Start at Home: Higher Ed Brands Require Inside-Out Thinking

Perhaps the most feared words a higher ed marketer can hear are “we’re the best kept secret,” or the even more dreaded “if we only told our story better.” They are phrases every seasoned professional has no doubt heard in their careers. And they are often drivers of strategies, creative or campaigns that may be rushed to market, feel empty or less than authentic, become ridiculed, or are very often abandoned as soon as new leadership arrives at the university or within marketing.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Developing a higher ed brand and bringing it to market is challenging. Higher ed marketers operate in complex, decentralized and under-resourced environments. And unlike consumer marketing challenges, there aren’t single products or customer profiles.

Colleges and universities have multiple stakeholders that have both shared and very different experiences with the campus across a spectrum of their lifetimes. There are multiple institutions that share a similar profile, competitive set, strengths, academic programs, experiences and so much more. It’s why differentiation in higher ed can be so challenging and also why judging a strategy or creative on those simple terms is shallow analysis.

These challenges require that higher ed branding be led by an inside-out strategy. We are often too quick to rush out the door, telling the world the story we want them to know without considering the importance, influence, and voice that those closest to the institution can have in ensuring that your brand is a magnet.

Which brings me to the recent success our client, Stony Brook University, has enjoyed with the launch of its brand earlier this month. Working together with the Stony Brook team (along with digital partner OHO Interactive and media partner Butler/Till), the successful launch was driven by research and followed an inside-out process.

In building the strategy, the research revealed a strong sense of momentum the institution enjoys, the clear drivers they could own to increase reputation and improve awareness, and—perhaps just as importantly—how they were misperceived by those outside the institution and how internal stakeholders were reinforcing lingering misperceptions from Stony Brook’s past.


Those inputs, along with a transparent process in sharing market research findings and early creative ideas and directions, testing those concepts through quantitative methods (vs anecdotal feedback on colors or designs) and truly reviewing them at each step with internal stakeholders, led to final direction that was accepted for being well thought out, properly vetted and widely supported by internal stakeholders.

The brand concept, FAR BEYOND, is meant to demonstrate the ways in which Stony Brook goes beyond the expected. It’s intentional in using narratives that demonstrate the interdisciplinary work of the campus, show influence and reach outside of New York, capture the ways in which the University is enabling social mobility and transformation, and demonstrate the unique programs and people that are creating such influence.

The brand strategy and guidelines lift a solid Stony Brook visual identity (created previously) with bold, dynamic typography, photography and video and give direction for tone and personality that comes through writing and story choices.

In developing the comprehensive launch plan, Stony Brook prioritized internal audiences and reflected the brand back to them in order to give stakeholders the tools and foundation to share the FAR BEYOND story.


Stony Brook’s sense of scale, impact and optimism is captured through video. Large-scale graphics were hung on the sides of campus buildings, dining halls, and throughout the academic mall. And students, faculty and staff have been empowered and informed in spreading the story.

The inside-out strategy extends through a first-phase approach to advertising that is designed to reach internal stakeholders and alumni. A focus has been placed in increasing engagement and voice in social and digital channels even with simple geo-filters on Snapchat that will be used during on-campus events this spring. And alumni, influencers and other on-campus audiences will see the debut of Stony Brook’s dynamic new magazine in their mailboxes in the coming weeks.

Just like Stony Brook itself, FAR BEYOND will morph and evolve. But by placing an emphasis in bringing stakeholders along throughout the journey and honoring their voices in the early phases of the effort, Stony Brook has a brand built to endure.


CMO Study Underway: How Has Higher Ed Marketing Changed?

SimpsonScarborough has partnered with The Chronicle of Higher Education and CASE for a comprehensive study of higher ed marketing that will build on the inaugural 2014 study to track our industry’s progress. Results of the 2016 study will be released at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in December.

If you are the CMO (or equivalent) at your institution, you should have already received an invitation to participate in the study. If you haven’t or have any questions, please email Chelsea Woodard at for your customized link to complete the survey.

Missed our 2014 summary and can’t wait for 2016 data? Take a look at our quick summary or download the full report.

How an Internal Blog Can Help Reposition Your Marcom Team as Strategic Leaders

Once considered primarily a news bureau focused on media relations, the role of the marketing and communications department has and continues to shift dramatically. And while higher ed marketers certainly know that marcom today is responsible for more than just responding to media inquiries or producing brochures, many of our clients still struggle to shake the existing campus perception of a news bureau or internal Kinko’s center. In fact, in our 2014 CMO study, almost half you agreed with the statement: “Others around campus generally think the marketing department’s primary role is to produce brochures.”

One simple way to help your team navigate the shift and win support from others on campus is to start an internal blog. Whether it be via Tumblr, Medium, or hosted on your university website, the purpose of an internal blog should be two-fold: 1) Serve as an internal resource for those in marketing and communications roles across your university 2) Share and celebrate successes with your community on a regular basis.

Not only will this help marcom be more widely understood and respected across your campus, it can help develop valuable partnerships with your coworkers and position you as a strategic leader and resource rather than simply the brand police. And down the line, when you have a major initiative – research, rebranding, website design, social media campaign – or just have new resources available on your brand site, it offers a fantastic platform to share progress, gather feedback, and inform some of your key internal audiences that you’ll want involved.

Here are a handful of great inspirations from higher ed and beyond:

  1. The marketing team behind the Refinery29 Intelligence Tumblr site focuses on email marketing and social media strategy, posting updates and insights as they continuously improve and optimize their platforms. They do a great job of sharing concrete data and visuals that help demonstrate the various user research and tests they regularly conduct.
  2. Colorado State University consistently posts tips and best practices, outlining the successes and failures of their innovative social media team. West Virginia University regularly documents their hugely successful experiments on Snapchat and other social media channels. Duke University, Princeton University, University of New Hampshire, and University of Michigan also each have their own blog that includes helpful case studies, news and trends primarily focused on social media.
  3. The University of Bath truly offers a behind-the-scenes look at their Digital Marketing & Communications team, regularly sharing notes from their digital team’s latest sprint and outlining what is planned for the week ahead. They include important status updates as well as lessons learned from across web, social and other topics.

A Tweet or a Snap: How to Speak to Students on Social Media

As an incoming freshman at a university with over 50,000 graduate and undergraduate students, I was worried that I would find it difficult to feel connected with my school just given its sheer size. But that worry quickly dissipated, in part because of University of Florida’s strong social media presence. It not only introduced me to different opportunities and student organizations on campus, but also made me feel included. Here are a few tips—from a student’s perspective—for successfully engaging with your prospects and current students through social media:

1) Speak their language: Speaking students’ language goes beyond referencing the phrases and campus buzz that they use regularly. It also means choosing the social media platforms your students are on. For example, UF has seen great success sharing photos and video content on Snapchat. Through the account @UF1853, the university shares content from a broad range of different events on campus—from large concerts and comedy shows to tabling fairs and charity fundraisers. While UF’s Facebook and Twitter share some of the same information, Snapchat’s in-the-moment snapshots of events align with what students are watching and help them feel more involved. So which types of content are students looking for where?

  • Facebook and Instagram lend themselves to the use of vibrant images. Paired with concise text, your posts should keep students informed about important dates, school history, upcoming events, and undiscovered parts of campus.
  • Twitter generally allows for a wittier tone and the successful integration of GIFs. Twitter is a great place to listen to what your students think and feel about your institution, and to let them know you’re listening. In addition, the ease with which students can retweet increases the number of impressions your media can have.
  • Snapchat draws attention to real-time, social events going on around campus and can motivate students to engage almost immediately by participating in the event being featured.
  • YouTube shines as a great platform for showcasing your institution’s stellar athletics, beautiful campus, or active student life.
  • LinkedIn is primarily used by current students as a networking tool to connect with alumni in careers and fields that interest them.

2) Be responsive: You’ve likely already seen how many students and student organizations want to engage with you on social media. Just take a look at who is tagging your university. Whether students are looking for a direct response to a question or sharing a view of your beautiful campus, quick and timely responses help build student satisfaction and let students know their thoughts are valued.

3) Maintain consistency: Students don’t just use social media during application and commencement season – they are using it multiple times a day year-round. Encourage student engagement by having a consistent social media voice and maintaining a consistent number of posts created, shared, or interacted with throughout the year.

An effective social strategy can help students feel like they’re in a room of 50, whether your student population is 5,000 or 50,000.

Eduardo Da Costa is a Project Strategy Intern at SimpsonScarborough. He is a fourth year Marketing student at the University of Florida and appreciates market research, binge-watching Friday Night Lights, and those 15-second food tutorial videos being shared around Facebook.

How Colleges Can Advocate on Behalf of Students in the Face of Mounting Debt

The current generation of prospective undergraduate students is faced with the harsh reality of mounting student debt and unforgiving loan rates. The already complicated exercise of assessing the “value” of a school now includes much more than looking at the mix of location, athletics, and potential enrichment experiences an institution offers. As prospective students visit college websites, set up campus tours, and search databases on the internet, financial aid is increasingly influencing their decision process.

In order to support this recognized need, many colleges have taken significant steps to advocate on the behalf of prospective students through programs that increase aid and offer financial literacy training. At Franklin & Marshall College, such initiatives have reduced the average debt of a graduating student by $7,000 in the last three years.

Here are some ways to help prospective and current students:

  1. Increase Transparency with Prospective Students: The U.S. Department of Education’s Financial Aid Shopping Sheet serves as a scorecard to help students understand what an education with a specific college or university would mean for them and their fiscal future. Intended to replace or supplement a school’s financial aid award letter to students, this “Shopping Sheet” communicates total costs of attendance and anticipated aid for a specific school, including but not limited to scholarships, grants, and most notably, average expected loan payments following graduation. Nearly 3,000 colleges and universities have opted to participate in this program.
  2. Increase Financial Literacy of Current Students: Many students enter college with a limited understanding of financial aid. They don’t know how to get it or how to avoid being taken advantage of by lenders. As a result, it is important to create a culture of collaboration between colleges and universities and students. Offering loan counseling services during the financial aid application season can give students the tools they need to navigate the process and become capable and informed borrowers.

Shannon Berg is a Project Strategy Intern at SimpsonScarborough. She is a senior at Christopher Newport University majoring in Psychology and Leadership. When she isn’t interning, she loves reading, hiking, and watching crime television.