Navigating the Gray Between Buy-In and Co-Creation

An enduring brand strategy requires more than just stakeholder buy-in.

August 27, 2019

Colleges and universities that effectively develop, implement and live a documented brand strategy and demonstrate brand coherence across their institutions typically have met three broad criteria. Reviewing academic literature on higher education brand strategy (which is not abundant) during my dissertation research revealed criteria you would likely expect: a clear institutional vision, strong support from leadership and internal buy-in from faculty and staff colleagues.

But is buy-in enough?

One experience left me pondering this question. In my previous role at Indiana University, I hosted a regular meeting of unit-based marketing and communications professionals from throughout our flagship campus. The monthly MarComm Forum was a 90-minute mini-conference to inform, inspire and build community.

During a forum a few years ago, marketing leaders from schools and units shared recent accomplishments along with key priorities for the coming academic year. One marketing and communications director mentioned the brand strategy work that the academic school and our central marketing team had done together, identifying a position for the school with its primary target audiences and competitive landscape in mind and then bringing that positioning to life with a compelling brand expression -- all while building off the university’s parent brand platform.

At this particular forum, the school’s director -- a good partner -- cited the “great branding work that we got from University Marketing and Communications.” The transactional characterization of the partnership caught me off guard, as I would have described it a different way.

I thought it was a collaborative, inclusive effort, and it largely was. There were a few bumps along the road, yes, but we worked through them together, and the academic leadership team was part of the journey. Together we identified a position for the school that was real (helping them become more of who they already were), relevant (to their audiences) and rare (compared to what the competition provided).

But in their minds, it was something that we did.

Yes, there was buy-in; the school’s faculty and staff had bought into the process and its outcome. But that moment clarified for me that they didn’t completely own it. Thus, they might not completely or consistently live it over time.

The realization helped our thinking going forward. Co-creation can be hard and requires more on the part of stakeholders, but the effort will pay dividends, especially over the long run. According to IDEO, “You’re not just hearing their voices, you’re empowering them to make alongside you … Not only is a community far more likely to adopt a practice or service that it helped create, but you’ll also gain valuable insight into all facets of your solution.”

Two mind-set shifts are necessary to move closer to co-creation, which itself is a mind-set rather than a tool:

  • Instead of “we need them on board,” shift the mind-set to “we need their active engagement.” Buy-in alone can be hard in higher ed when working with so many stakeholder groups. As a result, we’re often hung up on the question of much buy-in is sufficient to move the process forward, and buy-in becomes some version of stakeholders listening to a presentation and offering feedback. The value in inviting and engaging them deeper in the process is that your colleagues aren’t just an important segment whose buy-in you need. They are ultimately shaping and delivering the experiences for students and other core groups.
  • Embrace ambiguity. As I reflect on our previous unit-level positioning work, we emphasized to colleagues our disciplined process, recognizing the need to educate about brand strategy (since misperceptions often exist). As you move toward co-creation, you must be more open to potentially veering from this process -- and that’s OK. Building your brand from the inside out can be messy. Breaking outside of the usual process can uncover new opportunities or a new understanding of your colleagues, your students, and their experiences.

Brand work is about building long-term value for the institution. It only makes sense that your process and how you engage stakeholders should similarly have a long-term outlook.


Rob Zinkan joined RHB, a marketing consultancy serving colleges and universities worldwide, in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement.


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