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Lessons for Grade “A” Branding Campaigns

November 6, 2010
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It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and since the media attention swirling around the Drake University “D+” admissions branding campaign. But the lessons learned from the campaign for those of us involved in marketing higher education, and in branding colleges and universities, are valuable still.

If you are not aware of what I speak, the birds-eye view is that Drake University and Stamats marketing company launched an admissions branding campaign for Drake that aggressively announced the Drake advantage…by turning upside down the cultural stereotype of a “D+”. Branding an institution of higher education with a “D+” was a huge risk, to say the least, but one that Drake and Stamats took.

The reaction from the higher education marketing community, and the marketing community overall, was quick and strong. But not near as heated, I imagine, as the criticism from Drake’s internal and external constituencies. The result was that Drake pulled the “D+” from their website, and Stamats posted a defense of their strategy on their website, calling it a courageous decision by Drake’s leadership. Yes, and so is going over Niagara Falls in a raft.

Mark Neustadt in his blog, Marketing Education, gives a good recap and review of the Drake campaign. The Stamats defense on their blog finally got me to weigh in with a comment, which led me to writing this post, albeit, weeks later.  It seems that I have my own issues of marketing and branding at my new university.

Lessons learned for admissions branding campaigns?

1. REPEAT AFTER ME: Definitions of words are found in people, not in the words themselves.

Every time we encounter a word, we bring our frame of reference to the process of interpreting the word–what we’ve learned and experienced in our lives. Got it? Good, because many don’t.

Some faculty and administrators don’t understand this. It shows every time they want to use outdated phrases or insider language in branding messages. Mission statements are one thing. But branding messages are external, and must take into consideration how the market will interpret those messages.

Drake and Stamats understood this, and attempted to flip it for effect. But they ran into two other realities…

2. Cultural motifs are used to communicate quickly a range of left brain information and right brain emotion.

Defined broadly, a motif is a recurring element in literature, the visual arts, and elsewhere that communicates and reinforces a theme. In media, motifs are used to communicate quickly. There just isn’t time in a thirty-second commercial to develop an idea. A “housewife” in a kitchen or cubicles in an office immediately communicate not only location, but a range of emotions and assumptions.

The point here is that these cultural motifs or stereotypes communicate quickly because they are so strongly engrained in our shared cultural experiences.

To think that an admissions branding campaign would overcome the cultural stigma of a “D+” is thinking too highly of admissions branding campaigns.

Sure, Millennials think differently. It is a new day and a new student to whom we communicate. But it is also a new market environment…

3. Branding Campaigns Do Not Happen in a Vacuum.

In our new marketing environment, admissions branding campaigns are experienced by just about all university market segments–internally and externally–across the world within minutes of the start of the campaign.

Outsiders who have no idea of the quality of Drake University hear about the “D+” campaign and casually think it’s an inferior institution. Alumni react because they are proud of their alma mater, and don’t like the stigma of a “D+”. And insiders–faculty and staff–who have worked hard at becoming a better academic institution choke on hearing a “D+” associated with their beloved university. Hence, why I assume the “D+” was taken off of the university website.

Now that I again sit as a private university marketing and enrollment management leader, I’m baffled at why a university president and a top agency would sign off on an admissions branding campaign that common sense indicated could very possibly have a negative effect on the overall university brand, and cause a public relations migraine.

And I guess that’s the final lesson here for branding campaigns. Choose wisely.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2010 4:11 PM

    Rick you are spot on. Too many colleges and universities, as well as their consultants, still view brand as a verb, rather than a noun. When this thinking dominates branding becomes a short-term, quick fix campaign, rather than a culture building process to operationalize a strategic plan. I am often reminded of what Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks says, “Managing a brand is a lifetime of work.” Great post Rick!

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      November 6, 2010 5:42 PM

      Rex, thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. You said exactly what I believe and try to communicate in my blog, and what I’m communicating to my new university home. Very good.

  2. November 7, 2010 3:01 PM

    Hi Rick – great post! The Drake kerfuffle reminds me very much of the commotion surrounding Purdue’s brand campaign, “Makers All.” Both have met with great resistance from the university community. You had posted that brands need to be “creatively authentic” and while both campaigns met the “creative” criteria, I think they fell short on “authentic.” The campaigns simply did not resonate with some (maybe all!) audiences because they were not authentic.

    Looking forward to seeing you at the Higher Education Marketing conference later!

  3. Rick Hardy permalink
    November 8, 2010 6:36 AM

    Thanks, Judy, for your comment. You make a good point about authenticity, and I like your choice of the word, “resonate.” Our students and alumni know what the experience really is. Faculty do too, but it tends to be limited to the academic experience. While we want to find new and unique ways to communicate our brand experience, we must do so in a way that’s authentic to our brand culture.

    See you later today at the conference!

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