Is Your Brand Working? A Checklist for Assessing Its Endurance

How do you know if you have a strong brand strategy? When you achieve your marketing goals, of course! But there are other, more subtle ingredients for branding success. If you can give a firm “yes” to at least six of the 10 questions below, you are headed in the right direction.

  1. Is your brand strategy written down? A strong brand is not a vague sense of your institution’s identity. It must be documented carefully, vetted with key stakeholders, and shared widely.
  2. Did you conduct research before you wrote your brand strategy? And I’m not talking about two days of interviews with faculty and staff. Your brand strategy should be rooted in quantitative research with internal and, more importantly, external constituents.
  3. Were key internal stakeholders involved in the creation of your brand strategy? Brand strategy development must be a group effort. And it can take a long time to get it right. Engage, engage, engage … and be patient.  Branding is a long-term endeavor. Getting it done quickly so you can share it at the next board meeting is likely to backfire.
  4. Is your marketing integrated? Across audiences? Across tools? The messaging and design of your website should parallel your print communications, digital advertising, environmentals, events, social strategy, and even your President’s speeches. And there should be a clear relationship between your marketing to your prospective students, guidance counselors, alumni, donors, business leaders, higher ed peers, and other key audiences.
  5. Does your hiring process include education on the brand? Your faculty and staff are the ones who have to live the brand promise on a daily basis — in their actions and in the decisions they make on behalf of the institution. They need to know not only what they are buying into but also the institutional expectations for operationalizing the brand at every level. So be sure to put brand on the agenda for job interviews and include it in new employee onboarding programs.
  6. Do all campus marketers understand the brand and know how to implement it? Let’s say you have 25 marketers on your centralized team and 150 marketers sprinkled across campus (adjust the numbers for your reality). One brand training before your brand launch doesn’t cover it. Regular brand trainings for all campus marketers are essential.
  7. Is your brand championed throughout your institution, from the President on down? Buy-in for your brand strategy is crucial. Otherwise, the marketing program you are developing based on your brand is just another campaign. Two or three years later, you will be back at the drawing board coming up with a new idea. A strong brand endures.
  8. Do you educate external partners on your brand? All third-party providers of services related to marketing and communications must receive guidelines on correct usage and implementation of your brand strategy.
  9. Is the brand viewed as more than just your visual identity or marketing platform? Your brand is not just the way your institution “spins” its marketing. It can’t be separated from the true identity of your college. (I can’t convince you I’m funny if I’m not.) Educate your campus to recognize that managing the brand is a mission-critical element of your institution’s success that reaches far beyond the marketing department.
  10. Is your brand integrated with your institution’s strategic plan? If so, then your brand strategy is a fundamental driver behind your institution’s long-term goals.

If you are a higher ed marketer, you probably know all of this. What may help is to pass along this list to your Dean, Provost, or President. Share it with your faculty and the marketers embedded in various offices throughout your campus. Brand is one of the most misunderstood concepts in higher education. Success will come when everyone on your campus recognizes that the marketing department doesn’t create the brand, it simply reflects the brand to internal and external audiences. The brand is what you do, not what you say.

(Note: This blog post was inspired by Tracy Syler-Jones, Vice Chancellor for Marketing & Communication at TCU. She is able to answer “yes” to #5, which is super rare.)


So You’re Not Going to Test Your Creative Concepts? Here Are 5 to Think Again

“The President knows what she wants.”

“We did some focus groups.”

“Everyone in marcom feels really great about Concept 2, and we know this place.”

I’ve heard all the excuses. And I don’t buy them. After 20 (gulp) years in this industry, I’ve seen my fair share of brands, campaigns, and logos launched. Most faced a few bumps here and there along the way, but none were as fraught as those that didn’t (truly, quantitatively) test creative concepts before executing. While you’ll never fully escape the trolls and critics, here are five critical reasons for testing that will make the process smoother in the long run.

  1. Testing is an insurance policy for your creative. I vividly remember one of my first higher ed creative projects, in which my then-company was being paid to basically redo a university’s perfectly good campaign that had been summarily (and aggressively) rejected by faculty and staff because they felt it had been “created in a back room.” Concept testing is a very public process that can feel risky, but really isn’t. It gives everyone an equal opportunity to weigh in on creative directions being considered, so that when the arrows eventually start flying, you’ll have a strong shield to deflect them.
  2. Testing is an opportunity to share your strategy with the campus community. I recently read a Medium article cautioning against being too quick to judge a rebrand. The author notes, “Often times when you get to know the strategy behind [a rebrand], … you can start to appreciate the changes made. Creating a rebrand is a big problem to solve, and there are a lot more things to consider below the surface than the logo.” A concept survey can—and should—test more than visuals. It should gauge how well the concept supports and reflects key brand positioning and messaging points that many constituents otherwise may not have been aware of.
  3. Testing provides invaluable perspective. You can never predict how a set of concepts is going to be received by any audience without testing. I once was presenting concepts to a room of marketing and enrollment professionals who were unanimous that they wanted to skip testing and pick concept 1 because they were convinced that its vivid colors and more casual language would be most appealing to prospective students. We convinced them to test, and the results showed that their prospects overwhelmingly favored the more traditional and serious concept 2 because “This is a decision that affects the course of our life—it’s not just a TV show or pair of sneakers.”
  4. Testing allows you to move beyond the subjective. If a concept review process has gotten to the point where you have to consider that Board member Jack hates orange or VP Mary prefers sans serif type, you’ve lost the battle. Through quantitative testing, you can elicit a more strategic response from your stakeholders. In one of our recent concept surveys, for example, we found that a majority of the university’s audiences—students, faculty, and alumni—believed that concept 2 very much reflected the university of today—great, right? A real validation of authenticity. However, in the very next question, they rated concept 1 as best reflecting the way they want the university to be perceived in the future. So it was a no-brainer for a struggling school to confidently move forward with the more aspirational concept 1.
  5. Testing may reveal none of your concepts are quite right. And that’s ok. Creative concepting is an iterative process, and testing should not be considered its end. Even though there are many instances where one concept is a turn-key home run, there are many others where testing provides valuable information about various elements from multiple concepts. We use those findings to guide refinements to language and design for a final concept that resonates in just the right ways for the institution’s target audiences.

I can’t state it strongly enough: Please test your creative concepts. And then keep testing your actual creative periodically once it’s out in the market. But that’s a longer blog post for another day.

Articles from 2017 Worth a (Re)Read

Politics, free speech, diversity, and the narrative of a changing time not only permeated the national conversation, but also dominated discussions, debates, and articles about higher education in 2017.

In what has become an annual SimpsonScarborough tradition, here is our list of articles from the past year that are worthy of a re-read (or maybe first read if you’ve been as busy as we have!).

  • A change in presidential administrations can bring about a shift in priorities. This is especially true when the newly elected president comes from a different party. Vox looked at how Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in her less-than-one-year tenure, has already made her mark on higher education in the U.S., impacting for-profit colleges, sexual assault guidelines, student debt, and more.
  • Groundskeeper. Mechanic. Secretary to the Board. Interlibrary Loan Manager. Social Media Manager. The Chronicle of Higher Education profiled five people who operate in these positions for a compelling look into some of the most underappreciated people that keep institutions running. (Reminder to check the holiday-card list one more time.)
  • An issue that sparked numerous think pieces this year was free speech on campus. In an effort to add its voice to the debate, The Washington Post explored poll data on Americans’ opinions regarding free speech on college campuses. While findings indicate general support, it’s a complicated issue, and the answers are not always clear-cut.
  • Institutions of higher education in the U.S. have been accused throughout the years of secularizing the American public. FiveThirtyEight challenged that assumption with data that shows that, today, many Americans who are leaving religion are doing so before they even step foot on campus.
  • One issue that will surely continue to make headlines in 2018 is the GOP tax plan and its potential impacts on higher education. The Chronicle outlined how various stakeholders, including institutions themselves, could and would be affected by the proposed bill.
  • Vox addressed an issue that is a sign of changing times with an explainer article that explores whether transgendered students can go to women’s colleges.
  • The New York Times laid out the reality many institutions are facing in the Trump-era when it comes to foreign student applications — 40% of colleges saw a drop in applications as early as three months into Trump’s presidency.
  • There is power in language. This year, Yale took steps to stop usage of words that are not gender-inclusive — a step that might become a trend in the coming years. Inside Higher Ed told the story.
  • The Chronicle published one of the more controversial articles of the year — an article that likened colleges’ digital marketing tactics targeting applicants, parents, and lawmakers to the tactics the Russians used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Needless to say, there are a few responses worth reading.)
  • According to the most recent complete data for the U.S. (fall of 2012), 25% of students took at least one online course. But as new media expert and NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky pointed out, no one noticed that the digital revolution in higher education has already happened.


What Not to Miss at AMA (P.S. You’re going to love our booth!)

As we look ahead to the 2017 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, we have a long list of interesting sessions we want to attend. The topics are timely and innovative, and we already know we will come away with new ideas to approach our work. In looking at the schedule, several sessions stood out that speak directly to the “hot” topics our clients have been asking us the most about during the past year.

Gen Zers

Following some great sessions from last year, understanding the mindset and motivations of our digital-loving youth is still top-of-mind for marketers. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, as Jason Simon explained in his article last month, we can’t wait to hear Google’s perspective and learn about University of Cincinnati’s ideas for connecting with today’s prospects:

  • The Future Student. Nicole Ziady, Assistant Vice President, Marketing and Digital Communications, University of Cincinnati. Monday, November 13, 10:15 (Track 3)
  • Keynote: The Challenges and Opportunities of Engaging and Educating Generation Z. Jamie Casap, Education Evangelist, Google. Tuesday, November 14, 8:30


Diversity is no longer an institutional differentiator, but an expectation among prospective students. As such, it is top of mind among leadership, marketers, and admissions teams. How do we increase diversity? Do we need to change our marketing efforts to do so? We look forward to Stanford School of Engineering’s session on this complex topic.

  • Putting Diversity at the Center of Communications and Content Strategy. Here’s Why and How. Michael Freedman, Chief Communications Officer and Director of Alumni Relations, Stanford School of Engineering. Tuesday, November 14, 11:15 (Track 3)

Social Media & Digital Strategy

As Kristen Ingels notes in her article this month, 40.5% of all U.S. media spending is now digital. The impact for higher ed marketing is real, and questions loom large. Where should we place our digital ads? How can we track their success? What kind of content is most engaging? Approaches to social and digital strategy are constantly evolving to better fit into an institution’s overall marketing strategy, and a couple of Tuesday’s sessions get right to the heart of it.

  • Video Storytelling & Distribution for Social Media. Emily Kraft Truax, Assistant Director of Social Media, Boston University and Alan Wong, Executive Producer, BU Productions. Tuesday, November 14, 10:15 (Track 2)
  • The Diamond in the Data: How Digital Strategy Creates Data Stories for Internal Audiences. Kyle Delaney, Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives and Marketing at the McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University, and Ann Oleson, CEO, Converge Consulting. Tuesday, November 14, 4:00 (Track 2)

Institutional Branding

At SimpsonScarborough, we are constantly talking with our clients about the importance of moving beyond attributes to communicate the aspects of your college or university’s brand that are both real and relevant. Tapping into both the IQ and the EQ is imperative to creating an inspiring and enduring brand strategy. Be sure to check out our session and others that delve into the evolution of higher ed branding.

  • Power to the People: A Human-Centered Approach to Marketing Strategy. Kimberly Elenez, Chief Marketing Officer, Development, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; John Kiralla, Vice President for Marketing and Communications, Loyola Marymount University; Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO and Partner, SimpsonScarborough; and Jason Simon, Vice President and Partner, SimpsonScarborough. Monday, November 13, 10:15 (Track 5)
  • Branding the Value Proposition of a Liberal Arts Education. Kate Garry, Director of Communications and Marketing, University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters; and Josh Weinhold, Assistant Communications Director, University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters. Tuesday, November 14, 11:15 (Track 1)

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure my brain (and feet!) are going to need a little R&R during these jam-packed days. So be sure to stop by our booth in the exhibitor hall—we are excited to show you how we approached our space this year. Looking forward to another great conference!

Social (Media) Cues, Part I: Becoming a Hashtag Hero

For more than a decade, they’ve helped copywriters bulk up social media efforts by adding pounds to our posts.

And everyone knows they’re also great for making lame jokes.

From Day One, #hashtags have provided a super-easy way to categorize content and find interesting stuff on social platforms. For us marketers in #highered, tags are increasingly how students and alumni connect and share with our institutions — and how our institutions share with students and alumni.

But even after 10 years, there’s still a lot of misuse and room for improvement out there.

So let’s take a minute to talk about how to avoid some of the bad habits and make sure your social campaigns are working hard enough for you. With just a few simple tricks, even basic social media users can go from hashtag hobo to hashtag hero.

1) Tie your tagging to real branding goals.

A hashtag campaign should be more than an afterthought. It’s not just writing something elegant or witty preceded by a #. It’s more than jamming every post with the maximum number of characters. And it’s more than showing our friends and co-workers how delightfully #funny and #savvy we can be.

Before the posting ever starts, the smartest teams are thinking through hashtag campaigns with the same strategic logic they already devote to other marketing goals:

  • What do we want to say?
  • Whom do we want to reach?
  • How do you want them to engage? (What do we want them to do?)

A little bit of clarity can help remind ourselves of what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve.

2) Choose your hashtag with intention.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the loveable, yet sometimes insufferable hashtag humorists in our lives, it’s this: that little # symbol can be used in a lot of different ways. Here’s a quick primer of the types of tags we encounter, and what they’re best at:

Branded Tags: Awareness-focused

After launching a new initiative, a branded tag can help build awareness for your efforts. Shown here with #BerkeleyPOV.

These are unique hashtags that — for the most part — others aren’t using on social media. That makes them ownable, which is the whole point.

Of course, it can take time for a branded hashtag to catch on, if it catches on at all. So, many social strategists enlist some support from the second kind of tag: community tags.

Community Tags: Engagement-focused

These are the ones people already use in their daily social conversations. Using community tags requires a bit or research to see what’s out there. But it’s fun to dive in — and it’s usually worth the effort. Since community tags meet people where they are, you can reach a larger number of people faster than you can with just a branded tag, which can take a while to catch on.

Start by seeking out tags that are popular with your desired audiences, and start adopting those tags to join conversations where your message may be interesting or helpful to someone.

Trending Tags: Thought-leadership-focused

Community tags drive us to ongoing daily conversations about a topic. #HigherEd, for example. But Trending Tags take us to the latest news of the hour — even the minute.


Like catching a wave, savvy higher ed teams spend time monitoring trending hashtags on Twitter and Instagram to spot opportunities where they might add something valuable to the conversation — something about their institution’s research, academic programs, or a range of other messages.

If your university has something interesting and relevant to say about a topic (and I’m betting you do), have your social team jump on it. #stat.

3) Use the perfect amount of hashtags.

Twitter: It Takes (Only Two)

It’s important to respect your elders, so we’ll talk first about the channel where all this hashtag nonsense began — Twitter.

Tweets with hashtags get nearly twice as much engagement as tweets without hashtags. But according to TrackMaven, tweets with more than 2 hashtags saw a 17% drop in engagement.

So stick with two tags. Using a ton of them on Twitter not only feels cluttered, it’s downright uncivilized. As a user, I often feel like there’s a robot trying to reach me, not a real person.

And remember, your #hilarioushashtagjoke may be fun, but it likely won’t do anything for engagement. Although I admit, it is sometimes hard to resist.

Instagram: 5 or more (but not 30)

Instagram is a different beast. Everyone is a bit more hashtag happy on Insta. Believe it or not, posts with 5 or more tags usually get double the amount of interactions as posts without any, according to TrackMaven.

#But #what #is #the #deal #with #people #using #huge #piles #of #hashtags #at #the #bottom #of #their #posts?

This shotgun approach stems from the fact that Instagram gives you 30 tags to use per post. The problem? It doesn’t deliberately target the communities or conversations you want to reach — the people who might truly be interested in your ideas. And if you’re stretching too far too often to squeeze generic hashtags into your content, you might even trigger an Instagram shadow ban.

To build your brand over the long run, the gurus mostly say you should stick to 11 or fewer tags that are relevant to the people you want to reach — including a mix of tags your audience already uses and some branded tags to generate awareness of your institution.

Putting it all together

One of my favorite examples of this comes from my Alma Mater (and SimpsonScarborough client) Ohio State. OSU kills it on Instagram. A few years ago, their team of savvy social media folks started asking followers to share O-H-I-O photos on social media using the #OHIO tag.

#OHIOThis kind of smart thinking and execution made the O-H-I-O campaign a smash success. Five years on, the effort has taken on a life of its own, including an official webpage with more than 16,500 images submitted.

To recap: It’s 2017, people. The best brand teams know there’s a lot to gain from putting hashtags to good, smart use helping students and alumni find you, and giving them something meaningful to share, like this example from our friends at Butler University:


#tag #on.