Reinventing a University and Reputation: Four Lessons Learned
The higher education landscape has changed significantly over the years, causing universities to adapt and reinvent themselves. More than ever, telling a new story through a refreshed brand promise is becoming an integral part of academic conversations.
Student demographics are shifting. And universities are seeing new patterns in data, methods, and approaches to providing higher education that’s relevant and reachable—and to defining “what’s possible.”
The reinvention process for Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver) has been educational, both literally and figuratively. We started with a brand campaign that had been researched, planned, and executed in early 2019; and then we refreshed that campaign after identifying even more changes related to the COVID-19 outbreak in spring 2020.
What follows is a recent case study with lessons learned, to be shared by all academic leaders.
Like many higher-education institutions, our students and the surrounding community had evolved, craving more opportunities, internships, and experiential learning as well as an overall sense of place from their education. We realized that we must evolve, too; and we must emphasize attributes that are more important now than ever—opportunity, excellence, and innovation—while remaining committed to our mission of affordability and accessibility. Our rebranding and reinvention needed to reflect the changes we were observing, while stimulating a new way for our community to see and experience MSU Denver.
We were founded in 1965 as an opportunity school, meaning students from all walks of life would have access to a college education at an affordable tuition rate. Keeping this message of affordability and diversity was important.
Through our research and a “listening campaign,” which included meetings and conversations with our community leaders and key stakeholders, we asked ourselves critical questions: How can we reinvent MSU Denver in a way that matters to our students and to our community, well beyond graduation—making an impact over a lifetime? How can we tell the MSU Denver story to show—not just tell—this reinvention? How can we integrate our long-term goals into our present efforts? How can we reinvent ourselves, reaching all key stakeholders?
We integrated our stakeholders’ answers to those questions, as well as other feedback from an audit, into a comprehensive communications campaign that would stimulate new levels of curiosity, surprise, and ultimately response for our reinvention. All this work was done, but then we had the COVID-19 outbreak, so we took another look at our campaign and then reinvented again. Here are the four most important messages we learned.
Lesson one: research and observe your reputation qualities over time and then evaluate that information.
The strategy, marketing, and communications team at MSU Denver already knew our institution stood out for its highly diverse student body and affordable tuition structure. But we also knew we had many lesser-known assets that should be brought into the wider public consciousness. So in fall 2018, MSU Denver conducted a brand assessment to measure how the overall brand image and messaging effectiveness had changed since the previous audit.
Our brand audit measured awareness and perceptions among students, faculty, staff, alumni, area business leaders, and other external partners. The 2018 audit proved that MSU Denver successfully transformed from a growing college to a leading public urban university with 84 percent brand recognition, but it also made clear there were attributes that were less obvious to students and the external community. We needed to get those messages out.
Lesson two: compare how others see your university versus how you see your university.
The brand audit suggested that people already recognized MSU Denver for its diversity and accessibility, but not as much for its excellent academic programs and innovation in higher education. So we created a brand campaign that emphasized those attributes: “opportunity, excellence, and innovation.” All three themes had previously scored lower, but we realized we were strong in those areas and needed to get that message out. It was time to emphasize what was now clear, present, and relevant—and to help audiences reimagine what they know about MSU Denver.
The audit and data became the foundation of our Reimagine Possible campaign, which launched in fall 2019 and continues through the end of 2020. The campaign redefined the university’s place in the higher-ed market with four primary objectives: to refresh the MSU Denver brand by telling our story and demonstrating “what’s possible” at MSU Denver; build brand awareness of our academic programs and external, community, and business partner cooperative opportunities; differentiate MSU Denver from its competitors by increasing visibility and enhancing our reputation; and, overall, to generate interest in the university among stakeholders and target audiences.
Lesson three: reinvent your university for your students and community through branding and ongoing dialogue.
MSU Denver was reinventing itself through its Reimagine Possible initiative—demonstrating “opportunity, excellence and innovation” in all internal and external outreach. The expectation was that, on learning more details about MSU Denver and its programs, people would respond with a genuine “Wow! I had no idea MSU offers master’s degrees.” Or “I had no idea MSU Denver has a top-five, national aviation program” (or “. . . a hotel on campus,” “. . . a brewery program” and so on). The advertising needed to tell the story in a compelling way, using our award-winning brand-journalism approach.
The yearlong effort, founded on what MSU Denver’s market needs as well as what MSU Denver wants its market to know, encompassed a strategically staged rollout, including the following key elements:
- Brand positioning: developed Reimagine Possible messaging platform language for the overall campaign, including a brand book to ensure consistency of message on multiple platforms
- Ad/media campaign: created and executed a total-immersion campaign to keep MSU Denver in the forefront of awareness among target audiences, media, stakeholders, and the general public, including video and articles in in MSU Denver publications that “show” the brand through authentic storytelling and “tell” about the importance and results of effective brand building
- Brand certification program: developed a two-tiered brand certification training program for faculty, deans, department chairs, and staff
- Rolling brand launch with tie-ins with university special events: scheduled program components to coincide with (1) the annual Welcome Back celebration in September 2019, and (2) the TEDx MSU Denver event titled Reimagining Possibilities.
- Planning ahead: infusing the Reimagine Possible theme into MSU Denver’s 2025 strategic planning process
Lesson four: make sure your brand is adaptable—and then reinvent again!
This fourth lesson was a bit of a surprise as the COVID-19 situation challenged us to think differently and refresh our brand campaign. In spring 2020, when COVID-19 related policies pushed higher-ed institutions into online classrooms and into economic uncertainty, we decided to revisit the audit and our goals. We concluded that our brand messages should remain the same, but the delivery would be more digital and the stories more relevant. Also, we realized that the global uncertainty created by the pandemic presented MSU Denver with an opportunity to reach new potential students: graduating high school seniors who were now rethinking their out-of-state college choices and taking a fresh look at MSU Denver as a local option as well as to potential transfer students who realized that they would not be returning to a campus social life. We also focused on COVID-related “hero” professionals, such as nurses and other essential workers, in our campaign, sustaining our brand messages and integrating stories that were now more relevant than ever. The call to action was strong, clear, and direct. And since this pivot, MSU Denver’s site traffic tripled.
The Reimagine Possible campaign took advantage of practically every available medium (outdoor and digital) and opportunity (relevant stories) and even a crisis (adaptability and flexibility). By combining the audit’s insights and intelligence with a wide-ranging internal and external brand awareness effort, MSU Denver reinvented itself in the increasingly competitive field of higher education—as an institution that exemplifies opportunity, excellence, and innovation. And then we reinvented again, responding to a new world situation and an unprecedented need for a virtual campus with complexities and opportunities. While we “reimagine possible,” we continue to evolve the narrative around MSU Denver’s story and the future of higher education.
Catherine B. Lucas is the vice president of strategy and external affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver).
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