How to create a culture of branding on campus
University of Arizona
Building a university brand is not like painting a house, but both pursuits require similar preparation.
I have done both, so I write from experience. Nearly every weekend during the summer of 2000, my wife and I scraped and sanded, filled holes, removed and reattached gutters, and replaced sheets of weather-damaged siding. The work was hot and unrewarding. We often had to nudge each other outside in the Indiana humidity to continue. By August, the project looked worse than ever, but our fear of becoming the bane of the neighborhood motivated us. Finally, early on a September Saturday morning, we opened a 5-gallon bucket of Olympic’s Sea Mist paint and applied the first brushstroke. It was gorgeous. Three days and two coats later, we were done. The paint came with a 10-year warranty, but it still looks new more than 16 years later. Our work has endured not because of the paint job but because of the summer’s worth of labor beneath it.
How long will your university’s brand endure? Will it thrive and produce value long after a leadership transition? Or will it disintegrate during a crisis? Are higher education marketers doing enough of the painstaking foundational work to ensure that their institutional brand will not only survive but thrive?
At the University of Arizona, we asked ourselves these questions as we entered the second phase of the university’s first brand strategy: weaving the brand into the fabric of the institution to produce long-term value. Our answers led us to an approach designed to build a brand that will last.
The traditional higher education branding project generally starts with research and discovery gathered from surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The marketing team, and often its consultants, takes the volumes of information and begins its work, usually behind closed doors. A few months later, the team presents two or three creative platforms to leadership. One is chosen, audience-tested, refined, and launched. Campus marketers attend a training session to learn how to comply with the new brand. Then the institution moves forward with an improved and more compelling market position. I’ve participated in and led such a process many times. It works, often producing immediate, appreciable outcomes. It’s beautiful paint. But building a brand is about creating long-term value, not just rapid results. We need to dig deeper to create an enduring brand strategy. Two cautionary tales illustrate why:
I wish these examples were exceptions, but ample evidence suggests that they are the rule. Branding is misunderstood at many institutions. According to “Higher Ed Marketing Comes of Age,” a 2014 CMO survey from The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted by SimpsonScarborough, the perceived role of nearly half of college and university marketing and branding shops is to produce brochures, and visual identity work passes for branding at one-third of universities.
An administration ally at my own institution recently described marketing and branding as manipulative, slick, and tricky when trying to express support for my team’s efforts. We have a lot of work to do as advancement practitioners and as a sector.
Brand implementations follow a predictable path. They kick off with enthusiasm fueled by clear goals and novel ideas. The creative work invigorates the campus, delivering a sense of immediate impact. But the honeymoon period often ends just as people across campus are expected to adopt and carry out the brand strategy and marketers are aligning the institution’s colleges and units with the master brand. Brand fatigue sets in just as the university begins asking stakeholders to invest more time, talent, and energy into driving change by embracing the brand. The frequent result? Brand growth slows and pushback begins.
After the initial launch of UA’s brand strategy, we found ourselves in this familiar situation. Rather than forge ahead with typical interventions, such as asking university leadership to mandate compliance, we stepped back and posed a fundamental question: Why is brand acceptance a perennial and widespread challenge in higher education? We developed three hypotheses and arrived at conclusions that have produced a new approach.
Marketers hold the brand too tightly. The traditional brand-building process is usually a closed system that limits people’s involvement. Campus participation in the branding process is generally transactional rather than collaborative. But brand-building is also an exercise in change management, which requires the involvement of more people to adopt a new direction and new ideas. Testing creative work with a group of faculty and presenting results to the deans is not enough. You can’t expect people to be excited and get onboard with work that didn’t include them. Conclusion: The brand needs to be co-created under a big tent.
Education branding needs a new mindset. From the beginning, most UA units upheld the most noticeable aspect of the brand platform—the visual direction. But their positioning, messaging, tone, character, and copy remained largely undifferentiated. The mindset on campus was one of visual compliance rather than authentic brand expression. We know that expressive and emotional brands move audiences, but people at UA weren’t feeling it. How could the UA brand inspire our audiences if we were simply asking people to follow new rules that they had no part in creating? Conclusion: We needed people to identify with the brand and to see themselves and their work in it.
We assume too much (and we get defensive about our work). Marketers often assume people understand and value branding. We view any holdup in adoption as defiance. But I’ve never heard an attendee at a campus brand launch say: “I don’t really know what you’re talking about, and I’m not personally prepared to act on your request, but I do want to help.” Professionals don’t like to appear out of the loop or as if they don’t “get it,” so their comments at such events are typically superficial and unedifying. Even worse, the marketers who create the new brand too often interpret questions as opposition. We need to create space for everyone to connect the university’s brand with their work. Conclusion: We must encourage people to participate and understand the brand from their vantage point within the institution rather than only from a central marketing perspective.
We were initially overwhelmed by the possible implications of our hypotheses. What if no one wanted to participate? How would we manage deliverables in an uncertain process? What if involving more people led to terrible ideas?
Despite our concerns, the senior leadership and senior marketing staff embraced this new vision for growing brand value. A marketing colleague informed me that our approach dovetails with a different branding framework for the nonprofit sector proposed by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel in their book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity (see sidebar).
In writing the book, the authors spoke with nonprofit leaders across many causes, not including higher education, and exposed familiar-sounding criticisms: concern that branding signals a move toward for-profit values, assumptions that it’s about vanity instead of substance, and worries that concentrating on competitiveness will diminish an organization’s focus on social responsibility. Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel also determine that marketing is too often used as a tool to meet immediate fundraising goals rather than building brand value among nonprofit stakeholders. The first two components of the authors’ IDEA model—brand integrity and brand democracy—resonated with our hypotheses.
Considering a valuable outside perspective as well as our assumptions about the failures of branding efforts led to four strategies that changed our approach to building UA’s brand. We decided to:
Three projects demonstrate how our approach is changing the way we are building UA’s brand.
UA Creative. A cross-campus team of more than 50 marketing directors, faculty members, writers, designers, videographers, and other creative staff are honing the university’s brand promise, curating its best stories and proof points, honing visual expression, and establishing guidance for marketing research. Early on, participants thought about the brand deeply and differently. Involving so many people means the endeavor has not always been efficient. It has been effective, however, in changing how people think about what they do. Now, clear brand expression lies not with one person or office but with a broad group of colleagues, as well as with campus leaders. The UA brand is growing stronger because staff are taking ownership and possess the nuanced understanding they need to express the brand clearly and with greater focus and finesse.
College- and Unit-Level Positioning. UA’s marketing and brand management team members are leading each college through the development of individual positioning platforms, eventually working to the departmental level. We function as expert facilitators, responsible for ensuring that all positioning work is effective and consistent with the master brand, while communications and marketing directors at each college guide the process.
While not perfect, we are moving past the usual tension of colleges and units feeling they need to develop a “special” brand outside the university’s, because we have affirmed their unique place in the world while still adhering to the master brand. More faculty members are deeply engaged, and deans are increasingly invested in this work. We’re talking about how recruiters speak with prospective students about what differentiates UA from other institutions, how development officers shape conversations with donors, and how alumni relations staff engage graduates.
UA Digital. Our central web team creates tools for units to easily design responsive, brand-aligned, and conversion-driven sites. UA Sites, for instance, functions like the website-building service SquareSpace, but the platform is tailored for our campus. Our central repository of developer tools includes web elements and code that anyone on campus can use. Developers from across the university meet every Friday afternoon to produce tools that units will find irresistible. When participants build functionality or features for any campus project, they share the finished code on UA Sites.
These tools have given units the ability to quickly make improvements on their websites and reflect the brand. Requests for standalone web projects are diminishing while conversations about metrics, conversions, and expressing the brand through content are growing.
These examples illustrate a departure from the traditional process. Central marketing and units are working together to create, clarify, and express the brand. Questions, confusion, and objections are discussed and addressed as people develop strategies and tools. The result: Everyone understands the final product.
Rather than the marketing and brand management team being solely responsible for the brand, we have hundreds of voices—senior leaders, deans, faculty, and staff—working to build, clarify, and express it.
We believe UA’s brand strategy will endure because our university community, not a small group of marketers, is building it and guiding how it evolves. The collective effort is a shared vision that is strengthening our work and producing value. We haven’t tried to answer every question or solve every problem before executing, but the process has elevated the effectiveness of our work because people understand and believe in the why and the how of the brand strategy. It is built on a deep belief in who we are and what we stand for—just like all strong brands.
In The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity, Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel offer an alternative branding framework for the nonprofit sector. As Laidler-Kylander wrote in a 2012 article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, brands have "a broader and more strategic role in an organization's core performance, as well as having an internal role in expressing an organization's purposes, methods, and values. Increasingly, branding is a matter for the entire nonprofit executive team. At every step in an organization's strategy and at each juncture in its theory of change, a strong brand is increasingly seen as critical in helping to build operational capacity, galvanize support, and maintain focus on the social mission."
This is how strategic brand managers maximize impact. But we aren't there yet. According to "Higher Ed Marketing Comes of Age," a 2014 survey of chief marketing officers from The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted by SimpsonScarborough, about half of university CMOs report to the president or chancellor, and more than one-third have no role in the cabinet or a similar senior leadership group.
In their research, the IDEA authors found that people are skeptical of branding's business origins and its competitive nature. Nonprofit leaders worry that branding sends a signal that making money will supplant the organization's mission. Such concerns resonate with faculty who work in an environment of financial scarcity. Another worry is that the desire to compete will harm relationships with other institutions and external partners.
Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel focus on three concepts to overcome these issues and build strong nonprofit brands: integrity, democracy, and affinity.
Co-creation is about stepping away from the transactional nature of the branding process in favor of making it more collaborative. We go through the same steps—discovery, ideation, concept development and testing, presentation and selection of ideas, and implementation—but we involve more people earlier and in more valuable ways and keep them involved throughout. The work that's gone into developing the brand for the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for example, is something we're replicating across more than 20 colleges and units. Here's a look at our process:
A tangible result of this process is a brand book that differentiates the college, aligns with the master brand, and guides the way for tactical expressions such as a viewbook or ad campaign. An equally important outcome is the large group of CALS stakeholders who understand the brand and can express it clearly and confidently to audiences.
In the traditional branding process, marketers hear from stakeholders during discovery, go do their work, and come back to tell the stakeholders what the brand is. In our co-creating effort, the stakeholders help create the brand and continue to work with us as it evolves.
The purpose of a business is to make money. Higher education's purpose is to advance the frontiers of knowledge, prepare the next generation to lead and succeed, and serve our countries, states, and communities as economic partners. While institutions should be responsive to the needs of society, what sells is not our only consideration.
For example, enrollment in the humanities has declined 8.7 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A trend like that would have shareholders of a public company screaming to cut an unprofitable product line. But in the academy, we believe in the enduring value of English, literature, and history, regardless of their perceived value in the current marketplace. Rather than ask, "How do we cut these programs?," we ask, "How can we help them succeed?" Unlike the private sector, we don't simply give society what it wants; we also provide what it requires to survive and thrive.
Universities are unique in nature. They have shared governance. They ideally have a lifelong relationship with their stakeholders. The quality and talent of an institution's faculty help determine its strength. Is any other sector completely dependent upon the effort and abilities of its customers? Universities can offer a world-class education, but students can't attain it unless they do their part and become partners in the educational process.
As institutions face disruptive economic and technological forces, the value of higher education is being questioned like never before. Our sector needs new perspectives to create and communicate its value in compelling ways.
When branding first entered the higher education sector a couple of decades ago, it made sense to lean on private-sector models. But as this work is increasingly embraced and necessary in higher education, we should ask ourselves: Do we need to create our own model? One that affirms and emboldens our values? I believe it's time to consider these questions. Do you agree? Disagree? Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony Proudfoot is the associate vice president of marketing and brand management at the University of Arizona. He has been building higher education brands for 20 years, previously serving at Indiana and Ball State universities.
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