Publications & Products
In Spartans They Trust
In Spartans They Trust

Emotional connections are key to Michigan State University’s brand evolution

By Theresa Walker


Microbiologist Gemma Reguera “wears” the virtual plume of the Michigan State University Spartan helmet, a central creative element of the institution’s “Who Will? Spartans Will” brand marketing campaign. The MSU associate professor developed a microbe that cleans up nuclear waste. (Image: Communications and Brand Strategy, Michigan State University)

What's the essence of your institution's brand? When Heather Swain, Michigan State University's vice president for communications and brand strategy, presents on branding in higher education, she includes a slide displaying ice cream cones with various flavors of ice cream. Why? "Our job as marketers is to project our university's flavor out into the world," she says.

What Michigan State does, Swain says, isn't that different from what other land-grant or large research institutions do, so it's essential to differentiate and distinguish yourself from the pack. At MSU, that work began with the "Spartans Will" branding initiative, which launched in 2010 and has taken on new life with the "Who Will? Spartans Will" brand marketing campaign. The brand refresh project earned the university's Office of Communications and Brand Strategy a 2016 Circle of Excellence Platinum Award for best practices in communications and marketing.

Marketing research has been key to helping Michigan State understand its special flavors. The research for "Spartans Will" allowed Swain and the CABS team to "get at the nut of who we are as an institution and what we do," she says. "But as our president would say, ‘It's not what we do but how and why.'" Understanding the complex motivations behind how and why required a different kind of research—a process that taps into people's emotions, an assignment that went beyond the typical focus group.

Heart of the brand

Michigan State worked with Brandtrust, a Chicago-based firm that uses a marketing research method called Emotional Inquiry. According to the company, the method combines social science and psychoanalysis techniques to uncover people's "emotions and sensory impressions that shape consumer belief and motivations." In one-on-one interviews, researchers guide respondents through relaxation and visualization exercises. If you're thinking this sounds similar to a therapy session, you're not wrong. Respondents close their eyes to better visualize the memories and scenarios they're asked to recall. They are encouraged to provide details such as sights, sounds, and feelings. Reliving these experiences elicits people's emotional reactions and encourages them to speak descriptively.

"We had no experience with this kind of research, so it was a little risky," says Todd Carter, who came to MSU in 2013 to be assistant vice president for marketing communications after managing brands in the agency world for more than 20 years. "We weren't sure we were going to get what we needed—students, faculty, and alumni view Michigan State through such different lenses—but the emotions and experiences came through with such consistency that it was amazing."

After identifying these audiences' emotional connections to Michigan State, Swain and her team brought those elements to life by refreshing the brand and creating a narrative driven by what motivates the university's work and the people who make it possible. The landing page of the university's online brand guide outlines the core of Michigan State's brand and the attributes that express its personality. The projects the CABS team creates encourage and inspire MSU's audiences to own the brand by engaging with it in authentic and personal ways. A big factor in that engagement has been the iconic Spartan helmet.

"Spartans Will," the tagline that embodied the first iteration of the brand platform, leveraged the power and reputation of Michigan State's successful athletics program by making the term Spartans and the Spartan helmet central elements of the institution's marketing and branding efforts. Michigan State had never linked an athletics symbol with academics and research—and doing so could have been dicey. But appealing to students' and alumni's connections with those symbols would be worthwhile, the research showed. For others on campus, "it was a journey of acceptance," Swain says, noting how hard she and her team worked to get buy-in from faculty and staff members. That effort has inspired an even bigger leap with the Spartan helmet as the brand platform continues to evolve.

Free the plume

As MSU's marketers considered creative options for the next iteration of the brand, including introducing a new graphic element, research pulled them back to the power of the Spartan helmet—with a significant twist. BVK, the Wisconsin-based agency that helped MSU develop creative concepts for "Who Will? Spartans Will," suggested separating the plume from the Spartan helmet, which would allow the campaign to place the plume on people's heads like a virtual halo.

"We had to work through our discomfort with that," Swain says. "Using the plume by itself violated our own brand guidelines, but we realized that removing it from the helmet made the symbol everybody's. It was a game-changer."

The idea led to challenging discussions about the risks and rewards of people misusing the symbol. "We think a lot about how we don't really own the brand," Swain says. "You'll have the most success when people take ownership of your brand and help you create it. Ultimately, you want the problem of people misusing your tagline. It shows they not only know it but that it's become part of their thinking."

In MSU's marketing efforts, brand guidelines limit use of the plume graphic to Spartans engaged in the university's work. Professors, researchers, students, or alumni who are doing amazing things may wear the plume, which "creates the suggestion of the Spartan helmet—and the heroic feelings associated with it."

"We think of it as a special halo that appears on special Spartans," Carter says. "It's not used on promotional items or pieces that would diminish its impact and what it stands for."

Michigan State featured photos of people "wearing the helmet" on multistory banners on campus buildings, indoor and outdoor signage, and a digital billboard that showcased more than 60 faculty members. The concept appeared in television ads that premiered during football season and was promoted extensively on MSU's web and social media channels, which directed people to the brand website A series of plume graphics were placed above a row of seats in MSU's basketball arena. People who sit there appear to be wearing the helmet.

Before the January 2015 release of the Spartan Selfie app, which is available in the App Store and on Google Play, the CABS team wondered how MSU audiences would use the plume graphic. The app enables users to customize their photos, plume themselves, and share the images they've created on the photostream feature and on their social media accounts. On the app, MSU's brand guidelines became irrelevant. For instance, the plume is not supposed to appear on inanimate objects or animals, but app users routinely plume their dogs.

"It was scary," Carter says. "But we had faith that people were going to get behind it and engage with the brand in ways they hadn't done before."

And they have. Spartan Selfie began trending in the App Store the day after it was released. It's been downloaded more than 66,000 times, and users have taken more than 225,000 photos with the plume. But Spartans feel ownership beyond the plume. The "Spartans Will" tagline has been adopted as a rallying cry. People use it as a hashtag on social media when discussing their accomplishments or pride in MSU. It's popped up on homemade signs at basketball games and on people's graduation caps. At least four people have tagline tattoos. The Detroit Free Press even used "Spartans Will" in a headline about MSU's December 2015 football victory over the University of Iowa.

"There are a lot of similar looks and messages in higher education marketing campaigns—it can be a sea of sameness," Carter says. "This allowed us to be distinctive and create emotional connections."

Foundation for the future

As Michigan State continues to deliver "Who Will? Spartans Will," which includes a project to align the institution's degree-granting colleges with the brand platform, Swain and Carter are planning the brand's next iteration.

"The challenge when you have a campaign is that you don't want it to get stale," Carter says. In the coming three to four years, the campaign will highlight different brand pillars—individual strength, collective power, and extraordinary impact—and what those traits look like in action. A TV ad is slated to premiere in January 2016, launching the latest step forward.
The CABS leadership team also keeps a strategic eye on the future through quarterly meetings to evaluate the positions the department needs to consider creating next and the types of skills they need in new hires. Swain cites a marketing technologist as a possible example.

"What are the trends?" Swain says. "How will what comes next shape our ability to help the institution? We've tried to stay ahead, but in higher ed that means you're still about five to 10 years behind."

Swain came to Michigan State 10 years ago with the charge of building the institution's brand. When she became the office's leader in April 2012, Swain wanted to change its name from University Relations, a term she considered outdated. A discussion with MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon led Swain to the name Communications and Brand Strategy, clearer terms that had more "oomph and heft" and better reflected the office's mission.

Swain also changed the unit's leadership structure. "I didn't negotiate my salary—I negotiated for positions," she says, noting that having a large staff report solely to her wouldn't allow her time for strategic thinking. "I needed to bring in more expertise, people who could focus on the day-to-day of managing the brand, communications, and our data-driven digital vision for the future."
Swain now has three direct reports: Carter, an associate vice president for public relations, and an executive director for organizational performance, who oversees digital strategy and analytics. Together they manage the 46-person CABS staff.

Swain views her leadership position as setting the marketing agenda, articulating goals for the CABS team and MSU, under­standing the trends and challenges that affect the marketing and higher education sectors, and listening to and communicating with campus stakeholders. "I can't do those things if I'm running any one area," she says. "But I also need to help my staff solve problems and clear obstacles from their path."

That last one is a challenge at any organization, but at Michigan State it's a bit easier because Swain and her team are not fighting anti-marketing headwinds.

"The bottom line is I have a president who supports [marketing and brand strategy]," Swain says. "And there is no replacement for that."

About the Author Theresa Walker Theresa Walker

Theresa Walker is a senior editor at Currents, where she covers the marketing and communications beat.




Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.