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Advancing the Brand

University marketing pros give tips on how to build a brand strategy.
University Business, Feb 2007

This is the era of the brand. Study after study indicate that institutions with a strong, valued brand enjoy opportunities that other less-branded institutions do not. For example, we can show that well-branded institutions attract:

More and better students.

More full- and fuller-pay students (brand equity).

More students who will persist.

Better faculty and staff.

More donated dollars.

More media attention.

More research dollars.

More strategic partners.

Even as we realize the value of a strong brand, it is sometimes less clear how to develop one. This article will present a quick look at why and how the brand strategies were built at four different institutions. We'll examine their motivations for developing a brand strategy, the obstacles they encountered and overcame, and the insights they have for individuals and institutions that are considering a similar undertaking.

A decade ago the University of Maryland faced two distinct challenges that could be addressed, at least partially, through a brand strategy. "First, the university needed to build awareness of Maryland's momentum and dramatic changes in quality," recalls Terry Flannery, assistant vice president of University Marketing and Communications. "Most stakeholders' perceptions were a generation out of date. Building awareness in our regional environment was complicated by significant identity confusion between our institution-the state's flagship university-and others in the university system. Moreover, there was no comprehensive or integrated system for identifying all the outstanding parts of the university in relation to the whole."

Each school in the system-and each unit at the university-identified itself in its own way, so there was no sense of the collective quality of the institution, she says, which would have created a "halo" effect from which all could benefit.

"Second, six of seven stakeholder audiences expressed little appreciation or support for the research mission of the institution, a mission that was vitally important to the university's future," Flannery says. "Most perceived the idea of becoming a top research university to be at odds with our educational mission. Research was seen as potentially undermining what they believed should be our top priority-undergraduate education. As part of our strategy, we needed to show that these components of our mission were not mutually exclusive and were, in fact, inextricably intertwined. In order for our audiences to grow in support and loyalty, we needed to develop understanding and awareness of the research mission, and underscore its impact on undergraduate education and other societal benefits."

Flannery notes that establishing a brand and encouraging internal audiences (especially faculty) to focus on and reinforce a limited number of strategic messages or brand values meant that they needed to give up some individual and departmental autonomy. "Obviously, there was some resistance to this idea," she says. To help build the case, Flannery's team documented the lack of recognition of excellence across the institution (which most internal audiences already recognized when it came to their own program), which they linked to a failure to use a small number of memorable, authentic, strategically chosen messages and graphics.

"Once we provided a rationale for supporting a branding program, many were willing to give up a degree of autonomy if it meant they would get more recognition and awareness in return," Flannery says.

The University of Maryland also had to overcome the tendency to develop an approach that made it seem more like other institutions-when you are on the way up, there is a desire to prove you fit in. From the standpoint of many stakeholders, Flannery says, "There was comfort in messages that established our belonging to a group of other top research universities. But from a branding standpoint, that would have been a colossal waste. It took courageous leaders, willing to take risks, to support original approaches that reinforced our distinctiveness, not our similarities.

"President Dan Mote, for example, wanted no beakers, lab coats, or filtered beauty shots of the campus in our public service announcements," Flannery adds. "He wanted something so unique that people would remember it 10 years hence. And they have."

Determining whether a strategy is effective is a key step in maintaining long-term commitment. When they began the process more than 10 years ago, Flannery says, Maryland ranked second or third in terms of audience awareness, and there was significant confusion with other institutions' names and missions. Now research shows Maryland ranks first among public or private institutions in Maryland and the Greater Washington-Baltimore region by a wide margin-20 percent over the second-ranked institution, according to a recent poll.

It is important to note, too, that they deliberately chose to concentrate their resources on regional branding first, before widening the focus to selected national opportunities.

"Colleges continue to say a lot of things simultaneously, and end up communicating very little to an over-messaged public."
-Mike Norris, Centre College

"Nearly every direct measure of awareness, support, and loyalty among core audiences has also increased during Maryland's branding efforts," says Flannery. "Most audiences demonstrate awareness and pride in the institution that was not there prior to the brand becoming established. We see this in our data on applications, enrollment, graduating, giving, joining, advocating, and so on."

Flannery notes that while one would not suggest a direct cause-and-effect relationship between branding and such behaviors, she is certain it facilitated outcomes that are all showing the same upward trajectory: improved admissions applications, student qualifications, retention and graduation rates, faculty recruitment, faculty recognition, research expenditures, private giving, number of alumni members and donors, etc.

Flannery says the one piece of advice she has for a college or university about to undertake a brand strategy is to be ready to take advantage of unplanned opportunities. "We didn't plan for 18-wheelers traveling up and down I-95 between Washington and New York to carry 'Fear the Turtle' messages, but a supportive alumnus and trustee, Robert Facchina, offered 17 from his company, Johanna Foods, which travel that route every day. We grabbed the chance to deliver millions of impressions with an outsized terrapin and messages that conveyed our brand values, and Bob was happy to help his alma mater. As a result, more and more people 'Fear the Turtle' on I-95!"

(See videos from University of Maryland's "Fear the Turtle" campaign online at

Centre College, a highly rated liberal arts institution of 1,150 in Danville, Kentucky, decided to commit resources for a very specific reason: to gain more consistency in its student recruitment results. Mike Norris, Centre's director of communications, says that while the college was generally in a strong position, recruiting was one area they wanted more control over.

Norris says the first impediment to getting Centre's brand-building program off the ground was inertia. Most people have some resistance to change, and in a fast-paced educational setting, where most plates are already full, this tendency is amplified. The solution was support by top college leadership and a well-thought-out timetable that provided definite benchmarks for action.

The second obstacle was a reluctance to decide. Norris calls this "premature buyer's remorse." He says, "There's a bounty of opinions and ideas on a college campus, but a large number of ideas are coupled with a desire by many to find the absolute, perfect way to position the institution. The result can be endless discussion and debate. To help focus the conversion, we used research. Potential brand-positioning statements were tested with prospective students, parents, and other key audiences. The research identified an obvious 'winner,' and we were able to move forward rapidly."

Centre did not base its brand strategy exclusively on traditional advertising. "Rather," says Norris, "the college has had noteworthy success in building brand awareness through high-profile on-campus events. With a series of summits, symposia, debates, forums, and similar activities, Centre has earned a reputation as a 'place where important conversations take place.' The most prominent example of this was our hosting of the 2000 vice presidential debate, which brought favorable national and international attention to the college. Consequently, we're currently making a bid to host a presidential debate in 2008."

In all brand strategies there are lessons learned. "At Centre, we initially directed most of our efforts toward communicating to external audiences via news media, website, advertising, and print publications," says Norris. "Only later did we focus on the internal audience of campus community members. This internal mini-campaign was extremely successful. It did much more to create awareness and acceptance of our brand position message than all our external communications combined. If given a do-over, I'd implement the internal communications effort simultaneously with, or even before, the external effort."

When dollars are tight, and sometimes contested, it is always important to gauge results so you can be assured that those dollars are being spent wisely. Centre primarily uses recruitment data to gauge results. Says Norris, "Campus visits-typically a reliable indicator of the success of communication/recruitment efforts-have been steadily increasing in the past three years."

Applications were also up over the past three years, with each year setting a new record for Centre. And, as an indicator of success, each entering freshman class over the last two years has set a new college record, while indicators of high academic quality have remained constant. Last year's record freshman class was more than 20 percent larger than the entering class in 2002-2003.

Norris reminds practitioners that it is important to realize from the outset there is no one perfect sentence or phrase to position your institution. And even if there were, there would be no way to prove you had found it.

"Any number of hypothetical approaches can always be imagined to be more perfect," says Norris. "By the simple act of choosing to emphasize one unifying aspect of your brand-after ample discussion and research-you've already differentiated your institution from most others. The norm in higher education is not deciding. Colleges continue to say a lot of things simultaneously, and end up communicating very little to an over-messaged public. Don't let the 'perfect' be the enemy of the good. Make a commitment, have the meetings, do the research, choose-and then be relentlessly persistent in communicating your choice."

It's not surprising that many Canadian institutions are facing some of the same marketing challenges as their American counterparts. Richard Fisher, chief marketing and communication officer at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, says that institutional leaders made the decision to commit resources to building a brand because there was a general feeling that York's reputation lagged its actual performance, and that the university would benefit from a concise strategic direction (as opposed to just a mission statement).

"We also knew," says Fisher, "that our fundraising was weak compared to our competitors, and that our connection to our alumni, especially because we are a commuter school, was not as strong as it should be."

Like other institutions, York encountered some initial resistance. "There was aversion by the academics to the concept of marketing," says Fisher. "This has abated with time-our strategy was launched in 2002-as the community has seen the benefit of a focused offering and a cohesive face to the outside world. Continuing challenges include achieving compliance (no quick fixes there) and the ever-present lack of resources for the multi-faceted task at hand. However, consistency goes a long way when resources are scarce."

"Make sure the effort is reality-based, that it is honest about the university's shortcomings. After all, if there's no problem, you don't need a solution."
-Richard Fisher, York University

Fisher says York's brand strategy is to convince target audiences that York is a different kind of university. "Our interdisciplinary approach, which was built into our structure since day one, is the primary driver. The result is teaching and research that is more connected to the real world because we examine issues from multiple perspectives, as opposed to one narrow specialization. The end benefit is education-research, teaching-that provides 360-degree insight into complex issues. This approach to education is neatly summed up by York's tagline: Redefine the possible."

Fisher notes that the one thing York would do differently, if given the chance, would be to have a more clearly articulated roll-out process so everyone knew where they stood. "I would then have backed it up sooner with policy and procedures to eliminate horse trading!" he says.

As noted earlier, seasoned practitioners depend on research to guide the process and to evaluate results. "At York," says Fisher, "independent research has seen a growth in our reputation among incoming students. Alumni involvement and fundraising dollars are up. So, too, is the number and quality of applications." Like other marketing professionals, however, Fisher cautions that it is dangerous to draw a direct line between marketing and the data because the brand work has been accompanied by a general upgrading of these functions across the university.

Fisher's last piece of advice he would give to a college or university considering the creation of a brand strategy? "Use an external consultant initially, as the community will be far more receptive to third-party objective counsel. I would also urge you to make sure the effort is reality-based, that it is honest about the university's shortcomings. After all, if there's no problem, you don't need a solution."

(See one of York's video spots and hear a radio advertisement online at

The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford is a regional public located in northwestern Pennsylvania. During strategic-planning deliberations, it became apparent that the university had not established a discernible presence in the minds of its public beyond a limited geographic area, says Pat Frantz Cercone, director of Communications and Marketing. To establish that presence, administrators knew they needed an integrated approach to marketing that centered on a consistent, clear message.

Like other schools, Pitt-Bradford, as it is called, faced obstacles. "The most salient were limited financial resources and low institutional self-esteem," Cercone says. "Our internal constituents had to be convinced that the necessary financial resources would materialize, even though they were not available during the planning process. In addition, after many years of failing to reach enrollment targets, many of our internal constituents were convinced that because of our rural isolation, we were destined to be a small, fledgling institution."

Looking back, Cercone says that the team should have made an even greater effort to educate and involve their internal audiences, particularly students. Although the school launched its brand internally with a well-attended event, there were some who managed to slip through the communication cracks. "We should have done more to make sure our internal constituents knew what our brand strategy was and what it meant," she says. "We've been addressing that now by giving presentations to different constituent groups-on and off campus-and making our brand, brand attributes, and tagline a regular part of campus addresses."

Cercone notes it is difficult to attribute enrollment growth to any one variable, especially when an institution is introducing a plethora of initiatives. However, the university did experience significant growth last year and, based on a considerable increase of inquiries, she anticipates that fall 2007 will be another record class.

When asked what bit of brand marketing advice she would offer colleagues at other institutions, Cercone says, "Just do it. If a college or university determines that developing a brand is an appropriate step to growth, then you shouldn't allow limited financial resources to keep it from moving forward. The revenue generated from enrollment growth will eventually justify the marketing expenditures."

(See an example of Pitt-Bradford's video campaign, and hear a radio spot online at

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

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