3 branding game-changers and how #highered must adapt

Photo via Wolff Olins
Photo via Wolff Olins

One of the most fascinating pieces I read over the holidays, amid all the year-in-review and predictions-for-2014 posts, was something published on Wired’s website last September about three emerging behaviors that are reshaping branding.

The article, by Kyle Vanhemert, certainly fit the year-end conversations spinning around most social media branding, marketing and tech circles. It summarizes the findings of a study by brand consultancies Wolff Olins and Flamingo (The New Mainstream: Creating a new relationship between people and brands). And although Vanhemert’s piece was geared toward the business world, as I read the article (and later the study), I thought about how those behaviors are affecting the world of higher ed branding and marketing as well.

In general, the three behaviors are reminders for brands (including colleges and universities) to be more customer-focused, customer-responsive and human than brands have been in the past. Enabled and accelerated by technological change, these shifts in behavior will continue to challenge our customary approaches to marketing, branding, fundraising, student recruitment and alumni relations.

Here’s a look at these three emerging behaviors and some examples of how they’re affecting higher ed.

1. People are side-stepping institutions

A higher ed brand ambassador at work: Georgia Tech freshman convocation speaker Nicholas Selby
A higher ed brand ambassador at work: Georgia Tech freshman convocation speaker Nicholas Selby

This sidestepping of institutions has been going on for quite some time now — for at least as long as it’s been since you worked through a travel agent to schedule a vacation or business trip. Traditional marketing approaches are being sidestepped, as people connect online for authentic reviews of products and services rather than the slick marketing materials companies and colleges bombard them with. Traditional alumni relations approaches have been sidestepped, too, as graduates of institutions find other ways to connect outside of the traditional alumni associations. Crowdfunding, too, is emerging as a way for people to support charitable causes, and it’s an approach that is leaving many college and university fundraisers scratching their heads.

But as Vanhemert notes, “people aren’t sidestepping institutions so much as institutional thinking.” The savvy institution is the one that ditches institutional thinking and finds more human approaches.

What this means for higher education: There are lots of takeaways here for higher ed branding and marketing, and they all have to do with disruption. But not in the way you may be thinking.

We’ve heard more than we care to hear about MOOCs and their potential to overturn the way education is delivered and the way students learn. But this sidestepping phenomenon extends beyond MOOCs and the so-called disruption. From a marketing and branding perspective, it means people are going to sidestep our typical efforts to get their attention in favor of less formal channels. They’re going to look to friends, or social media, for insight into our institutions. And they’re going to ignore a lot of the stuff we throw at them even more than they are now.

That is, unless we stop acting like institutions with our marketing and branding, and start talking like humans.

The biggest higher ed video of 2013? It wasn’t something scripted and story-boarded by some college admissions team or a higher ed consultant. It was that Georgia Tech nerd’s convocation speech. It was a real, live college student, exhorting a gymnasium full of other students to do great things as fellow Georgia Techers. With 3 million-plus views since going live in August, the popularity of this video, which was originally posted on a staff member’s YouTube site, dwarfs anything posted on the school’s official YouTube account.

“In a world of sidestepping,” the Wolff Olins and Flamingo report says, “companies gain trust by giving people a new power.” I think Georgia Tech gained trust by bringing student Nicholas Shelby into the fold by letting him speak at convocation. In return, they gained a valuable brand ambassador.

At Missouri S&T, we’ve been experimenting with the approach of involving our students to help shape and carry our brand message. For the past few semesters, we’ve invited students to take part in a “casting call” where they are photographed, videotaped and interviewed for potential marketing materials and stories. One result was a Thanksgiving themed feature in which several casting call students shared their reasons for giving thanks.

Another takeaway applies to fundraising. More charities are taking to crowdfunding to raise money for their causes. A few universities are taking similar approaches — efforts by Michigan Tech and Georgia Tech come to mind — but for the most part, we’re still relying on the typical annual fund mailers and phonathons. It’s time for our institutions to embrace a different approach. Crowdfunding for specific projects people feel passionate about might better connect our institutions with potential donors than a general appeal to give back to the old alma mater.

So, in summary, we should do at least these three things to adjust to this sidestepping:

  • Ditch the marketing speak and talk like real humans in our branding
  • Enlist our “customers” (students, alumni, etc.) as brand ambassadors and let them tell our brand story
  • Rethink our fundraising approaches to more specific causes

If we do these things, then perhaps our institutions will be among the places people will sidestep to.

2. People are making meaning

Missouri S&T students use the university's 3-D printers for all sorts of projects.
Missouri S&T students use the university’s 3-D printers for all sorts of projects.

We are entering — or re-entering — the era of the maker. Approaching people as mere consumers will no longer cut it.

This shift is most notable in the world of social media. where 77 percent of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube users actively create content, as compared to just 10 percent seven years ago.

But the rise of technology like 3-D printing will throw the doors wide open to a new kind of maker movement. (At Missouri S&T, we made 3-D printing available to every student last fall, and students have created everything from iPhone cases to the head of Yoda to a 16th-scale replica of a miniature Formula race car.)

In higher education, we must shift our thinking about students as consumers of academic coursework and credentials and start partnering with them to design their educational experience. The same holds true for alumni and prospective donors, research partners, and other customers and potential customers. How can our institutions help people become designers and makers, not just consumers?

3. People are shaping time


From the report: “Faster and more frequent communication has allowed brands to push too much at us — and people are looking for ways to control that flow, to get things when they want them, where they want them, and on their terms.”

This means that people are increasingly expecting brands to interact with them on their terms and timetables, not ours.

This coincides with another recent report which suggests that the FOMO (fear of missing out) phenomenon will soon be usurped by JOMO (the joy of missing out) in the future.

What does this mean for institutions with such rigid, time-bound structures like semesters or trimesters, and for marketers who are accustomed to pushing content and attempting to always grab attention?

This report suggests that institutions “[l]et people do things on their terms, in their time: total convenience to create the experience they want,” and “Above all, don’t try and control people’s time. Don’t be demanding. Instead, find ways to be completely on-demand.”

This final emerging trend might be the most challenging of all for higher ed.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

8 thoughts on “3 branding game-changers and how #highered must adapt”

  1. Love #3. I’m reading a very cool book right now by Amy Jo Martin called Renegades Write The Rules–she would love #3. Her thing is we need to concentrate on messages that draw people to us instead of pushing messages at people hoping they engage. Kind of goes along with Jay Baer’s Youtility. If you haven’t read her book, I bet you’d love it. She is a true renegade–I identify. :) Thanks, Andy.

    1. Sounds like yet another book I need to read in 2014! Thanks, Chris. (P.S. – I did read “Youtility” in 2013, but was more or less a slacker in my reading this past year. Time to remedy that.)

  2. Relevant list, thanks! Item #1 is straight out of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” which had the subtitle: “The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.” I’m linking to your posting here from an article I hope to publish this coming week on Alumni Futures. Thank!

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