For four years, I served as the first director of marketing at Shanghai American School, China’s oldest and largest international school, founded in 1912. The team and I held the belief that “the experience is the brand” so we went far beyond communications, creating cultural artifacts and rituals that didn’t just advertise the school experience, but actually added to it.


Every company needs to build flexibility into its brand identity system. But the issue is particularly acute at SAS: How do you create consistency in everything from black tie fundraisers to toddlers dressed as flowers singing about the spring? Oh, and if you can tell the story of Shanghai’s most storied school along the way, that’d be great.

The flexibility of the identity system started with the logo lock–up, which could be tailored to include campus and origin information.
We borrowed liberally from the school’s rich history, included the “Bootleg SAS” era which helped the school survive through a war.
A school’s athletic logo shouldn’t be visually disconnected from the school logo – it should use sports’ high visibility to build familiarity.
Why tell people about your new t–shirt design, when Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney can do it for you?
We built stories into the everyday experience people had at the school, such as naming meeting rooms after former campus locations.
Each of the two campuses felt the other was getting the better on–campus signage. So… I guess that means it was balanced?
We revamped the school’s Eagle Shops with the belief that we’re not just selling t–shirts. We’re prompting conversations.
Each season, we would drop new fashions inspired by SAS gear depicted in decades–old yearbook photos.
We strived to build school pride first and campus pride second. But pride… it can’t always be controlled like that.
When we began, no one knew how many campuses we’d had, or who the former leaders were. The origin story was begging to be told.
Special thanks to our design partners at Firebelly Design in Chicago. 

Bus Stories

The biggest media channel SAS had was the one we owned: A fleet of 167 buses crisscrossing the city each school day, seen by 14.7 million people a month. We made the most of it by turning those buses into storytellers. Each of the 167 buses featured unique graphics and a QR code led to a story about a program, ritual, or hero of SAS.

The school motto debuted in 1916 and, for unknown reasons, was last seen in 1924… It was re–introduced on a bus in 2017.
The school’s students made it easy to tell stories. This bus is about the one who played Carnegie Hall.
Remember Cassini, the satellite that reached Saturn? Thanks to a class project in 1995, our former students’ names were etched inside it.
It’s amazing how much the story of SAS echoes the story of the city of Shanghai.
This bus story is about the school’s website. The visual is the actual website code. We confused a lot of people with that one.
This bus reveals the origins of the SAS Monogram. It was from a sketch of a service entrance gate found buried in a yearbook from 1933.
Assuming people will scan a QR code on a bus might seem unlikely in most of the world. In China, it was an everyday occurrence.

Legends of SAS

A year of research, including a week spent digging through old files in the basement of a library at Yale University, led to the creation of a canon of stories about SAS, all of which were unveiled at a remarkable event called Legends of SAS. These stories created the foundation for dozens of touchpoints and helped define the DNA of SAS.

Unk Cheney led the school through the Bootleg SAS Era (1942–1946). He held classes in places like churches and internment camps.
Our belief is that history doesn’t recount what you’ve done; it explains who you are.
SAS founded or co–founded athletic conferences and academic programs that have bettered schools throughout Asia.
The swim program founder was asked why he named the team “Aqua Eagles” instead of “Eagles.” He said, “I didn’t think you’d notice.”
In addition to being drop–dead gorgeous, the school’s early yearbooks were a great source for visual assets and undervalued rituals.
When the school was in disarray, the alumni decided to organize their own reunions, keeping the school’s spirit alive.
Fighting over possession of the Bust of Juno was another cherished school tradition that was lost with time. It too was re–introduced.

Cultural Artifacts

International schools have short institutional memories. So few realized when SAS was approaching 100 athletic championships. We created a ritual they couldn’t ignore. Starting with championship #100, we created Championship Pins, given to teams to tell the story of the school’s overall success and commemorate which championship they won.

We enriched peoples’ experience at the school by helping them understand they’re writing the latest chapter of a much bigger story.
Each pin goes beyond celebrating a single championship to serve as a reminder of the successful legacy that came before it.
When we shared that SAS had won 95 championships, no one cared. By Championship #99, competitive instincts had taken over.
The poster was called The First 100. Here’s to hoping the tradition lasts long enough to see The Second 100.

Class of 1949

I’ve worked on bigger productions, but none quite as meaningful. This video kicked off the graduation ceremony in the spring of 2020 – a ceremony held online due to COVID, much to the students’ bitter disappointment. It offered a unique perspective about how, at SAS, those unprecedented times weren’t at all unprecedented.

Betty Barr and her surviving classmates from the Class of 1949 continue to be cultural cornerstones for the school.


We launched two ad campaigns at SAS. “That Day _____” captured the fact that every day, something amazing happens at the school. “Eagle Since” helped reignite community spirit post–COVID. Not earth shatteringly creative, but simple, smart, and highly adaptable. “That Day _____” is still in use almost a decade later.

Cautious clients would kill this for encouraging students to deface property. Fortunately, I was the client.
The campaign came to life in ads, social media, and admissions materials. Most importantly, it became part of the community’s lexicon.
People used the headline structure for negative comments. (“That day they served meatloaf again…”) We couldn’t have cared less.
The campaign could take on deep, complex issues.
It could also make stupid math jokes.
Every day at SAS really was amazing. As part of the campaign, this video was created. It was all shot in one day.
Buttons and t–shirts were custom–printed to reflect the corresponding year the wearer joined the SAS community.