Crafting Cool and Fresh Holiday Greetings to Delight and Engage

Emily Cavalcanti is associate dean for communication and Michelle Boston (@mmmmeesh) is senior communications specialist at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Beginning in the fall of 2013, the USC Dornsife Office of Communication staff put our heads together to explore how we could “positively disrupt” the traditional university holiday card.

We discussed ways we could craft a card from USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay (@DeanSteveKay) that would not only deliver a value-add beyond the traditional “happy holidays” messages of the past, but also underscore the college’s liberal arts ethos within the context of a top research university. In March 2013, USC Dornsife had kicked off its $750 million fundraising initiative as part of the $6 billion Campaign for the University of Southern California. And we recognized this as a unique opportunity to be creative and think about how to use the holiday card to better engage and inspire our diverse internal and external audiences.

Snow in Southern California?

What if we took a holiday-related topic, such as snow, and examined it through the multiple angles offered by the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences? We identified faculty members from our English, physics, international relations departments and more who could share insights into what snow means in their given disciplines. As this list grew, we considered how we could tap into the full spectrum of our office’s resources, such as video, social media channels and e-communications, to complement the dean’s holiday message and give it a life beyond the printed card.

“At USC Dornsife, we see snow differently,” was our starting point, and we created a card and video that included a diagram breakdown of how a snowflake forms and a professor reading an excerpt from Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” to name just a few. In conjunction with the mailing of the print card, we pushed the video out on our website, social media channels, e-newsletters and pitched it to outside media. Scientific American was among the outlets that picked up the video, helping us garner more than 22,000 hits for the video on our YouTube page.

Cool Thoughts on Peppermint

With the success of last year’s card and video, we started brainstorming in March on what topic we would focus on for the 2014 card. We chose peppermint as our theme and highlighted, for example, that one of our biology professors used peppermint and menthol to identify cold receptors in the body. His lab provided some of the first evidence of the existence of a cold-activated receptor in mammalian sensory systems.

Dean’s Holiday Card: Peppermint Themed and Scented

Our creative director Dan Knapp and graphic designer Letty Avila got to work on the design concept for the holiday card, which includes a dean’s message as well as a range of interesting facts associated with peppermint. Editorial director Pamela Johnson and Emily Cavalcanti wrote the informative, yet playful descriptions (for example, how to make a cucumber, lemon and peppermint agua fresca) that are revealed gradually as you open the four-paneled card. View the card:

In addition to coupling these tidbits with unexpected images, such as the original patent drawing for the candy cane forming machine and Cézanne’s Still Life with Peppermint Bottle, we created a suite of original peppermint graphics that were used throughout the card, in the video and across our holiday collateral so that the design was consistent throughout our communications. Along with red and pearlescent foils accentuating these peppermint graphics, we added a peppermint scent on the card. The paper stock was coated with a scented varnish so that when recipients gently rub the card’s surface their senses are further awakened by a minty fresh smell.

Holiday Video: “The Art and Science of Peppermint”

For the accompanying holiday video, we reached out to our faculty in biology, art history, psychology and classics to help us tell the story of “The Art and Science of Peppermint.” Working with our director of video production Mira Zimet, our videographer Matt Meindl created animations and stop-motion graphics that further brought the professor’s bites to life.

Watch the video:

Getting the Message Out

The dean’s holiday card was mailed to about 2,000 recipients, including alumni, donors and university administrators both at USC and our peer institutions and USC Dornsife faculty and staff. We included the link to also alert recipients that they could view an accompanying video online.

Here is how we distributed the video:

  • We featured the video in the top slot in our e-newsletters sent to alumni, donors, students, faculty and staff.
  • We featured the video on our YouTube channel.
  • The video was featured in the top slot on the University of Southern California homepage and on the USC Dornsife homepage. It was also selected as an “Editor’s Pick” on the USC news site. We also created a website widget that appears on our subpages at
  • We pushed it out over our social channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram. In addition to posts, we changed the header images on our accounts to graphics that included our peppermint design.
  • Peppermint graphics were used in our USC Dornsife faculty/staff holiday party décor and collateral, which included a link to the video in the program.
  • We promoted the video to external media, again to highlight the depth and breadth of research and instruction at USC Dornsife. We were delighted that our holiday video was featured on Scientific American’s “PsiVid” blog as a “Video of the Week.”

In the USC Dornsife Office of Communication, we strive to use all of the tools at our disposal — words, the web, video, social media, design, photography and illustration — to disseminate the USC Dornsife story to our diverse audiences. By reimagining the holiday card and creating an accompanying video, we have been able to tap into a new avenue that not only allows us to reinforce the USC brand to the card’s targeted audience, but also to expose broader audiences to our messaging. What we have found now is that card recipients and a host of others are now anticipating the card each year wondering what the “hook” will be and what new knowledge they will be able to glean. And we’re already at work on ideas for 2015 with hopes of meeting those expectations.

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