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On board with the brand in higher ed

Six steps to engaging the whole campus community in developing a new brand—and avoiding disengagement over disagreements
University Business, December 2014
Billboards promoting the Meredith College "Going Strong" brand can be spotted throughout the Raleigh, N.C., area and beyond.
Billboards promoting the Meredith College "Going Strong" brand can be spotted throughout the Raleigh, N.C., area and beyond.

When you think “rebranding campaign,” it most likely conjures up images of marketing and communications officers meeting with the school president and board of trustees to toil over logo colors, mascots and slogans.

In reality, it’s a much more complex process, involving the entire school community. And its impact can be felt across all institutional endeavors: everything from enrollment and strategic planning to fundraising initiatives and academics. At least that’s the case when it’s done right.

Administrators at colleges and universities that have successfully launched a new brand offer a glimpse into what the process looks like and how to get everyone on board with the final campaign.

Stage 1: Recognize when your brand needs a reboot.

There’s something to be said for longstanding traditions, but when it comes to how a college or university is perceived—especially mid-level institutions not among the top-ranked elite—shaking things up is often needed for growth and prosperity.

“Every day, someone is questioning the value of education,” says Paula R. David, vice president of marketing and communications at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “We needed to find a way to stay relevant and competitive in the marketplace.”

That involved a new educational approach dubbed LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice), which David’s team helped brand and roll out into the campus community, and, later, to the public.

Even without a new program to publicize, educating prospective students about what’s already happening on campus can help drive awareness and engagement.

Bits of branding wisdom

“You have to be authentic in what you’re presenting. We are now building a reputation that matches the reality. You have to deliver what it is you’re promising.”—Kevin Carroll, University of Denver

“Any institution can pull together a focus group of eight to 10 people, but there is something incredibly powerful in pulling together an entire college and listening to them. It says, ‘We hear you, and we want you to participate.’ ”—Matthew Barone, Marlboro College (Vt.)

“Branding starts at home. It has to be understood and lived by faculty, students and alumni so they can be strong evangelists for the brand.”—Paula R. David, Clark University (Mass.)

“Internally, we set up a brand council to involve the entire college, which is the approach I’ve taken with strategic planning as well—to have a bottom-up process. By creating a pretty regular, broad base of discussion, it helped move us forward.” —Barry Brown, Mount Ida College (Mass.)

“Our success stemmed from: Being clear that we were seeking feedback, not decisions; having support from the president and board; and being light on our feet and willing to make changes.”—Michelle Davis, Olin College of Engineering (Mass.)

“Our students love the brand and take it very seriously. But the other side of that is it’s a great learning experience for them to understand what a brand means in the 21st century, and how quickly reputation can be tarnished and how it can also be promoted. It’s been a good lesson that they feel great immediacy with.” —Jo Allen, Meredith College (N.C.)

When President Barry Brown took on his role at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. a few years ago, his goal was to spread the word about the career-focused education that his institution had developed over time, but of which not many people were aware.

“The college had not pinpointed its educational advantages, particularly at a time when the Department of Education and President Obama were talking about the need to provide outcomes in higher education,” says Brown. “Mount Ida had that record, but hadn’t developed a clear voice.” Working with marketing firm Sametz Blackstone Associates, the school put together a committee to brand Mount Ida from its majors upward, spotlighting the programs of study rather than the institution as a whole.

Stage 2: Conduct (lots of) research.

Whether it’s creating a committee on campus, hiring outside firms, holding town hall meetings or a combination of these strategies, successful branding happens through research and collaboration.

When officials at Meredith College, a women’s institution in Raleigh, N.C., decided to give its brand an overhaul and amplify its reputation, they approached the project scientifically. There were several surveys, as well as some on-campus sessions and focus groups, and the process took six months, says President Jo Allen.

Results of the research, conducted by a third party, were presented in open forums. Officials discovered consensus about the new “Going Strong” brand. The school, however, was ready to go back to the drawing board had there not been wide agreement.

At Marlboro College in Vermont, Matthew Barone, director of marketing and communications, admits he wasn’t sure how the school’s “shared governance” philosophy would function in a branding campaign, but giving everyone a vote worked.

“At the end of the day, if the president objected to the tone, it would be kicked back to a committee,” says Barone, adding that the messaging was always representative of faculty and student opinions. “It’s so difficult to try to not base your actions on loud voices versus majority voices. The committee ultimately made decisions to keep things going in certain directions.”

When a vocal minority shared skepticism about bringing in the Boston-based design firm, kor group, Barone and his team came up with the idea of a “Creative Collection.”

“It was a place where students, faculty and staff could contribute messages in response to different questions specific to Marlboro,” he says.

Quite literally, the Creative Collection was a giant message center, set up along the dining hall wall, on which everyone could contribute ideas, words and drawings.

“It was quite an exercise for an institution, and the firm had never gone through this level of participation,” says Barone. “I thought I knew what collaboration was, but this experience taught me how great it could be.”

Stock photos of students walking along a generic tree-lined campus just doesn’t cut it these days in marketing materials. At Marlboro, student quotes and testimonials were not only used, they were printed in the students’ actual handwriting.

Stage 3: Establish a timeline.

Savvy schools have an established game plan for introducing the new brand. Steps could include unveiling a new logo, redesigning the website, introducing new marketing materials and creating new campus signage. Fully integrating a brand into all aspects of campus life can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, experts say.

An obvious place to start is with the graphic identity, or logo. The original logo for 10-year-old Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.—which was designed before the college was even built—had lost its relevance. To choose a new logo that reflected Olin’s hands-on approach to engineering instruction, Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Davis asked for student and faculty input.

“We brought out a number of designs and had meetings with students and faculty about what they liked, and what they thought it meant,” she says.

The University of Denver was about a year into the research phase of its brand revamp when it was named to host a 2012 presidential debate. “We were interested in utilizing the spotlight of the debate to launch our new brand,” says Kevin Carroll, vice chancellor and chief marketing officer.

But the newly imposed, tight deadline meant everyone—including all of the deans and their immediate leadership—had to be on board quickly. “There was a lot of checking in, and about 80 focus groups on campus. Had we not gotten universal acceptance, we would have waited until after the debate,” he says.

The old logo was abstract and some people confused it with the Carnival Cruise Lines logo. Most people didn’t even realize there was a “D” in the design, says Carroll. “It looked very corporate, not something people on campus would connect with.”

Research revealed that what really resonated was the campus’ buildings, the university’s location on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and its 150-year-old history.

“The new logo design, which incorporated a shield that contains the mountains, was universally accepted as the logo we should always have had,” says Carroll, adding that “the ink was just drying as the debate happened.”

After the debate, Carroll’s team took a breather, and then spent the next two years working with each school, college and unit to apply the new brand mantra —“a catalyst for purposeful lives”—to each segment of the university.

Stage 4: Plan a big unveiling.

While the goal of a new brand might be to reach people beyond the campus, it’s important that the internal campus community is the first to know. Clark’s team made it a point to have a big launch party on LEEP Day.

“It had an educational component, with roundtables and discussions to talk about LEEP, as well as some fun to get our faculty, staff and students excited,” says David. There was everything from a big bouncy platform—where students could literally leap—to hula-hoops to freebies and giveaways. “We wanted to build brand evangelists so our own staff and students would know how to tell our story about LEEP,” she says.

Stage 5: Stay true to the new brand.

“The end product of branding is transferring knowledge and training so people have messages and materials to make their jobs easier across the campus,” says Roger Sametz, whose firm was involved in both the Olin and Mount Ida projects. This includes creating both verbal and visual brand guidelines to ensure all campus community members have the tools to act as brand ambassadors.

“It’s critical that the university not only adopts a strong brand strategy, but lives it everyday,” says Clark’s David. “A good brand becomes a decision filter for everything you do.”

As for protecting the brand, institutions have to respect the idea of the open brand model that exists in our highly connected world, says Olin’s Davis.

“To an extent, the public owns your brand, your constituencies own it,” Davis says. “We have our ear to the ground with social media. You have to be listening and thinking and learn how to manage your reaction to those comments. You can’t control it, but you can be part of the dialogue.”

Stage 6: Connect it all together.

Once a school establishes a strong new brand, keeping that momentum going can help power other institutional endeavors. “Our new brand has been the basis for our fundraising campaign, the largest in our history,” says Meredith’s Allen.

The same goes for Clark University. “LEEP is really the cornerstone of our fundraising. We will soon be breaking ground on a new building—an alumni and student engagement center—which is being built to be a collaboration space where LEEP can happen,” says David.

At Mount Ida, the new logo and website launched in sync with the campus’ physical transformation. “We went through a major building program to refurbish and restore major facilities, including adding a fitness center, new dorm and new science classrooms,” says Brown. “The branding is a part of the entire refocusing of what was already here, but presenting it in a new way.”

More than anything else, branding has to be all about authenticity, experts agree. If you try to create something that’s not truly representative of your campus, you’ll be called out on it—by current students, faculty, staff, alumni and everyone who has a vested interest in your institution. After all, a brand isn’t owned by a small committee of marketers or a board of trustees. It’s a shared commodity that must be accepted, respected and nurtured by the entire college community.

Dawn Papandrea is a writer based on Staten Island, N.Y.

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