Brand Marketing in Higher Education

I’m not going to lie. Marketing higher education can be hard. Universities need to communicate to many audiences in varying ways for varying reasons. Just look at the vision for UW Oshkosh:

“The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh will be a national model as a responsive, progressive, and scholarly public service community known for its accomplished record of engaging people and ideas for common good.”

When developing our brand platform several years ago, we decided it wasn’t doable to translate our mission and vision into a succinct communication platform by creating one brand positioning statement, or a single brand promise. Instead, we created a promise for each of our key constituents. For example, here is the promise we make to our students:

“UW Oshkosh provides a hands-on, collaborative academic experience, promoting discovery in an environment that celebrates inclusive excellence, fuels imagination, and champions critical thinking and opportunity.”

Yet our promise to our community and region reads:

“UW Oshkosh is a regional center for the celebration of knowledge, culture and community that nurtures openness, imagination, diversity and opportunity. We partner with our community constituencies, actively listening to their needs and developing educational opportunities that shape our collective, global future.”

After developing this brand platform, including several other brand promises, the hard part came: living this brand and delivering on these promises.  From the communications standpoint, we now have to demonstrate that we are living the brand and delivering on the promises. We, as brand marketers, don’t create brand guidelines because it’s a necessary evil. Good brand marketers are merely documenting who we know ourselves to be then using our time and resources to show the world who we really are as an institution. I feel the best way to do this is through storytelling. Tell the stories that show we’re making good on our promises.

I’m excited that in early 2014 we’ll be launching a new University Home Page that will focus on these stories. Over the past year a great deal collaboration has taken place across campus to build a system of campuswide storytelling. We call it our Story Champions group. A weekly meeting of dedicated campus storytellers come together to not only exchange the happening of their area but to walk away with a plan to tell the stories. This has created a wealth of content that will soon be displayed on our new home page for the world to see.

Stay tuned… we’ll be asking for your feedback on the new site!

Content Strategy = Telling Stories

Having been a part of the transformation of communications on this campus since 2008, almost from the very beginning, I’m fortunate enough to have been here for many key milestones. While there were many along the way, the most visible milestones, I feel, are:

  • The development and implementation of a unified web presence
  • The development and rollout of a new visual identity system (brand guidelines)
  • The development and rollout of an integrated marketing communications (IMC) strategy, and the infrastructure to support and evolve it
  • The implementation of an integrated marketing strategy to support undergraduate admissions
  • The adoption and full integration of social media as a part of the campus IMC strategy

There has been a lot of work done over the past several years to develop a communication plan and infrastructure to support the mission of this campus, to support faculty and staff in their efforts and the build collaboration around how we execute IMC at UW Oshkosh. Today, we are at the point in our evolution that we can begin to truly fine tune strategy and build our collaboration efforts.

This fall we launched a new content strategy with the goal of creating content, campus-wide, that reflects the excellence and distinctiveness of UW Oshkosh. With a strong infrastructure in place to disseminate content, we can put our focus on telling the stories of our campus. We find the best way to uncover the stories we need to tell is through campus collaboration. With that, we formed a group we call “Story Champions” that meet every Thursday, representatives from areas all across campus, to discuss amazing student stories, faculty, staff, events, research and any other subject people want to share. We decide which stories to tell then decide how to tell them.

meet-uwo-adFrom my perspective, a content strategy begins with the types of content we should create, meaning what stories are we going to tell. From there you can identify the channels to use to get the story out. We have a weekly news show we put on Youtube, a weekly email newsletter that goes to all campus employees, social media, UW Oshkosh Today news site, “Meet UW Oshkosh” profile website, college websites, department websites, the University home page, local media, national media and so many other places to disseminate content. Until you know what the story is, it’s hard to identify where the story will be best told.

The Story Champions are the key to the success of our content strategy. They have the stories worth telling. The Story Champion meetings are open to anyone on campus so please consider attending. They are 30 minutes every Thursday at 10:00 in the IMC office.   

A recap: American Marketing Association Higher Education Symposium

After spending 4 days in New Orleans with schools from all over the world, it seems of value to share some of my main takeaways from the American Marketing Association Higher Education Symposium. The conference brought in almost 1000 attendees from small community colleges to Cardiff University in the UK. I attended sessions by Stanford University, Bentley University, University of Michigan Admissions, Ithica College and more. I was also honored to present at this conference with Alex Hummel on our integrated marketing communications model at UW Oshkosh. We were able to provide great examples of how the success of our communications strategy is reliant on the collaboration across the campus.

The themes that came through were unavoidable:

  • Branding strategies must rely on data. You cannot have a successful brand if the brand strategy isn’t grounded in research and testing. Begin with market research, develop creative options then test them. (And don’t be surprised when your favorite concept is not the winner when tested with your audiences).


  • Authenticity is critical. This came through the loudest in sessions relating to student recruitment. We are trying to reach a sophisticated population of consumers that are skeptical of “marketing” and want to hear from real people, real students. This made me smile as I thought about the work our Admissions office is doing with that very concept:


  • Listen to your audiences.  If you want to try something new make sure it is something your audiences want before you put resources into doing it. Simple surveys can either validate your ideas or save you time and energy.


It was also validating to know that the work we do with branding and integrated marketing communications is part of the national model of how to do it right. Last year I was able to stand on the AMA stage and accept the “Marketer of the Year – Team” award on behalf of our Integrated Marketing and Communications Office, and then this year help decide the new Marketer of the Year winners as a part of the judging committee. As we continue to grow and evolve our strategy here at UW Oshkosh, I couldn’t be happier to be working with an amazing campus community that embraces it.

In Wisconsin, we push ourselves toward openness… And that’s good.

Wisconsin is a great place to live and work and not just because of the bucolic landscapes and good people. The state has a tradition of keeping this transparent, and there may be no better example of it than Wisconsin Public Records law.
UW Oshkosh Director of Administrative Computing and Networking Mark Clements and I had an opportunity to, this past month, welcome in colleagues from several different campus departments to an Integrated Marketing and Communications “Champion Chat” – monthly conversations about the work we do and other topics and trends in higher education.

This time around, we zoomed in on public records – what they are, what they aren’t and how everybody can always better understand the standards and, in the process, strive to live by the letter and spirit of the law. Again, in Wisconsin, the provisions are designed to really push keepers of these records to maintain as much access as possible and to be swift in responding to people requesting that access. As Universities are places/resources of open and informed dialogue, so are public records.

The Champion Chat was a unique opportunity for me to – hopefully for the betterment of my modern-day colleagues – reflect a bit on my past career. I was a newspaper journalist for nearly a decade, and the state’s public records law was, and is, a revered tool for that profession. It gives reporters (and anybody, for that matter) the opportunity to examine things like a public institution’s deeper budget data, certain electronic records and even, to an extent, student grades and performance benchmarks (provided we keep personal information out of public view).

Mark provided great insight on an often blurry line. With digital communication and records-production increasing daily, it’s always a bit of a riddle as to what is and isn’t a public record once it washes through, say, our University servers or network. Mark – — is a great resource to help get questions answered when colleagues run into an unclear or gray area about public records. And, since I’m UW Oshkosh’s records custodian, you can also reach out to me when public records requests come in or if you encounter questions:

Bottom line: The law is a powerful tool. And it is one to heed and use with respect.

Some tips:
  • Always best to remember that your electronic communications (both emails and chats) are, in most ways, public records when generated at a public campus.
  • Strive for openness in all things. If you have a question about whether a record will or won’t be public, assume it will be. It’s the right thing to do.
  • Don’t forget to keep the openness ethic part of meetings, too. When applicable, Wisconsin law advises meeting holders within public organizations to keep the invites and doors open. So, do all you can to promote meetings by appropriately publishing notices and sharing them at multiple points around the organization. … It’s not an Open Records provision, but it is the fundamental idea within the state’s Open Meetings law.

There are undoubtedly and understandably folks who didn’t get to make our Champion Chat. So, let me encourage them (and you) to check out the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Public Records Guide, or “Compliance Outline.

Sounds daunting, but it is actually a very approachable and readable rundown of all-things public records in a state that, responsibly so, treats them like the valuable resources they are.
  • CLICK HERE  to launch over to the state DOJ’s guide.

IMC in Higher Education

At the risk of doing a shameless plug, both Alex Hummel and I will be presenting in November at the American Marketing Association’s national Higher Education Symposium. We are speaking on the topic of integrated marketing communications (IMC) in a higher education environment. It’s an extremely complex topic, and challenging to fit into a 45-minute presentation. Putting this presentation together has moved me to blog because I’ve been able to reflect on the success we’ve seen. I’m so thrilled at how far this campus has come with IMC and how the individuals at UW Oshkosh have embraced it.

When IMC first got off the ground here a great deal of time was spent educating campus on the value of it. The more opportunities I had to discuss it with people the more excited I got about what we as a campus were going to be able to accomplish with it. The initiative quickly moved beyond campus education and now the main focus of IMC at UW Oshkosh is COLLABORATION.

For example, this fall we launched a new concept called “Story Champions” which pulls together those on campus who have a primary communication role on this campus (although anyone is welcome to join us). We meet weekly (Thursdays at 10:00 a.m.) and talk about the individuals and innovations that make this campus great, then outline a schedule to tell these stories. In my humble opinion, this level of collaboration on a campus is unheard of and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it. IMC on this campus is only successful because of the amazing people here who have embraced it.

I think the Dragon Boat races provide a good analogy for what is needed to truly succeed with IMC. If you’ve ever watched the races or been in a boat you know that it’s not the strongest team that wins. The team that wins is the team that is coordinated and are all paddling together. In Dragon Boating and IMC, when we are all in sync we can move faster and pull ahead of the competition.

Living the brand

At UW Oshkosh, anticipation and excitement hang in the air at the start of each new academic year. For those of us who work here, the joyful return of students each September reminds us all about why we have chosen to work in higher education.

For the first time this fall, I experienced the process of moving a child into a residence hall at one of our sister UW System schools. It is, indeed, a real transition for the whole family.

It got me thinking—again—about how important it is to be a strong, consistent branded institution dedicated to quality education. It also got me thinking about how crucial it is that all of us who work at UW Oshkosh shouldn’t just talk the talk … we have to walk the walk. We need to strive for excellence and offer opportunity in all we do.

Because I know now what it is like to be on the other side as a parent, I am trying to be extra mindful of how I represent our brand, striving to be helpful and positive in my everyday interactions with students, alumni and their families.

I am truly inspired, though, by how so many of my colleagues here at UWO truly live our brand, both personally and professionally.

UW Oshkosh news in just the last few days highlights that our faculty and staff members are dedicated not only to their own professional development through research and teaching (see all the amazing award winners from Opening Day) but also through their commitment to our students and the community.

We don’t just offer state-of-the-art facilities, like the fabulous new Horizon Village. Many go the extra mile to help move students into the halls over Labor Day weekend and to help make them feel safe and comfortable.

We also are doing our part in the community. Two recent examples show the breadth of our impact. In one effort, we just learned that the EPA is granting UWO $1 million to redesign eight Wisconsin beaches to reduce bacteria levels.

Meanwhile, our own Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Petra Roter is serving as the president of the Oshkosh Area United Way Board of Directors, as it celebrates its 50th year.

Living the brand truly seems to come naturally to the UW Oshkosh community.

Here’s to another awesome school year!

The story (not the devil) is in the details

Every day on our campus, there are a thousand stories to be told.

Students, faculty and staff are learning, studying and creating in a myriad of ways. At the same time, our 80,000 alumni across the globe are making a difference in their careers and their communities.

But to grab the attention of our audience in this media-rich society, we have to find just the right words to convey our compelling UW Oshkosh stories.

As a writer, I often have found that sharing interesting details can be the key to telling a good story.

The details about why new freshmen are choosing to enroll at UW Oshkosh, how professors are delving into their research projects or how alumni are applying what they’ve learned in their professions can set our content apart.

Of course, every story starts with the basics —the who, what and when—but it is the why and the how that fascinate readers.

In a story about UWO art students collaborating with Evergreen Retirement Community of Oshkosh residents, Alex Hummel, IMC associate director of news and public information, wove in a number of striking details that really helped to bring the project to life:

“With UW Oshkosh students as teachers, the residents dabbled in ‘clay postcards.’ They experimented with fused glass. Some Evergreen men, for whom art may have been downplayed as a frivolity a few generations ago, enthusiastically constructed ‘dashboard confessionals,’ or richly illustrated and designed memory books.”

The vivid description helped me to picture what the residents had created and want to learn more about the partnership.

While journalists are often warned to not overwhelm readers with too many facts and figures, I always think a well-placed number can tell a powerful tale.

For example, in a recent story about a UWO alumnus who traveled to India to help fight polio, IMC intern Danielle Beyer ’12, wrote: “They worked with a local construction company to fill a large hole with rocks and cement, and they earned the same amount of money as the local workers–$3.50 per day.”

Reading that striking detail of $3.50 per day made an immediate impression on me about the socioeconomic conditions in India.

The next time you want to bring attention to a new UWO program or an interesting student or faculty member, weave or tuck in some tidbits and watch the audience for your story grow. Or, share the why and the how with the IMC news team, and we’ll help you spread the word.


Integration. Consistency. Common message. Brand Guidelines. Rules. Standard Design Elements. Control! WHY??

The last ten years we have seen an amazing shift in how people obtain information. Communication channels have moved beyond traditional media such as television ads, billboards and brochures. The marketing and communications landscape gets more complex every day with online channels popping up too fast for us to keep up. Who would have thought that when I was being laughed at for getting a Twitter account four years ago that today it would be a mainstream channel for communication? With so many ways for our audiences to get information from us we have a bigger need than ever to be consistent across all channels.

This concept, consistency, is complex in itself when you look at all the ways to communicate. Being in an institution of higher education adds even more complexity.  A university is a very complex organization with many colleges, units, and departments and programs all reaching out to different audiences (or the same audiences in many cases). This makes integration even more critical. This makes consistency even more critical. Every communication that goes out, whether it is in print or online, has an opportunity to either leverage the brand or fragment it. While every area on campus has individual unit goals it is also is a part of the bigger whole – the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. The University mission and unit goals complement each other therefore making integration easier and more powerful. For example, we have a brand promise for each of our main constituencies.  All of the promises can be found here:

Our promise to our students

UW Oshkosh provides a hands-on, collaborative academic experience, promoting discovery in an environment that celebrates inclusive excellence, fuels imagination, and champions critical thinking and opportunity.

The Mathematics department could build this messaging into a student recruitment brochure while using a look that is consistent with the University brand guidelines. The brochure would build on the University brand while accomplishing their goal to recruit students. The prospective student will likely see that brochure as well as the Mathematics website, the University website, the Admissions website and any other materials or communications from the Admissions office, all providing a cohesive experience.  In this same scenario, if the brochure did not use consistent messaging and did now follow brand guidelines the prospective student would then feel the fragmentation. Consciously or subconsciously the prospective student will sense the break in consistency, which then impacts the impression they get of UW Oshkosh.

The level of integration we have on this campus has taken over five years to accomplish and continues to grow every day. It’s a commitment and a challenge to maintain but UW Oshkosh has become a model of how to accomplish IMC within Higher Education due to the excellent collaboration and support on this campus.

Being consistent is boring.

I’ll be the first to admit that using the same graphic design for a length of time can get boring. It is so fun to see new and exciting designs for printed pieces and websites. I love to see what creative ways designers come up with to grab attention, get audiences to take action or demonstrate the distinctiveness of a department. The challenge comes when you decide what your identity is going to look like and then sticking with it.

This week we had a Champion Chat on the subject of Design Basics. Sara Mikoulinskii, the IMC Art Director, led a discussion on graphic design best practices. While IMC is available to help anyone that needs design work done, many on campus do need to create printed pieces or web pages but have not had formal training in graphic design. Sara talked through font usage, the need for white space in design, the power of images and messaging working together and the need for consistency.

All too often we hear people asking for new designs or asking if they can change the colors of the logo or wordmark. This provides the opportunity to talk about the importance of a consistent brand. The easiest way to address this subject is to get people to think about the audience they are trying to reach. If you put yourself in the shoes of the prospective student, for example, they do not tire of the same design being sent to them in email, printed pieces or on the website. They do not see UW Oshkosh communications every day the way we do therefore they do not get bored with the design. In fact, the more consistency we have in every communication they receive from us the more likely they will recognize it is from UW Oshkosh and the more likely it is to make an impression. This rule applies to alumni, current students, and members of the community or anyone you are trying to communicate with. This is the fundamental principal of branding.

Consistency builds brand awareness.

It takes strength to stay consistent. It really can get boring. You just need to remind yourself that you are not the target audience and your audience is not bored with the design. If you change it they may not recognize it.

If you missed the Champion Chat this week here is a great resource
Sara provided that gives some basics on design.

If you need help or have questions call the office and we’ll help!  424-2442.

Social Media in an IMC world

A student interviewed me today for his Emerging Media class on the subject of social media in organizations. He asked great questions about how we use social media, how we know it’s effective and if it has replaced traditional communication methods. It gave me a chance to talk about my favorite subject: integrated marketing communications (IMC).

I think many on this campus only know this term as the name of our department. It is so much more. It’s a model of communication this campus adopted and subsequently dubbed our department. This model or practice of communication is essentially looking holistically at all communication methods. Traditionally in organizations, and I worked in a few that operated this way, all communications were not housed in the same department. Public relations professionals were separate from marketing, and web was separate from both and social media didn’t exist. By having all these communication channels operating together we can concentrate on the message and goal of communication then decide on the appropriate channels to get the message out. The practice of IMC has had a tremendous impact on the University and has been instrumental in building our brand.

Questions on social media turn into a discussion of IMC because you can’t look at social media alone. It needs to be a piece of the larger communication whole. I can confidently say that social media is a core tool in our communication strategy and has, without a doubt, broadened our reach, but it has not replaced traditional methods of communication. When a press release is written, for example, it is sent out to campus and the media, published online and also distributed on social media platforms. Our reach is broader because of Twitter and Facebook and complimentary videos placed on YouTube, but there is still a time and place for the press release. We certainly do fewer press releases than we did five years ago, but we have not entirely replaced them with new media.

IMC on the UW Oshkosh campus encompasses online and offline communication for both internal and external audiences. Social media has become a core tool in our organizational communication strategy.

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