American University

How we helped American be themselves — and make history in higher ed marketing

With more than a century of history dating back to its charter by an Act of Congress in 1893, American University (AU) is well-known, especially in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2009, they came to SimpsonScarborough for help clarifying and strengthening the AU brand — and setting it apart from nearby schools.

With an innovative, growing creative team and a president who deeply understood the value of marketing, they were ready for change. But they needed to understand the AU brand inside and out. The American University communications team wanted to know:

  • What sets AU apart in the minds of students, faculty, alumni, and community leaders?
  • What drives students to consider or choose AU?
  • What branding opportunities could they seize to strengthen American University’s reputation, enlarge the quality and diversity of undergraduate enrollment, increase graduate enrollment, and improve alumni involvement and support?
  • How could they best reach each of their key audiences?

SimpsonScarborough designed a comprehensive research plan to assess the brand. Online surveys engaged prospective undergraduates, current students and their parents, alumni, faculty, staff, higher education peers, and guidance counselors to get a quantitative picture of brand awareness and perceptions. In-depth interviews with prospective graduate students, high school influencers, and government, business, and community leaders drove our qualitative understanding of the brand. Then, based on those results, further consultation with key faculty experts helped to focus and refine findings.

The brand assessment confirmed a lack of awareness among important target audiences, and showed that some of AU’s older messaging strategies weren’t compelling for all audiences. Instead, audiences were focused on the present and future: AU’s focus on active citizenship, politically and socially engaged students, tremendous network of well-connected leaders and experts, and rich opportunities in Washington to apply learning outside the classroom. Our findings helped the team prioritize audiences and spot opportunities to differentiate AU from other top universities in the Washington, DC area.

Using the resulting brand strategy as the foundation, AU’s creative team developed a campaign that was authentic and powerful. With research backing them up, they built consensus around a major marketing effort that would help draw the line between AU’s strong academics and the people driving political and social change in Washington and beyond. Terry Flannery, AU’s VP of Communications, explains it best: “Wonk, a very Washington word, is ‘know’ spelled backward. If you know something backward and forward, and you’re passionate about using your knowledge to engage and make a difference, you’re a wonk.”

The KNOW/WONK campaign, which launched in fall of 2010, registered early success: Impact included front-page coverage in the Washington Post (an achievement fit for wonks!), a 58% increase in web traffic, and a 175% increase in social media engagement.

Over time, the longer term results are compelling. In five years, undergraduate applications increased and in 2015, AU had its most selective admissions season ever. Since launch, admit rates dropped more than 15%, yield rates increased 12%, freshman classes are increasingly more diverse, and the percentage of students for whom AU is their first choice increased by 10%. In addition, alumni engagement has more than doubled through volunteering, participation in events, and giving.

In 2013, AU asked us back to find out how the brand strategy, as well as the WONK campaign, had changed perceptions. Our research, which revisited the major questions asked in 2009, showed that the brand strategy had real traction. The messages were sticking, and awareness of wonk and its relevance for AU were recognized. American’s reputation was strengthening, it made gains against competitors for awareness and perceptions of quality, and respondents were proud of the school’s direction, achievements, and recent visibility. The external validation — like a rise in US News & World Report rankings that’s now 13 points since launch — was confirmed by rigorous internal research.

In the last five years, American has bolstered its brand, boldly claimed a word, and built an internal culture that supports innovative, risk-taking creative work.

We were proud to be part of it, and we’ll always be happy to say we’re wonks.

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Images by American University Communications & Marketing Department