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Three Ways to Optimize Your Higher Ed Brand to be Best Poised for the Future

What it’s been, about a couple months since the AMA Higher Education Symposium in Atlanta, and parts of the conference still replay strong for many of us.  Our higher education clients have faced challenges with brand salience, message continuity and building affinity with the next generation of students.  There were numerous session topics that captured the attention of many, but three that spoke to these challenges resonated with us:

  1. Shared Brand Energy: The best path to a successful brand journey
  2. ReBranding: Success requires alignment and senior level participation
  3. Engaging and Educating Gen Z: Tap into their drive to be lifelong learners & solvers

1. Shared Brand Energy: An easy concept to understand, but very rarely executed well

At Gatesman, we’ve led and observed numerous rebranding initiatives among colleges and universities. They are challenging at best and a bust at worst due to wavering commitment, decentralization and lack of internal sell-in.  To succeed, we understand the obstacles that need to be overcome: multiple brand marks, numerous stakeholder groups, decentralization and disparate budgets to name a few.

Carol Keese, Associate VP Marketing, University of Virginia (UVA), said their brand journey started 2013 in midst of a complete turnover and the remaking of the UVA communications department. What’s more, two previous branding efforts had failed, setting up an amazingly challenging initiative for this third time around.

Keese pointed out that with a bicentennial on the horizon UVA knew the institution needed a cohesive story — including buy-in across a decentralized structure. All key stakeholders had to be involved from the beginning with checkpoints along the way. The third time resulted in a brand positioning around “Better Good.”

A narrative was needed to tie into the “Better Good.” Next, to bring this optimized brand to life, UVA created brand tools, guidelines and templates for broad access & use with their agencies and internal departments across all sectors of the university — including the UVA health system. Keese said critical to the successful outcome was to create a communications council — an internal collaborative group — assisting with guidelines across various messaging channels, entities, departments and outside agencies.

The results were impressive and reflect the key factors that Gatesman employs to ensure the success of our client’s higher ed branding initiatives:

  • “Authenticity”
  • Socialization is key
  • Creative approach that leads & serves
  • Create “desire” vs “force” messaging that’s available to everyone

2. ReBranding: Success directly tied to president’s steady hand and support of key stakeholders

We have found through our work with rebranding higher education institutions that consistent engagement has to start at the very top for a truly successful outcome. In fact, most of our brand immersion and positioning success has been initiated with new university presidents.  So it was no surprise to us that Key Nuttall, Chief Communications Officer, Wesleyan University, said any university rebranding must take these three critical steps:

  1. Must have the president on board
  2. Must have the ability for execution
  3. Must be committed to consistency post-rebranding

After these steps are taken, it’s important to sell the idea internally first and then connect to all key stakeholders in order to solicit their ongoing participation. Thorough rebranding has at least five phases:

  1. Discovery, immersion & research – which takes about one year to complete
  2. Compelling brand strategy – built around the brand truths
  3. Creative – “The Big Idea” with a fully integrated branding approach
  4. Test for relevance and affinity – to ensure messages resonate with key audiences
  5. Staged rollout – Internal first, then external

Overall, we agree with Nuttall that while the brand content is important, it won’t measure up or prevail without adhering to these four key takeaways:

  1. Institutional buy-in at the top has to be first
  2. Communicate with stakeholders — all the time
  3. Be authentic to the brand — always
  4. Testing/validation at every major step

3. Engaging and Educating Gen Z: Tap into their drive to be lifelong learners & solvers

One of our agency strengths is that we hack human behavior using advanced analytics, cognitive computing technology, social listening tools and the minds of our experienced strategists to drill deep into real time attitudes and motivations that drive the behavior of our clients’ target audiences, which for higher ed includes employees, parents, current and prospective students, alumni and strategic partners. We are students of consumer insights — studying, tracking and synthesizing what drives the emerging generational group, Gen Z.

We see paradigms shifting in the way to reach Gen Z.  Jaime Casap, Education Evangelist at Google, states, “We have to recognize that we don’t really live in this world today. We need to take ‘best of education’ and ask what needs to be done to take education to the next level and soon – because tomorrow is already here. The impact of technology drives the future and this role is not new, but today we’re better poised to bring more ideas to life.  Today most everyone uses technology every day.”

Gen Z has big worries: worried about jobs and worried about the world.  Real collaboration and engagement are key drivers for this cohort.  Their mindset is changing from “what job do I want to do?” to “what problem do I want to solve?”  Iteration is the result of constant critical thinking. At Gatesman, we see the challenges our clients are facing with the need for educators to enlighten students about how to convert information into intelligence and original thought with full-on engagement and real collaboration. Casap expressed that iteration and information are what drive transformation — this can happen anywhere. Transformation has no end point.

The goal is to turn our youth into life-long learners. It’s so much more rewarding and motivating for Gen Z to solve problems, a critical-thinking skill which sits within the wheelhouse of what educators can offer. Gatesman has been highly involved with hyper-targeting audiences for our clients for numerous recruitment engagements, ensuring that internal and external communications are on message, on target and on strategy to build a strong sense of community.

What are your pain points and how can we help you now?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on some of the challenges facing your university. For more insights on what’s shifting in the Higher Ed landscape, subscribe to our blog The Quad or follow us on Twitter @Quad_ByGatesman.








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