How to Assemble Your Team of Brand Co-Conspirators

New and prospective clients often ask us for advice regarding the process and management of an institutional market research and branding effort. At this point in the initiative, they typically have received budget approval (or are close!) and have determined the project scope, both of which are major feats and worthy of celebration in and of themselves. However, their minds may quickly go from excitement and thrill to the realization that they are going to be responsible not only for championing the project, but also for ensuring key stakeholders across campus are involved and engaged from the beginning to the end and beyond.

In an industry that is comically plagued by committees, we still strongly recommend assembling a steering committee to tackle this initiative. But rather than thinking about this group as a loosely strung together set of individual representatives across your campus, we encourage you to approach committee member selection as a strategic exercise. You will not regret being very purposeful and thoughtful in forming this group, as it is a decision that will impact both the short- and long-term success of the project.

In the recent podcast episode, “Creative Confidence Series: Tackling big change in your organization,” IDEO’s Owen Rogers walks through his approach to working with companies on big existential challenges and changes. Similar to what we experience with many of our clients, Rogers says that identifying the right committee members and positioning them as a “coalition of co-conspirators” is one of the key components of enabling change and ensuring project success. And it isn’t only the effort of forming the group, but more importantly, it’s the type of people included that can have a dramatic effect. IDEO identifies three distinct types of people that must be included as members of the collaborative team. Regardless of the size of your institution or scope of your project, these useful guidelines can be referenced to ensure your committee will be effective in shepherding the initiative on your campus.

  1. Sponsors. These individuals most often come from campus leadership. However, that isn’t a blanket approach, and it really comes down to identifying who is championing the project. For a brand effort to be most successful on your campus, we recommend that it include the president and the chief marketing officer (or the relevant individual at your campus), at a minimum. Depending on the goals and scope of the project, it may also include other key members such as Board or Cabinet members. Deans and leaders from departments such as student affairs, admissions, development, and athletics are other important players to consider. It is important to think through the right balance of those who need to be official committee members vs. those who just need periodic updates throughout the initiative.
  2. Enthusiasts. To identity these individuals, approach it more from a bottom-up and less of a top-down mindset. Enthusiasts are your biggest supporters — those who are likely already on your side and understand the importance of the project. They understand the vision, are supporters of change, and are ready to jump in to help. These may include a development officer or campus communicator, but don’t overlook faculty, your campus historian or archivist, or student leaders. These individuals have unique viewpoints, and involving them will help inform the development of an authentic and enduring brand.
  3. Naysayers. We all can probably quickly picture the one or two loudest, squeakiest wheels on our campus. And the thought of proactively involving them on a committee may give you pause, but including these nonbelievers can be just as, if not more, important than the believers. Selecting your naysayers requires careful thought and consideration. Rogers defines two common types of naysayers and makes an important distinction as to which one you want to include. The first type are those individuals who simply don’t want the project to succeed or who aren’t listening. In contrast, the second type are those who don’t believe in what you are doing, yet are actively engaged in the conversation. He finds that the latter are often a representation of the exact type of change that needs to occur, and it’s these people who are the right type to get on your side and include on the committee. Do your homework up front to identity 1-2 individuals who fit this description and get them involved early on. It’s important to be open to their perspectives as they are likely to offer great insights into common campus concerns and can help you avoid them throughout the process. And as Rogers notes, you may be surprised to see that the conversion of these naysayers can often have the most dramatic effect on a project.

Once you have identified — in your head or down on paper — this team of 8-12 co-conspirators , you should begin to work through the next steps of introducing them to the project, outlining their roles and responsibilities, and sharing details such as how much time they can expect to dedicate to the initiative and key project dates.

Finally, once the project is off and running, we encourage you to begin to think about how you will continue the co-conspirator relationships and collaboration after the official end of the initiative. Are you considering a formal brand launch? Are you trying to wrangle rogue social media pages? Want to develop an integrated digital content strategy? Is your institution planning a capital campaign? Your co-conspirators can be the first people you turn to, to start these important efforts. And perhaps most importantly, these individuals can and should be your biggest supporters when it comes to living and breathing the brand on campus.

Breaking Brand: Challenging the Status Quo to Stand Out from the Pack

There’s no doubt that higher education is in the midst of challenging times. Moody’s recently rated the sector’s outlook to “negative,” a downgrade from 2015’s “stable” rating. Costs are rising. Competition is increasing. Endowments are down. And demographic changes that many knew were coming are here, with the number of high school graduates not expected to increase until 2024.

But that urgency hasn’t translated to most higher ed branding and marketing strategies. Look no further than any large, public research institution, and you’re sure to find a brand built around the same elements as its competitors—best in something, global, diverse, multidisciplinary, hands-on research, public mission, and service. Over time, telling the higher ed story through the traditional full-time, four-year lens or the research-dominant impact story has contributed to a narrative that—as cost rise, willingness to pay falls, and government funding sours—is an echo chamber falling on deaf ears that is resulting in further lack of trust and support.

Enter the idea of the challenger brand. Developed by U.K.-based strategy firm Eat Big Fish, a challenger brand is defined as having “ambitions bigger than its conventional resources” and willing to “do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through.” These brands are not typically the leaders in their category. Rather, they’ve decided to challenge convention, their industries, or the customer experience. Think brands like Vice, Warby Parker, or AirBnB.

Recently, Eat Big Fish shared three challenger brand strategies. Using these archetypes, let’s look at some of higher ed’s most successful challenger brands:

1) The Missionary: Defined as a challenger that is a force for good, motivated by a bigger purpose, the missionary brand doesn’t run from its ideals. An example from the corporate world is REI.

It’s easy to consider faith-based institutions as “missionary” brands. Our research with more than half of the nation’s Jesuit institutions shows that ties to faith are generally neutral in terms of impact on an institution’s brand—that is, they neither add or detract significantly to impressions of or desire to attend a college or university. But the Jesuit messages of “women and men for and with others” and “teaching behaviors that reflect critical thought and responsible action on moral and ethical issues” are clear differentiators for a generation of “plurals” that may be the one to solve today’s societal issues. So it’s easy for us to think of our client, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, as a missionary challenger. LMU is thriving despite shadows cast by its much larger neighbors, UCLA and USC, in part because of the university’s keen ability to show how students, faculty, and alumni experience its values and social justice mission in the world’s creative epicenter.

But missionary brands don’t have to have a religious connection. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has reinvented itself as a challenger brand whose purpose is about “challenging the status quo and providing the best support in higher education.” This has led to the university being focused on providing access through innovative programs and degree completion for America’s working adults with some level of college completion. SNHU’s online education program serves more than 80,000 students, and they have furthered commitment to their purpose through their new College for America program, which awards accelerated degrees based on proven competencies and a project-based approach.

2) The Real & Human Challenger: a brand that puts its people front and center. Eat Big Fish points to this great video from Harry’s Shave Club.

This would seem to be a place that higher ed might have an advantage. There are tons of terrific stories and people on every college campus. And many of them look and feel just like most of the rest of us normal humans. But the problem for most schools is that marketing efforts fall back on platitudes, making the institution come across as unapproachable and not rooted in the real world.

Not so at NC State University, whose brand strategy, Think and Do, is clearly challenging the ivory towers and traditional ethos that exists at nearby competitors UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. Think and Do is plain speak—and it’s not just talk. NC State supports the brand with real people who demonstrate that the university is a place rooted in practical, real-world solutions. Videos we created with our partners at TheD4D show how NC State supports veterans and the agriculture industry and makes firefighters battling wild fires safer, among other human-centered stories. And here’s a recent example of not being afraid to lean in on pop culture moments that people are talking about as a NC State professor talks about the science of the Black Panther.

3) The Next Generation: New times call for different approaches, and these brands question the relevance of competitors that approach their industries in same old way. Think PayPal or Audi.

It’s hard to consider “new and next” higher ed brands without immediately thinking of Arizona State University (ASU), where they went so far as to call themselves “The New American University.” Under President Michael Crow, ASU has re-positioned itself as a clear challenger to the status quo.ASU actually rewrote its charter to say it had become an institution that would be measured “not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed,” bucking the arms-race for eliteness through a model focused on access and growth. This focus has led to innovative partnerships with Starbucks, EdX, and an online program that is challenging other schools in markets around the country.

Not to be outdone in the desert (and in bitter dispute with ASU), Grand Canyon University has challenged conventions, shifting from a private Christian institution and shedding its non-profit status to get out from $20 million of debt and risk of closing. Now it is the only for-profit with a Division I basketball program as it seeks to regain non-profit status. GCU has enjoyed a complete turnaround through its challenger status. It has frozen tuition throughout the past decade and now has more than 19,000 students on its physical campus and nearly 70,000 pursuing degrees online.

Whether your college or university is ready or willing to be a challenger brand is another question, but it’s one worth asking as higher ed institutions struggle to distinguish themselves in a rough sea of rising competition, sinking investment, and public distrust. Even if your institution is not situated to take a big risk, it should be thinking about how it can take a stance.

Higher Ed’s Existence is Not a Marketing Strategy

Recently, SimpsonScarborough’s Elizabeth Johnson was a panelist at Inside Higher Ed’s conference on “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism.” Along with Brandon Busteed of Gallup and Zakiya Smith of the Lumina Foundation, Elizabeth participated on a panel exploring the question, “Solution: Better Branding or Real Change,” which posited that there are two main perspectives on why today’s public is so skeptical of higher ed:

Perspective 1: Higher education is broken, meaning there is actual underperformance by this ecosystem of institutions in serving its historical mission of providing affordable and useful education to students, producing workers for the economy, and serving the public (i.e., all of the things people expect higher education to do).

Perspective 2: People don’t understand us. There is a misperception.

Moderator Doug Lederman, IHE’s co-founder and editor, started off the session by asking the panelists, “Which of these two perspectives is more responsible for the declining public confidence in higher education?” Below is a transcript of Elizabeth’s response to the question (it has been lightly edited for length).

The reason I jumped at the chance to sit on this panel is because the title of it is flawed.

Does everyone see that?

“Better branding or real change.”

There can’t be an “or.”

In fact, the title itself reinforces the fundamental misperception and misunderstanding of marketing and branding in higher education in the first place. To think that we can have a better brand if we don’t change is ridiculous, and it’s a real problem.

Higher education has been so slow to adopt the basic principles of marketing and branding. Back when I started my career in the early ‘90s, I didn’t work with anyone on a campus who had “marketing” in their job title. But we’re getting better. Institutions are hiring chief marketing officers, creating vice presidents of marketing and communications, and more. We are making some good progress, but it is extremely slow.

Colleges and universities are notoriously poor marketers. We continually talk about why the public doesn’t understand. We think to ourselves, “How can they possibly think a college degree isn’t worth it?”

Well, our mere existence is not a marketing strategy.

I know that for many colleges and universities, “marketing” and “branding” are dirty words that we have reluctantly adopted. We don’t really want to talk about it, but over the course of time we’ve realized we have to. As an industry, we must realize that there has to be a mindset change; we must realize that all institutions—public, private, small, large, profit, or non-profit—have to market themselves; we must realize that we have to devote resources—time, person-power, financial—to marketing; we must realize that we have to tell our story better; we must realize we have to be braver.

From her smart, forward-thinking perspective, President Pat McGuire of Trinity College said that institutional leaders must be braver to use their platform as presidents of all different types of institutions to change the rhetoric on higher education.

Many people are afraid to take on such a task, but until we stand up and realize we have to get in front of this negative language and messaging around higher education, until we start really investing in marketing the industry more effectively, it’s not going to change, and the problem will persist.

To close, it is important to note that this is certainly not just a marketing problem. As an industry, we have to change and continually innovate, and with that, our brand will change.

Protecting Your Institution’s Brand During Times of Crisis

From sexual assault to conflicts of interest, from controversial speakers to fraternity hazing, every day seems to bring a new scandal to the pages of the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. As marketing and communications professionals, we say a little prayer every morning that our institution isn’t the next headline. Maintaining a brand is tough enough on a good day; if a crisis hits, how do we protect the brand that we’ve worked so hard to build?

The good news is that a strong brand has an emotional connection with its constituents that will serve it well even when under duress. Take for instance the Tylenol case back in 1982, a huge crisis management case study. Seven people in the Chicago area died after taking cyanide-laced capsules. Tylenol’s response: recall 31 million bottles from store shelves (something that companies did not do back in those days) and offer a safer replacement. At the time, Tylenol accounted for 17% of Johnson & Johnson’s net income, and some predicted the company wouldn’t survive the recall. But fast forward several decades, and Johnson & Johnson is known as a pharmaceutical powerhouse. Little did the company know then that its swift and honest response to crisis instilled a trust and belief in the brand that lives on today.

Having worked with colleges and universities during and after crises, we find that the same principles that helped Johnson & Johnson survive the 1980s Tylenol scandal apply to higher education crisis management.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

The worst response to a crisis is to bury your head in the sand and hope not many people will hear or read about it. You can never overcommunicate the steps the institution has taken/is taking to address a crisis situation. In our research, when we have asked respondents if they feel an institution has appropriately and effectively communicated about an incident, we find that they often answer, “don’t know.” To put it bluntly: If they don’t know, you haven’t effectively communicated.

Your constituents are emotionally attached to your brand, and they deserve to know what is happening. A recent Washington Post article about the 2011 Penn State Sandusky scandal quoted the following comment from an alum during a July 2017 board of trustees meeting: “Hundreds of thousands of alumni who care about our past and our future have been deceived and, in the process, disenfranchised.” It’s been six years since the story broke. This  shows not only that it takes time to recover from a crisis but also how important it is to inform your constituents of a problem as expediently as possible and to continue proactive communications that will address the concerns of all your audiences, internal and external. Like the Tylenol case, it is the steps you take during and after the incident that will build your brand back up.

Campus safety is your best asset.

In higher education, any campus incident that happens always makes audiences question their safety. In our research, we find that prospects and their parents are more likely to be concerned with campus safety in general AND even more so after any major incident. Especially moms and parents of females. Consider a communications strategy or even a paid media campaign in targeted markets that boasts not only about campus safety but also the institutional character and culture.

The inside is just as, if not more, important than the outside.

When a crisis hits, the first thing you may be thinking is what do prospects, parents, area residents, counselors, and peers think of the institution, and how do we put together the best traditional and digital communications strategy that will lessen their concerns? In your planning, however, don’t overlook the power of the people who live and breathe your brand every day. Hearing correct information from your students, faculty, staff and alumni is one of the best ways to counteract external misperceptions, so good internal communication is paramount for a successful external campaign. It’s even better when your brand ambassadors can authentically tout the great things the institution is doing to address the situation and maintain a campus culture people want to be a part of.

Building a brand takes a lot of work, and protecting it during a crisis is even harder. In the end, strong brands will survive, and how you handle these situations is what will prevail. For even more advice, visit this SimpsonScarborough blog post written by Simon Barker, managing director of Blue Moon Consulting Group.

You Heard It Here First

Higher ed marketing is a complex and growing industry with its own unique set of needs and challenges. Recognizing the need to shape new leaders in the field, the University of Texas has launched the Institute for Higher Education Marketing, an intense and specialized professional development opportunity for mid- to senior level marketing and brand managers at colleges, universities, and agencies that work in the higher ed space. Now accepting applications, the pilot Institute will begin with a 4 ½-day cohort experience in Austin, Texas, the week of May 7, 2018.  Participants will learn from world-class faculty and experts like Haley Rushing, Co-Founder of the Purpose Institute, who has helped organizations from Southwest Airlines to Whole Foods to IMG align their brands and values, and Maytal Saar-Tsechansky, University of Texas professor, data mining expert, and co-founder of The Institute, the first of its kind, will award participants a University of Texas credential upon completion of the program. For more information or to apply, contact Teri Lucie Thompson at