federation.
“Steve called me one day. I had known him over the years; he had seen me present as a board member of other kinds of organizations,” said Jacobson, who’s long been active in Golden Slipper. “He started asking around the city to see if there was anybody else [aside from us] he should be talking to [for the rebranding job]. Luckily, most of the people he talked to said he should be talking to us.”
Before Jacobson took the job, he talked to some community members and asked for advice, including former Republican mayoral candidate and businessman Sam Katz. Katz told him, “You’re probably the right guy for the job, but be careful what you ask for. You’re going to go in, and once you’re in, you’re in the middle of all the differences of opinion, dissatisfactions, passionate sides. … It’s not all warm and fuzzy, and it’s still moving in a lot of different directions.”
Jacobson thought that sounded perfect.
“I thought to myself, ‘That sounds like great fun, actually,’” he said. “I love going into that sort of thing and helping it grow through clarity and direction.”
Given all of the disparate identities beneath the Jewish Federation umbrella, clarity was indeed key, and it wasn’t going to be accomplished just by slapping together a new logo.
“The logo is the minor portion of the whole project. The brand is very strategic early on; there’s no design work for quite a while,” Jacobson explained. “It’s figuring out what are the goals of the organization — what are we trying to accomplish here in the next five years? It parallels a strategic planning process at some level. It’s [an effort to] really understand the core personality of the organization today and what it aspires to be.”
That process was guided in part by Calman, who worked on the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee rebrand in her last job in New York.
“I was hired in January [by the Jewish Federation] to help head this rebrand process, and I just hit the ground running since I got here to make sure we were hitting everything that we needed to hit,” she said. “From changing the logo and messaging points to making sure new name tags are made for the staff, we’ve had a really thorough process.”
From a contextual point of view, Calman said her understanding of the Jewish organizational world was important.
“The Jewish Federation movement as a whole has been noticing that they need to reinvigorate donors or attract new donors in order to continue to thrive, and the messaging points that worked in the past were no longer working,” she said. “I saw that firsthand in my previous job, and that really helped guide how we went forward in this process — to make sure we were talking about ourselves in a way that people could grasp.”
That hasn’t always been easy to articulate. “The No. 1 question I get is, ‘What do you do?’” Rosenberg said.
“The biggest challenge was understanding the complexity of this organization,” Calman agreed. “The amount of work that we do is huge. The amount of people that we serve is hundreds of thousands.”
For J2, the first step was research. The employees working on the project had to understand the organization before they helped shape it, which meant that many of them would have to learn about Judaism too. “At some level they had to learn about the religion,” Jacobson said of J2’s staff, most of whom aren’t Jewish. “What is the tradition? What do the symbols mean? What is the history?”
The firm kicked off the project with a breakfast of lox and bagels.
“We tried to have fun with it,” said J2 senior designer Lucy Price. At the same time, everyone took the responsibility of the project quite seriously.
“It was serious,” Jacobson said, “a real responsibility here that we’re not marketing sneakers. We’re having a conversation about our culture and our tradition and our tolerance of who we are and our giving. That was very important to be a part of that.”
Everyone at the firm learned a lot. Price, for one, remembers one lesson in particular.
“During one presentation, we actually presented a logo that had yellow in it and there was a huge negative reaction because that color was associated with the Holocaust,” she said. “It’s something that being non-Jewish, it didn’t occur to me. I didn’t realize how that weight is still carried with Jewish people. Something as small as a color in a logo that doesn’t look anything like something from the Holocaust can remind you of something so tragic and awful — that I found very surprising.”
Yet by the time they’d finished the project — mocking up brochures, one-sheets, emails blasts, banner ads and more — the staff had learned so much about Judaism that they surprised both Rosenberg and Jacobson.
“You’re talking to a highly talented group of people, non-Jews, who are now regurgitating information back to you — Jewish things — and you’re like, this is kind of cool the way they immersed themselves in it,” Rosenberg said.
“All of a sudden, everybody knows about Jewish tradition … they were teaching me some things,” Jacobson said. “I said, ‘You’re all becoming good Jews here.’”
Last week, Jacobson made two presentations of the new brand identity — first to volunteer leadership and then to staff. The feedback has been terrific, even from prior skeptics.
“I got an email this morning from one of our board members who’s been involved for a long time,” Rosenberg said, “and his email said, ‘Look, I was a little hesitant as to what you were doing, and now I not only get it, I love it, and I couldn’t imagine us not doing it.’”
Rosenberg also had the opportunity to show the rebranding to others in his position at a Jewish Federations of North America get-together a few weeks ago, and they were “blown away,” he said.
“People are always unsure of change,” Calman said. “People were concerned that we wouldn’t get it right or that the direction might not be what they wanted,” but now that they’ve seen the results, she said, they’re reassured. “One of the words someone used was ‘proud’ to be a part of the organization after they saw what we had come up with. We absolutely nailed it. There was a moment in the room as we were unveiling our [new] tagline to the volunteer leadership when you just heard like a ‘wow’ and ‘I love that’ — everyone all in unison. It was a really powerful moment.”
Jacobson, Rosenberg and Calman were careful to give much of the credit for the project’s success to Jewish Federation CEO Naomi Adler, who took a big leap of faith.
“This rebranding is part of an overall strategy which enhances our ability to have the greatest impact in the future,” Adler said in explaining her persistence in seeing it through. “The endeavor was also a true volunteer and staff partnership; I am grateful for their commitment, as it will surely empower us with the best language and images to convey the importance of our work.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747
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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.


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