We work within an incredibly pressured sector where conflicting responsibilities, limited resources and a lack of clear direction are all commonplace. This can lead to an overreliance on ‘business as usual’, where the onus is on getting the task done rather than challenging the status quo or pushing for change. When this mentality is applied to a university’s reputation or brand it can stunt progress and risk the institution falling out of touch with its audience. We have previously discussed the vital role senior leaders should (but often don’t) play in building an effective brand strategy so we were delighted to speak to David about his experience in leading change from the front and ensuring others felt represented along the way.
Whilst now working at Kansas State University, David spent over 8 years at the University of Vermont and played a vital role in reshaping the organisation to overcome the threat of declining enrollments that many universities in the region were facing. Like many change-makers he faced challenges, but sought solutions via external talent to harness their expertise and embed it into the university culture.
“I’ve realised over the course of my career that universities have different levels of sophistication when it comes to crafting and sharing their narrative. When I got to Vermont, I realised we had more work to do but we didn’t have the financial or personnel resources to do what was needed quickly. So, we partnered with a private branding, marketing & communication firm, which was a phenomenal experience and one that I can certainly endorse for other university leaders. We achieved the goals needed to stabilise enrollment and successfully launched an internal branding and marketing team at the university with their help. For the first time in the university’s history we were now speaking with a common voice and had a compelling mission statement and taglines that resonated with who we are and who we aspired to be.”
Whilst working with a third party alleviates pressures, brings in expertise and can be an extremely effective strategy, it does not exempt staff involvement, particularly at a senior level. Whilst we know many are often already stretched, David impresses the rich rewards that come with contribution into brand.
“The pressure on university senior leaders is enormous, a new president is forced to jump in and be successful early. The expectations are such that there is little room for taking risks, but it is critical the leadership team is involved in building your brand. Otherwise it risks becoming an enrollment or recruitment strategy, which whilst important, is not the whole story. When I advise senior leaders I insist they prioritise brand and get involved personally, because the resulting impact on revenue, rankings, visibility and reputation give them the ability to do all the other things on their priority list.”
Of course, it is not just the leadership team that needs to be represented in this process and feel part of it. The most successful organisations are those with a cohesive brand identity that everyone can understand, align to and promote. However conflicting opinions, values and priorities can risk this cohesion and leaders must leverage strong communication skills to overcome this, as David explains.
“In an era where financial cuts have caused irreparable harm and diminished public trust, you can appreciate why some people question if increased investment into brand is the right way to invest resources. Faced with the threat of declining enrollments, our leadership team came around quickly, however faculties had doubts. My role in leadership was to help them understand that brand was inextricably connected to our teaching and research mission. Great leaders communicate with their staff in a way that’s humble, authentic and transparent. I tried hard to explain how we made a decision, what the expected outcomes were, and who we consulted along the way. It’s important for leaders to understand the impact of layering on work and obligation onto stretched faculties. I’ve been sensitive to this for my entire leadership career, because I spent the first 16 years of my career as a faculty member. Whilst we are committed to helping them understand how brand supports strategic priorities, we have to do it efficiently without asking for more of their time. At the end of the day, what leaders want to do is build trust with our faculties. If we build trust, they’re more likely to say, well, I don’t fully understand but I trust their leadership of our institution so let’s see where it takes us.”
With brand inextricably linked to both teaching and research missions, it is important to get it right. Whilst rankings still play an important role in student decision making, there is much more that can be drawn upon to tell an authentic and enticing narrative of your institution, as David outlines.
“I personally don’t favour playing the rankings game, I try to talk more about reputation and impact. We need to get away from chasing rankings and think really honestly and strategically about what we are as a university, who we serve, what our best destiny is and how we can distinguish ourselves from other competitors in the marketplace. I think most universities often fail to tell their story and fall back on old narratives or piece things together as they think of them. But it’s critically important that universities tell their story, then come together as an organisation to build affinity, appreciation and ultimately great pride across the institution. The universities that lean into that challenge are the ones that are going to win the day. Where outcomes are not realised or are different to those unintended then you own those and decide whether you pivot, refactor the investment, change the goals, or move into a different strategy ”
A central obstacle in distilling the narrative of a complex organisation like a university is deciding on the core challenge to address. David and the team at the University of Vermont started with the ultimate goal of enrolments and found multiple benefits in doing so.
“We committed to focusing our branding and marketing efforts on the enrollment management challenge. We knew that if we aimed for this, the materials and capabilities could be repurposed for almost every other part of the university. For example, our clearly stated mission could be applied in the mainstream media, social media, recruiting pieces of talking points and our solidified colour templates established a visual identity that was to be used throughout the university. It’s very much a living document. We are consistent in using it and ensuring others within the university work within the brand identity too. There was a lot of resistance because faculties, quite frankly, don’t like to be told what graphics to include or which PowerPoint template to use. But eventually, the vast majority of the university came around because it looked good and it was fun to be part of a university that had a cohesive brand identity.”
Whilst changing your brand identity will take commitment from colleagues across the business (and potentially externally too) now could be a great time to do, as David explains..
“Many universities are complicated organisations that are slow to change, but we’ve learned through the pandemic we’re more agile and capable of effecting change than we gave ourselves credit for. I’m hopeful that will open new doors for universities as they think about much needed change, whether evolutionary or revolutionary. From my experience it’s helpful if you have a subdivision where you can take more risks and reduce some of the liability. This could be through a foundation, research park, or another sub organisation that is more creative, nimble and innovative. It’s a good way for universities to try new things without putting the entire institution at risk, reputationally or financially. If it’s successful you can celebrate that success and scale that into more of the university. I’m a big believer in this incubator model and finding a safe place to try some higher risk, potentially higher reward things.”
If you are thinking about evolving your brand narrative (or have already begun this journey) and would like to discuss how you can ensure it is ultimately successful, get in touch with us here at The Brand Education. We offer thought leadership and workshops and we’re always excited to hear from you.