Linking Brand and Philanthropy Can Lead to the Extraordinary

For many colleges and universities, planning and launching a comprehensive (or capital) campaign can be the catalyst for broader marketing and branding efforts. After all, if you’re going to try to convince alumni and donors to give money to a school’s vision, you’d better have your story straight.

Others, however, (having won the hard-fought budget battle) have already invested in researching, building and launching their institutional brands, using truly integrated strategies with measurable outcomes and amazing creative work that drive a variety of campaigns, from advertising to fundraising. In these cases, choosing a different direction for the capital campaign could confuse—or even weaken—the overall institutional brand.

As we’ve said many times before, there are two tendencies in higher ed that can undermine an institution’s ability to realize the ROI of a branding effort, regardless of its origins. First, internally we start to tire of our messages just as they’re beginning to gain some traction with our audiences. And, second, new leaders in an industry that has fairly regular transitions often want to “put their stamp” on things. In both cases, a bit of research and insight can help in pointing toward the right direction.

Which brings us to a great example from NC State University. In 2013, NC State launched a branding effort intended to demonstrate how the university merges “creative, innovative ideas with purposeful action,” a position brought to life through the concept, “Think and Do.” It’s one of higher ed’s best strategies and worth a deeper look. Not coincidentally, as NC State has become more strategic in its marketing efforts, its place in rankings, reputation and visibility, enrollment and fundraising have all swelled.

Two-and-a-half years later, as the university got closer to launching a $1.6 billion campaign, some began asking—as happens at many institutions—whether “Think and Do” was still relevant and motivating among alumni and donors. And that’s where SimpsonScarborough came in.

“Through a comprehensive branding effort, our ‘Think and Do’ theme was widely embraced by the campus community as it truly represents NC State’s legacy and can-do spirit,” said Brad Bohlander, Chief Communications Officer. “When it came time to create a campaign identity that would build upon the brand implementation’s success, we selected SimpsonScarborough to lead a research-informed, consensus-driven effort across campus and with our key constituents.”

Through a series of interviews and discussions with campus leadership and both qualitative and quantitative research with alumni and donors, a clear picture came into view of just how fully “Think and Do” was embraced across audiences. The most important pieces of the puzzle:

  • Stakeholders felt that “Think and Do” not only reflects NC State currently but also that it should represent the university into the future.
  • The phrase “Think and Do”—and all it represents—makes alums feel proud and increases their interest in supporting or giving back to the university.
  • Proclivity towards “Think and Do” was higher among donors who indicated a strong likelihood to give to NC State’s campaign.
  • A lot of alumni still had not been exposed to “Think and Do.”

The only shortcoming of the concept was that it was perceived by some to be too simple and lacking in emotion for a fundraising campaign. Words like “extraordinary” or, even better, phrases like “courage to think beyond boundaries and power to do the extraordinary,” evoked more feeling and personality.

With these findings and other insights, a clear strategy emerged. The data supported the opportunity to further enhance brand equity by building on “Think and Do” and making it even more appealing with the addition of some inspirational language and narratives.

With this strategy in mind, SimpsonScarborough recommended a campaign name—Think and Do The Extraordinary—that inspires donors while reinforcing the university’s brand promise of creating economic, societal and intellectual prosperity. It didn’t hurt that legendary NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano had a memorable line from a speech, “Every day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things.”

Together with our creative partner, The D4D, we developed a brand mantra and supporting messaging platform that guided the development of everything from creating a case statement to planning inspiring events. An emotion-packed video strategy announced the campaign, was used at the gala event, and created assets used in broader marketing, digital and social channels. It pulls the elements together, showing how the powerful ethos of “Think and Do” is propelling NC State toward an even more prosperous future.

“SimpsonScarborough’s research was critical in creating a campaign name, giving categories and key messages that both accurately reflect NC State and inspire our key audiences,” said Bohlander. “Built on this work we launched the campaign at the end of October, and the feedback has been—extraordinary.”

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