If you’re involved in any aspect of marketing, branding or communication at a college or university, and you are a member of CASE and receive CASE’s Currents magazine, then you owe it to yourself to read a great article about branding by Tony Proudfoot (@tonyproudfoot on Twitter) in the January-February issue of Currents.
In his article, titled “Let Go to Let It Grow,” Proudfoot describes an approach to brand-building that he and his colleagues used at the University of Arizona, where he serves as associate vice president of marketing and brand management. He also aptly describes experiences that are all too common to those of us who work in higher ed marketing.
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.
Sound familiar? Anyone who has been involved in developing a brand strategy in higher education has run into pushback, resistance and, after a while, brand fatigue. Some degree of resistance seems inevitable.
A strategic shift
The same thing happened at Arizona, too, Proudfoot writes. But instead of trying to address pushback via “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?”
The Arizona group saw three familiar issues with the traditional higher ed approach to building a brand: The central marketing team tends to want to control the brand too tightly; the common approach, which usually emphasizes visual direction at the expense of positioning and messaging, needs an overhaul; and the marketing people assume too much and get defensive about our work.
Their conclusions led to a strategic shift in how to approach branding. It boils down to these four principles:
- Relax our grip on the brand and engage the campus to refine and enhance the university’s positioning, especially the tools that support it
- Change the brand mindset on campus from fixed and compliant to iterative and expressive
- Develop positioning platforms that differentiate colleges and units from their competitors while remaining aligned with the university brand
- Increase resources available for digital content strategy through a decentralized yet participatory process
In other words, Proudfoot and company helped to steer the brand’s growth more than control it. The result was greater buy-in and ownership.
It’s an approach similar to what we’ve attempted at Missouri S&T as well. Although we did take more of a hybrid approach — starting with the traditional route of market research, concept development and presentations to campus. From the get-go, however, we involved two campuswide groups — one made up of campus leadership and one consisting of students, faculty and staff representing a broad range of customers and interests — and tied the brand-building effort to our university’s strategic plan. It seems to be working on some levels, but on other levels, we run into the same concerns Proudfoot describes in his Currents article.
There’s much more branding insight in Proudfoot’s essay than what I’ve shared, so I encourage you to read it (and the sidebars) and share it with others.