Increasingly, colleges and universities are developing and launching branding campaigns to stand out in a crowded marketplace, change perceptions, and ultimately, attract more resources to the institution. A 2015 survey of marketing leaders indicated that three quarters had recently overseen a brand strategy project.
Brand strategy efforts typically involve conducting formal constituent research, adopting a positioning statement and core messages, and developing the creative expression of the positioning. Then come the launch and implementation stages of the branding campaign.
The brand launch phase, which often lasts a year, involves introducing various audiences to the new brand through the web site, social media, advertising, video, media pitches and events. With splashy events and the roll out of highly creative new marketing collateral, the launch year is often the most well-funded and energizing phase of a branding campaign because of the immediate visibility and momentum it can create. At Meredith College, our brand launch year contributed to the enrollment of the institution’s largest first-year class the following fall.
However exhilarating that first year can be, it’s important for an institution’s marketing team not to get caught up in all of the excitement (and exhaustion!) of the success of the launch year, and think their work is done. It takes years for an adequately funded, effective branding campaign to truly change perceptions and consistently enhance enrollment and fundraising. The implementation stage is actually the most crucial phase of a successful branding campaign. For example, it took three years of consistently and creatively executing Meredith’s branding campaign with prospective students before our college made measurable gains in our unaided awareness levels.
Because of the long-term nature of the implementation phase, it’s critical for marketing leaders to take proactive steps during this stage to keep their institution’s branding campaign from becoming stale.
A short brand video, conveying what makes the institution strong, was one of the most successful tools we used to launch our Meredith College | Going Strong branding campaign. This video was shown for the first time to faculty and staff during our president’s welcome back address. It was also shared on social media, shown during campus visitation days and taken on the road for alumnae events. For years two and three, we refreshed the video with new facts and outcome examples. For the fourth year of our campaign, it was time to evolve our brand video to a new concept further defining what strong means for Meredith College. We have also continually updated brand marketing materials in the years since our launch, using data from A/B tests of online ads, focus groups conducted by in-house staff, and questions added to existing surveys. These techniques, which maximized in-house talent and data already being collected, have proven to be cost-effective ways to measure perception changes and glean data from prospective students and alumnae to refine and refresh how we present our core messages in recruitment and fundraising marketing collateral.
Too often, colleges and universities get caught up in chasing the excitement of launching something new, and end up ditching a branding campaign after a few years. It’s not uncommon for schools to begin the rebranding process too early, which can get expensive in a hurry.
For most institutions, a branding campaign should, at minimum, be in place long enough for the first classes of students recruited with the brand to become alumni. In addition, as long as the brand campaign resonates with key constituent groups and is helping the institution progress towards the goals established prior to launch, there is no need to throw it out. For example, at Meredith, we achieved a 97 percent brand recall rate among undergraduate alumnae three years after the brand launch. This high recall rate suggests that alumnae have a strong affinity for our “Going Strong” branding campaign. It is much more cost-effective to keep the campaign fresh than it would be to re-educate our graduates about a new campaign.
Instead of a premature reboot, effective branding campaigns need a continual investment of time, resources, and, perhaps most importantly, creative energy. Branding campaigns are not something institutions - or their marketing teams - can afford to set and forget.
Kristi Eaves-McLennan is executive director of marketing for Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.