Branding rules in Cornell’s ‘breaking the rules’ campaign for engineering

Cornell Engineering's Brand Ambassador Kit focuses on "breaking the rules"
Cornell Engineering’s Brand Ambassador Kit focuses on “breaking the rules”

Maybe it’s because I work at a STEM-focused university where engineering has been a big deal for nearly 150 years.

Or maybe it’s because I’m a geek for stories about brand strategies in higher education.

Maybe (probably) it’s a combination. But this tweet from Allen Ward of Cornell University’s engineering school caught my attention.

The magazine article discusses the rationale behind a recent rebranding of Cornell’s College of Engineering. Or as they like to call it on their website, Cornell Engineering — no reference to “college of.” This is part of the brand strategy, for according to the engineering alumni magazine article, “Simply connecting the word ‘engineering’ to the reputation of Cornell changes the outcome dramatically” in terms of equating the college with the reputation of Cornell.

I was intrigued by this brand strategy because, at first blush, I wouldn’t think that Cornell’s engineering programs to have much of a brand identity problem. They’re baked in to a 150-year-old Ivy League university, so the prestige of the Cornell name is in the engineering college’s DNA. The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings place Cornell Engineering seventh among all doctorate-granting engineering schools. Furthermore, “The college … [has] world-class faculty, students, staff, and alumni working at the frontiers of their disciplines in fields as diverse as nanobiotechnology and satellite design,” the article points out. But market research revealed that “the broader public didn’t know much about” the college.

Then came the article’s money quote, from the college’s dean, Lance Collins:

There is a humility here at Cornell Engineering that might be called humility to a fault. I realized that we need to tell our story more effectively.

This seems to be a universal concern among leaders of STEM-focused institutions. Our hard-working engineers and scientists are more concerned about solving problems and making things than about promoting what they do.

So Cornell Engineering hired Dawn McWillliams, its first marketing director, and a marketing firm to build a brand strategy and get the word out. They developed a brand identity around the theme of “breaking the rules.” (This notion of rule-breaking was not immediately accepted by the cautions engineering faculty. As McWilliams says in the article: “Some people raised the question: Do we really want to be telling 18-year-olds to break the rules? In the end, it was good to hear their concerns because they helped us sharpen our message.”)

A branding microsite for the college provides a wealth of information to help the college students, staff and faculty share the brand. It goes into great detail — all the way down to specific phrases. The humble but (very likely) detail-oriented engineers at Cornell ought to appreciate the site’s level of detail.

In addition to the marketing firm, Cornell Engineering has hired a creative firm to develop some promotional videos, like this one:

There’s a lot to like about Cornell Engineering’s approach with the new brand rollout. It emphasizes strong visuals, marshaling brand ambassadors among students, alumni, staff and faculty, and content marketing (i.e., storytelling). Yet as with all marketing campaigns, the storytelling must be informed by listening. The humble engineers of Cornell and their leader, Dean Collins, must do more than tell their story more effectively. They must be sure that those they want to hear the story are listening.

Overall, this approach to branding doesn’t break any new ground. But it appears to be well-thought-out and well-planned.

To break the rules, you first have to know the rules. And it seems that Cornell Engineering know the rules well.

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.

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