The Art of Reputation Building
It is all about being known. And while we may occasionally squabble over nomenclature (Is it brand? Image? Reputation?), we all believe, at our core, that it is better to be known than not. When the right people are aware of you and value and support the position you hold, life is better.
Over the past few years, we have seen an explosion in the number of colleges and universities that have undertaken reputation- or brand-building. With an eye toward "lessons learned," a handful of brand strategists at institutions of higher ed were asked four important questions about their efforts:
The impetus for building a brand seems to be centered around a need to generate more awareness in the marketplace.
Michelle Lavallee, former vice president for Student Services and chief marketing officer at The University of South Dakota, says the institution's need was wholly pragmatic. "The university was keenly aware of a shrinking high school population in our key recruitment territories of South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska," she reports. "In addition, freshman enrollment was flat or declining, competition for students was increasing, and there was a greater willingness for South Dakota students to travel beyond their home state."
"The mechanics of trying to organize messages at a complex institution" was another factor, Lavallee adds. "Our image was murky. We had no graphic standards, no consistency in our communications. At one point we had 162 different logos and names."
Dennis Trotter, vice president for Enrollment and Marketing and dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College (Pa.), had a similar need. "Alumni consistently complained that none of their friends or associates knew about the college, and prospective students were concerned when their friends at high school didn't seem to know anything about the college. While Franklin & Marshall is a prestigious academic institution, ranked among the top 40 national liberal colleges in the U.S. News & World Report college guide, it lacked vitality and energy in the marketplace. We needed to deal with these issues."
Boise State University (Idaho), on the other hand, needed a brand strategy because it is an institution on the move. Frank Zang, director of Communications and Marketing, explains, "The Boise State that is approaching its 75th anniversary in 2007-08 is a far cry from the Boise Junior College that was founded in 1932. The current image of Boise State was being driven by memories of Boise Junior College, the limited advertising that was being done by the College of Applied Technology, and the success of the football team." A variety of events and programs were being individually promoted, yet a proactive brand campaign for the university didn't exist. "Surveys indicated that people thought positively of Boise State but didn't really know why," Zang says. "We needed to fill in that blank."
Primary catalysts for creating a brand strategy were the desire to raise the profile of the university as well as re-identify and reposition Boise State. Zang recalls BSU President Bob Kustra saying to him during a university convocation: "With your talent and my impatience, we shall distinguish this great university in every way and add inestimable value to the Boise State degree and the quality of education it symbolizes. On with the job!"
For the MIT Sloan School of Management, the goal was slightly different. Rather than simply increase awareness of its own brand, the school sought to more deliberately link to MIT's super brand. Margaret Andrews, executive director of Marketing, Admissions and Alumni Relations, says, "Among our peer business schools, MIT Sloan holds a unique position at the intersection of technology/innovation/research and management. While the world is well aware of the institute's pre-eminent position in the worlds of science and engineering, that same level of awareness did not seem to exist for our business school."
Another issue is the widely held misconception that MIT Sloan is only a school for those with backgrounds and interest in science and technology, which is not the case, Andrews points out. "In an effort to celebrate our position and communicate our mission to the outside world, we wanted to create this comprehensive branding plan that would help change those perceptions."
Branding more closely with MIT is the main objective. (It's MIT Sloan, not just Sloan, after all.) Consistency in the school's messaging and "look and feel"-yet allowing for important differences among programs and units in communicating with their constituencies-is another objective.
Biola University (Calif.) also felt the need to build a more effective brand. Irene Neller, senior director of Integrated Marketing Communications, says that along with the university's incredible growth (49 percent increase in enrollment since 1996) came "greater confusion as more and more people began defining what Biola stood for and questioned where it was headed. Unfortunately, many of these definitions conflicted, competed with each other, and lacked continuity. We needed to respond institutionally."
Biola addressed these issues through a strategic planning process that included a brand-marketing component. "One goal was to increase the alignment among key departments and people behind the university's goals," Neller says. "As a result, more people began speaking with 'one voice.' Everyone began hearing the same brand message and began taking notice of what was taking place at Biola. Media attention followed, raising Biola's profile-one of the five brand goals-and the message was clearly delivered. As one campus visitor commented to us recently, 'You have to be from another planet if you don't know what Biola stands for!'"
Miami Dade College is a formerly two-year institution with an expanding mission and role, particularly as it began offering four-year degrees. Officials there embarked on an innovative and ambitious alumni campaign in 1999 aimed at bolstering enrollment, reconnecting people with the college, and ultimately driving fundraising efforts of the college's foundation.
"Community college" was dropped from the institution's name three years ago. Juan Mendieta, director of Communications at MDC, explains that this move "was relatively straightforward and largely involved the creation of a new mark, and then ensuring that all printed and visual materials and student touch-points displayed the new mark correctly. An aggressive media relations campaign was also launched to inform all audiences of the name change and the reason."
"The name change dovetailed with the alumni campaign so a natural synergy was created," Mendieta adds. The campaign's success, officials believed, hinged on ensuring that individuals who would be tapped for support-alumni, employees, retirees, community leaders, government officials, and the like-would know about the college's salient accomplishments and its history of success so that they would have a positive perception of the brand. As a metropolitan institution, MDC does extensive outreach with internally produced publications that share its latest news with the campus community, potential benefactors, residents, lawmakers, and peer institutions.
A set of consistent obstacles gained mention here, particularly obstacles that arise in the early stages of a brand strategy. First and foremost: the need to obtain buy-in from faculty and staff. Buy-in to the process is essential and every effort must be made to engage the campus. However, not everyone will agree with the direction, and at that point the institution must have the political will to step forward and decide.
There is, too, the issue of turf. Because an effective brand should encompass the entire institution, there will be some who simply refuse to go along. For this reason, the brand strategist and team must have the demonstrated support, often political in nature, of the president or chancellor.
Finally, there is a lack of resources. When dollars are tight, the integration and conversations need to be tighter. It does little good to launch a campaign that you are not willing to sustain for a long period of time.
From Trotter's perspective, one of the greatest challenges at Franklin & Marshall is the egalitarian and participatory nature of the institution. "Committees are comprised of individuals who have a tendency to jump from personal experience to implementation without the hard work in between," he says, admitting, "I am as guilty of this as anyone. We need to stay focused on who we are marketing to and what their perceptions, needs, values, desires, and expectations are." Agreeing on the specific objectives before beginning the process is key:
Who is the audience?
What are their perceptions?
What do they need?
Why are we doing this?
How will it be measured?
Yet, the movement from internal dialogue to external action faces a great chasm in many organizations.
According to Zang from Boise State, its "Beyond the Blue" campaign was largely met with open arms. "Most people recognized the need for a unifying theme, especially one with versatility and uniqueness," he says. "The strategy had almost universal appeal because people saw where they fit into the themes. We also took the time to sow the concepts internally to a variety of campus constituents. Finally, the effort was wholly supported from the president's office, and he immediately implemented the theme into his Spring Update and other speaking engagements."
At MIT Sloan, Andrews says there was buy-in among most people there that clarifying the messaging and the look and feel, as well as being more consistent in how the school represents itself, would be a good idea. He spent a lot of time prior to the brand initiative launch just talking to faculty, deans, and program managers from around the school about the messages they use, what they would like to see in a branding system, what obstacles they anticipated, etc. "I believe this was a key to our success," he adds. "By the time we got everyone together to hash out differences and plans for moving forward, people had time to think about the need for such an initiative and what they wanted out of it for their program or unit."
For Miami Dade, meanwhile, an institution that is known for many things, deciding the most important issue to communicate in a branding message was difficult. A theme, "Call Us Essential. Call Us the College," was chosen to reinforce how many of the community's residents who are employed in essential services-law enforcement, fire, nursing, allied health, education, technology, and so on-received their education at the college.
An established, clear, quantifiable goal is an important milestone by which you can measure whether or not your strategy is effective. By their nature, these goals generally have a single dimension: establishing the brand in the minds of your most important audiences. However, administrators recognize a tight relationship between their brand strategy and their direct marketing strategy. A strong brand should support such activities as enrollment and fundraising.
This relationship is shown in two of the goals established by USD:
That more and more people associate the word "extraordinary" with the institution.
That, by 2010, USD will be a school of around 11,000, enrolling 1,200 first-time full-time freshmen each year, 50 percent of whom have an ACT score of 24 or higher.
At Franklin & Marshall, meanwhile, the primary focus of the brand strategy was, Trotter says, "to create a buzz among prospective students and their parents, and to build pride among our alumni by becoming more visible in the marketplace." The tangible, quantifiable goals were:
Increasing the number of campus visits.
Increasing the number of applications.
Increasing selectivity and the academic profile for enrollment.
Increasing engagement among alumni through increased participation at homecoming and reunions, regional events, and an invigorated career-services program.
Trotter adds, "We wanted students to not only know about us, but to talk about us. We wanted to become synonymous with vitality, energy, and momentum. We wanted alumni to have a reason to re-engage with the college and feel a sense of pride in having been a student at Franklin & Marshall."
Biola's first goal was making sure the messaging of the brand strategy was tightly aligned with the university's strategic plan. Other specific goals included:
Raise Biola's awareness and profile.
Inform internal stakeholders of the university's vision.
Ensure the highest quality of all forms of communications.
At Boise State, says Zang, the aim "was to get into the game in our own backyard." With 30,000 alumni living in the Treasure Valley area and more than 90 percent of the school's students coming from Idaho, having a strong presence in its core location and then spreading out regionally made sense. "By leveraging off the athletic success, we aimed to shine a light on the academic side and showcase achievements by our students, faculty, and programs," he says. "We want to position BSU as an integral part of a growing community and region."
Sooner or later someone will ask, is the brand strategy working? If you've established clear, quantifiable goals, answering that question is relatively straightforward. However, if the goals are vague, the answer will be vague also. There seems to be some confusion between output ("we launched an ad campaign") and outcomes ("the campaign achieved the following goals"). The sustainability of any brand strategy, however, will require a greater focus on outcomes and less of a focus on output.
Because brand marketing is a relatively new phenomenon in higher education, its long-term track record is still being determined. However, one university, The University of South Dakota, has achieved a number of important goals, perhaps because it has been involved in brand marketing for a relatively long time:
Getting its largest percentage of increase in the freshman class since 1989 at over 10 percent, enrolling the largest class since 1995.
Reaching a 6 percent increase in overall enrollment and an 8 percent in graduate enrollment.
Doubling the media coverage since 2003.
Increasing alumni association membership by 10 percent since 2004.
Improving its image. In pre-campaign surveys, only 14 percent associated this institution with "extraordinary." In post-campaign surveys, some 48 percent made that association.
Reaching-and surpassing-the $60 million Campaign South Dakota fundraising goal; it recently surpassed the $115 million mark.
Increasing the revenue received from vendors who chose to license with the school; that figure has doubled, and the number of vendors seeking to sell university products rose by 30 percent.
Trotter at Franklin & Marshall describes his school's brand strategy as a work in progress. "We've only been at the brand marketing initiative for about two years, and we're learning more about what we need to be doing all the time," he says. Admissions progress is a little easier to measure because of such standardized statistics as the number of campus visits, number of applications, selectivity, etc. Alumni measures such as participation rate, reunion gifts, and capital campaign gifts are also being used.
Officials will also monitor the progress of the brand strategy through marketing research conducted by the Floyd Institute and the Center for Opinion Research at the college. "As part of that effort, we will use the alumni survey, enrolling and non-enrolling admission survey, and pre-inquiry survey to measure perceptions, and changes in perceptions, among constituencies that we hope to impact," Trotter says.
Mendieta from Miami Dade says MDC used the classic pre- and post-research strategy to determine effectiveness. "Research was conducted before and after the campaign. Although the image of the college was positive before we launched the campaign, our post-campaign research indicated that the community was talking about who graduated from our great college-mayors; police chiefs; captains of industry; entertainment moguls; government officials at local, state and national levels; even a cabinet member from the Clinton presidency."
Boise State also used research to affirm the brand strategies' effectiveness. A statewide survey in the spring of 2005 found that the people who saw the Beyond the Blue campaign liked it, and wanted more. "Closer-to-home, word-of-mouth response among students, faculty, and alumni has been very positive. In addition, the Boise State Foundation had its best fundraising year ever in FY05; Boise State set an all-time in-state enrollment record last fall at 18,599 students," Zang reports.
MIT Sloan's goals have been met as well. Andrews says, "A few months ago we had a meeting where we put together all of the pieces created over the past year-since very few people had seen more than a few of them-and people were amazed at how well they went together and how well they had been working. Let me give you two funny examples:
"First, we sent several of our publications to our alumni to keep them current on what's happening in the various programs at the school, and to show them the results of our branding initiative. We got a message back from an older alumnus who thought that while several of the brochures were very good, he really disliked the MBA brochure. He complained that the colors were too bright, the print was too small, etc. But that particular publication wasn't aimed at him; it was aimed at someone his granddaughter's age.
"Second, I got a 'heads-up' call from someone at MIT who told us that their niece was considering applying to MIT Sloan until she read our brochure. After reading the brochure, she thought the program sounded too 'hard core' and rigorous, and decided not to apply. The caller thought that we should 'soften' our language, since it turned her niece off. I was very polite on the phone, and after I hung up, I ran around the office to give high fives to the team. Our messaging had worked-it attracts the people that belong at MIT Sloan ... and sometimes repels those that don't."
Robert Sevier, a senior VP at Stamats Communications, is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from www.strategypublishing.com.
Visit www.universitybusiness.com/webexclusives for more on the essentials of a successful brand strategy and campaign.