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Business Officer Magazine

Stand Out

What's branding about? Uncovering your institution’s unique qualities and presenting them in ways that grab attention.

By Douglas Vaira

Some view branding as smoke and mirrors, a lot of hooey, the stuff of corporate boardroom flip charts, or nothing more than the New Coke. Employees are as likely as customers to express skepticism about branding initiatives. Yet, within higher education, brand development is garnering greater curiosity as competition grows for new students and top-notch faculty and as relations with campus constituents and the wider community propel institutional leaders to rethink mission and communication strategies.

The pursuits of several institutions to rediscover their fundamental nature—that thing that makes them tick—demonstrate the essence of branding and its potential impact on current and would-be campus stakeholders.

Answering Big Questions

The University of Minnesota’s mission was simple in theory, if not in scope: to become one of the top three public research universities in the world. Institution leaders already suspected a disconnect between the overall goal of UMN—the state’s primary research university—and the perception held by its wider public. Annual statewide market research revealed a lack of understanding among Minnesotans regarding the value of research and its applicability to their daily lives.

According to UMN Marketing Director Ann Aronson, for the university to gain the support needed to advance its mission, the wider public first had to understand and sign onto the institution’s direction. That realization became the impetus for “Driven to Discover,” a multimedia campaign to bring the public and university researchers together to address the “big” questions and to help everyone understand the impact of UMN’s research locally and globally.

Clever themes. The campaign kicked off with print advertisements bearing a “We Are All Search Engines” theme, featuring a series of individuals asking a single question.

  • A girl kisses her puppy and ponders, “What is my dog thinking?”
  • A man asks, “Will we ever run out of food?”
  • “When will we have a cure for AIDS?” poses a 30-something woman.

The next phase of the campaign included 60-second television spots that likewise began with an individual’s inquiry about topics as broad as alternative energy and world hunger. A UMN-branded search bar then popped up, promising an answer in 15 seconds. A local TV news promotion followed, with the search bar still scrolling at the bottom promising results. The spots culminated with a university professor responding to the question at hand.

The campaign hasn’t been restricted to print and TV ads. The public has been encouraged to visit the university’s Web site to “keep the spirit of searching alive.” The purpose of the campaign has been to show the community the relevancy of what the university does, says Aronson. “We are not operating in a vacuum; we’re trying to solve world problems, cure diseases, and discover innovative ways to teach.”

Internal buzz. The campaign also generated a positive response internally, says Aronson. Seventy-five percent of the university’s colleges and departments now are using the marketing campaign for their needs. To support these efforts, Aronson and her staff have held workshops to help faculty and staff integrate the campaign into their communications. “This may sound small, but in a decentralized system, to get coordination and synergy around one message is very difficult,” notes Aronson. She identifies internal buy-in as a big factor behind the effectiveness of any campaign. From start to finish, Aronson and her staff consulted with deans and departments in developing the campaign. “It grew from the university itself, and, because of that, it really resonated with people.”

Authentic messaging. Aronson is likewise quick to defend the role that authenticity plays in a branding initiative. “If people don’t see themselves reflected in the brand—that it reflects who they are and what this university stands for—then it won’t be successful.” The only way to make your message authentic is to engage people in developing that message, says Aronson. While she hopes the campaign translates into tangible outcomes such as increases in donations and greater participation in university events, her focus is to shape the public’s perception surrounding UMN as a world-class public research university.

As evidenced by the piles of questions that have poured in for university researchers, UMN’s “Driven to Discover” campaign has resonated with a now-more-curious public. On the day the campaign launched on the university’s Web site, online traffic spiked by 11 percent (an additional 20,000 visitors). And, according to Aronson, the preliminary results of this year’s market research also show significant traction of the campaign’s messages. “There’s often skepticism in higher education about the usefulness of marketing,” notes Aronson. “People wonder, ‘Why would you spend money on something like this?’” Nevertheless, she views UMN’s branding efforts as an investment in gaining the support the university needs to maintain innovative research and top-level education. “This is not frivolous,” she maintains. “Unless we define ourselves to our audiences, they’re going to tell us who we are.”

Embracing Tradition

Tackling a Name Change

South Texas Community College was still in its infancy when it changed its name to South Texas College (STC). While the new name wasn’t an attempt to reinvent or re-brand the institution, the college did have some “explaining” to do.

Essentially, the college found itself in a unique situation when it became one of three Texas community colleges selected by the state’s legislature to offer baccalaureate degrees in applied technology or applied arts and sciences. A major impetus behind STC’s name change was the accreditation process the college went through in its efforts to offer bachelor’s degrees. As Diana Pena, STC’s vice president for finance and administrative services, explains: The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools advised the college to drop community from its official name prior to submitting the application for accreditation as a baccalaureate degree-granting institution.

At the time of its name change, the college was already one of the nation’s fastest growing community colleges, ballooning from 1,000 students to more than 15,000 within its first 10 years. “Our community’s great need for a two-year college was evident by our rapid growth,” says President Shirley A. Reed. While the college currently has two bachelor’s degree programs under consideration in addition to its already popular bachelor of applied technology degree in technology management, Reed insists that the institution will not abandon its community college foundation. “With the unique exception of offering specialized bachelor’s degrees, we will continue to focus on expanding our associate degree programs.”

Flagging what’s new. William A. Serrata, vice president for student services and development, says the name change did herald a new public perception, translating into an enrollment boost for fall 2004 following initial publicity. Efforts to promote the name change included this tagline: “South Texas Community College is now South Texas College. Serving the community with a new name, new buildings, new growth.”

In fact, the name change came on the heels of opening several new buildings—the result of taxpayers previously passing a $98.7 million bond expansion program, says Pena. “We were opening new buildings at our three campuses, as well as our Nursing and Allied Health Center and our Technology Center. That also added to our image.”

To help facilitate student success and stabilize enrollment during this transition, STC eliminated late registration for fall 2005. “This wasn’t a time for trying to reinvent the college,” says Serrata. “Instead, STC did a stronger job of marketing what it stands for: small classes with more one-on-one interaction with instructors; flexible class schedules; ‘close to home’ locations; and, more importantly, affordability.”

Bragging rights. The college’s new tagline emphasized this final point regarding cost: “At South Texas College you get the best of both worlds: affordable tuition and a great education.” Serrata says that the timing of the initiative was ideal: “The new campaign came just as neighboring universities were announcing tuition increases. We already had a good reputation for providing a quality education. We decided it was time to begin marketing our fees and tuition so the public could compare for themselves. We called it our ‘affordability’ campaign.”

The change efforts struck a financial chord. In fall 2006, South Texas posted an 11 percent increase in enrollment—up approximately 1,800 students for a total enrollment of more than 18,500, says Serrata. Those growth numbers also recorded one of the state’s largest fall-to-fall increases.

For years, Chicago-based Robert Morris College has worked to distinguish itself from for-profit, career-oriented universities gaining a foothold in the Illinois market. To do so, RMC’s leaders knew they had to bolster the institution’s identity.

Strengthening competitive edge. Building on the college’s 90-year history of traditional education, leaders turned a critical eye toward academic programs, adding degrees in nursing and surgical technology and a school of graduate studies. They also took a hard look at athletics, beefing up and enhancing RMC’s offerings.

The added attention has paid off. The new program offerings have helped raise academic standards. In addition, during the past several years, 10 RMC teams have become Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference champions, and two have won national championships. In turn, the college is using its athletics performance in its advertising, in part to emphasize the collegial nature of the institution, says Candace Goodwin, the college’s senior vice president for enrollment. RMC has also added traditional, apartment-style housing and built a student center where harried co-eds can hang out and sip a latte or take in a movie.

Broadcasting customer testimonials. Perhaps most importantly, the college is shining a marketing spotlight on students. Beyond touting the success stories of current students in newspapers and television advertising, RMC’s “I Am” campaign has generated significant visibility. Print ads feature taglines such as: “I am a Robert Morris College student,” “I am a Robert Morris College graduate,” or “I am a Robert Morris College success.” Online, the branded tagline is incorporated into personal profiles, such as “I am a culinary arts student at the Orland Park campus,” and “I am learning things here at RMC that I never knew about business.”

To encourage their participation, all students were given “I Am” T-shirts and awarded bookstore gift certificates if they wore the shirts on campus. Students could also plaster “I Am” bumper stickers on their cars. “It was a full campaign to get students to embrace the concept,” says Goodwin.

The focus on enhanced curriculum, competitive athletics, and student performance is garnering results. Recently RMC was recognized as one of the top 200 schools by Great Colleges for the Real World. And in the 2005 U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” guide, RMC received a “specialty school” listing. For Goodwin, one of the key components behind RMC’s achievements has been the college’s consistency in messaging to external constituents and its unwillingness to deviate from what works in attracting students.

Exploring the Value Proposition

In 1999, when George Martin took the helm as president of St. Edward’s University in downtown Austin, Texas, he worked with the board and the campus community to crystallize a vision for how the school should evolve during the next 10 years. The vision: to become recognized as one of the best small universities in the country. To keep on track, St. Edward’s adopted seven strategic priorities—from increasing enrollment to expanding the faculty to enhancing facilities.

That the seventh priority was to “advance the university through integrated marketing” came as no surprise to Paige Booth, the institution’s vice president of marketing. In fact, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Identifying marketing as a key strategy meant it would have the president’s ear, something Booth believes is critical to effective initiatives. Marketing must be a strategic investment, says Booth, with marketing goals tied to the university’s goals.

Synergy and timing. One focal point for the marketing department was to initiate a synergistic partnership with the admissions office to allow the university to recruit students more effectively on a national level. A new recruitment program now includes visiting high schools across state lines, developing relationships with students, improving Web content, and creating and delivering finely targeted direct-mail and e-mail marketing pieces to prospects across the country. The idea, says Booth, is to elevate the profile of the school to be attractive to more students and more donors—not to create a new and different St. Edward’s. “It’s basically to tell our story to more people and connect with them in better ways.” Strategically, recruitment efforts are timed to meet the information needs of students when they’re ready to make their decision about where to go to college, says Booth. “Enrollment consultants have told us that our recruitment initiative is one of the most sophisticated communication streams they’ve seen.”

Yet Booth is somewhat resistant to the term rebranding or the suggestion that St. Edward’s has undergone a makeover. “Perhaps repositioning would be a better term,” she says, “because we have not left behind anything that is true to who we are as we reach out to new markets.” 

Whatever you call it, the university’s fresh approach appears to be paying off. Freshman SAT score averages are up 88 points (to 1,129) since 1999, more than $65 million has been raised through the university’s largest comprehensive campaign, and St. Edward’s now finds itself ranked among the top 25 institutions in its category by U.S. News & World Report. Perhaps the most noticeable result on campus is that total enrollment has grown 42 percent during the past seven years.

Conversation Starter
Changing Your Tune? How has your institution redefined or reinforced key messages about mission? E-mail to share details.

Name recognition. Stakeholders off campus are also noticing a distinct change in the school’s perception. Among them is parent Caroline Sabin. “I have two sons at St. Edward’s. When my older son enrolled in 2004, most of our friends in Houston hadn’t heard much about the university. Now when we talk about St. Edward’s,” says Sabin, “we can tell that the reputation and name recognition of the university have grown tremendously.” 

Booth notes that, as part of the effort to build such name awareness, the marketing department actively campaigned against using the initialism SEU in any of its communications. “It’s not like saying NYU or UCLA,” notes Booth.

Booth concedes that the university’s marketing efforts have cost significant dollars, but she views that spending as an investment. An expanding enrollment has resulted in a more vibrant campus life, and the resulting increase in tuition dollars allows St. Edward’s to further enhance the university and its programs, argues Booth. In short, the return on marketing efforts has been an improved value proposition for the institution as a whole.

Like Aronson, Booth is quick to point out the importance of not overlooking your internal audience. “When an organization goes through this amount of change,” she says, “you need to keep people informed, educated, and inspired, or you will leave them behind. That goes far beyond providing a set of talking points.” Fortunately, most of the campus community is on board with what the institution is trying to do, whether investing in the quality or value of education programs, or presenting the university’s best face to the community. Says Booth, “The employees are already living the mission, walking and talking the brand. They are the brand.”

DOUGLAS VAIRA, Charles Town, West Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.