How branding can change the core experience of a collegeAdd a comment.
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A case study on the rebranding of Elizabethtown College demonstrates the power of experience design
Ted Long, president of Elizabethtown College, and Tim Westerbeck, principal of Lipman Hearne, presented a case study on the rebranding of Elizabethtown College at the AMA Symposium for Higher Education this week. President Long's leadership, Lipman Hearne's insight, and the College's courage led them to a transformation that has impacted not only how Elizabethtown thinks and talks about itself, but the experience they deliver. I was excited to see this example of experience design in action.
Elizabethtown hired Lipman Hearne to help develop a marketing plan in late 2007. According to their white paper, "the College anticipated a routine process in which insightful research would produce 'brand messages' that improved its top-of-mind recognition and sharpened its identity among constituents, particularly prospective students."
E-town was committed to following the research, wherever it led. But they thought they already knew where it would lead. It's funny how often that is the case.
President Long described a fork-in-the-road moment when Tim told him "Ted, there are two Elizabethtowns – the old and new." He went on to describe two different stories of Elizabethtown that they would hear as they spoke with people on and off campus. The attributes of these two Elizabethtowns are summarized as:
The first list represents things that are true and valuable about E-town. They have been important to E-town's sense of itself for many years. But the research showed these attributes weren't all that important to high school students. The second list is both true and aspirational. It represents both who E-town is and who they would like to become. The future of E-town could be dramatically different depending on which set of attributes guided their vision for the Elizabethtown experience.
President Long said that at this point they had to ask themselves, "Are we actually going to look squarely at the data that is presented to us and be open to the implications of that data?"
For example, they found that the message of "safe, warm and nurturing" had overshadowed academic rigor, and caused people to have a lower expectation of E-town's academic excellence.
But the research also uncovered the kernels that would lead to the formation of the new brand. Current students and alumni talked about having "revelatory" experiences while at E-town. The faculty were energized and wanted to change. Global outreach was growing.
Based on the findings, E-town began to shape its new brand around the core values of
- Social justice
- Intellectual rigor
- Independent spirit (no greek system, no football, no problem!)
They described the personality of the brand as
- a champion of anti-complacency
- smart and practical
- seeks purpose and meaning in all aspects of life
Lipman Hearne developed several possible messages to express these brand values. The idea that won, "Be a BIGGER part of the world," was at first unsettling to many people in the college community. It tested much better than all the other concepts though, and ultimately the strong response of not only high school students but all audiences overcame any objections.
There were two things that I thought were especially important from what Ted and Tim shared.
First, President Long said that through this process he has recognized that brand management is a core leadership function. It must be part of the President's role, not merely handed off to a director of marketing. There were many obstacles to this transformation for E-town and they would almost certainly not have been overcome without a champion at the top. We have seen this same thing at institutions with whom we have worked. I would almost say that any true branding effort is doomed to fail without the top leaders carrying the flag. As President Long said "We had to decide if we were going to be a culture of exploration and risk or of isolation and protection." If the president doesn't set the tone for this sort of culture, no one else will.
Second, this vision of Elizabethtown is leading directly to new initiatives that will shape the actual experience of the brand. We promote an approach to branding and design called "experience design." Experience design implies that you are designing not only the messages about the experience, but the experience itself. These are some of E-town's initiatives to change their experience in pursuit of their brand values:
- World-wide internships. A new trustee had need for interns at its company locations around the world. He proposed a program to place 40+ interns in positions around the world.
- Faculty international scholarship seminar
- Life map project - puts together students, career services, and faculty advisors to have conversations about how each student can have a larger purpose in life.
- Recruitment strategies
- Programming changes
It's early days for this rebranding for Elizabethtown. The website doesn't yet reflect the change, and we'll have to wait at least a year to see the impact on recruiting. I'm expecting big things and I look forward to seeing this story unfold. Leadership from the top, commitment to follow the research, and the courage to change not only messages but substance – we can all learn from Elizabethtown!