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Discovering the value of a university's unified brand: the UofL integration journey

This blog summarizes the key takeaways from our fiscal resiliency podcast, episode 18.

When asked to name noteworthy brands, which ones do most people point to? Colleges and universities are not likely the brands that immediately come to mind. However, in higher education, an institution’s brand serves as a critical piece of its differentiation strategy as well as its internal and external “voice.”

Our recent Higher Ed Advisor fiscal resiliency podcast highlights the successes that the University of Louisville (UofL) has experienced with its brand integration or “brand evolution” strategy. UofL’s Interim President, Dr. Lori Stewart Gonzalez, alongside Kim Butterweck, UofL’s Executive Director of Brand and Marketing, and Tam Powell, Senior Vice President of Education at BVK, an advertising agency that works closely with UofL and Baker Tilly, explore an integrated brand strategy’s key role in higher education and how it helps advance an institution’s mission and commitment to students. The podcast also examined the benefits of creating a consistent brand experience to help achieve fiscal sustainability.

Why is brand so important to UofL?

When Gonzalez started her role as university provost about 18 months ago, UofL’s brand evolution was already in motion. She was excited about the initiative – and the reasons behind it – because she understood the inherent value that comes with having a cohesive brand and a consistent voice.

“Branding is critical to higher education and particularly to UofL,” Gonzalez explained on the podcast. “We (UofL) have so many stories to tell, but when we tell them all with the same voice, the impact is greater.”

Gonzalez was instantly drawn to the brand evolution initiative for several other reasons as well.

First, she appreciated how the University was willing to commit significant resources to developing its brand. Also, Gonzalez observed how UofL made it clear from the beginning that the project was more than just a marketing campaign. On the contrary, it was intended to be a genuine reflection of and alignment with the campus’ culture and strategic priorities. And finally, she embraced the fact that the brand integration efforts brought together the entire campus. UofL’s leadership was heavily involved, but the University also utilized focus groups, interviews and surveys to capture a wide range of opinions on the brand and what resonated both on and off campus.

“They brought hundreds of people together,” she said, “to discuss what it really means to be at Louisville, to be a Cardinal, and what our story should be."

Powell assisted with the branding campaign and noticed immediately that there was a great energy at UofL along with a desire to share its story in the most authentic way with the city of Louisville and beyond.

“Where the real value of branding work is,” Powell explained, “is in infiltrating it into the institution and creating that consistent brand experience, not just brand expression.”

As for why UofL enlisted BVK to assist with the brand evolution, Butterweck noted that the University needed to differentiate itself to remain competitive in an evolving industry. Additionally, she pointed out that people want to engage with brands that stand for something. That, in essence, was UofL’s primary motivation for evolving its brand.

“This brand evolution,” Butterweck added, “is intended to more clearly define who we are, why we matter and why people should care.” In the podcast, she detailed that through this collaboration, they developed a strategic brand communications framework that was rooted in UofL’s core human value of “vitality.”

Another reason why a brand evolution is so important for UofL is because the University has had several identities over its more than 200-year history. It was founded as one of the nation’s first city-owned, public universities; became primarily a commuter college in recent years; and, in 1997, was charged by state legislature to become a “premier, nationally recognized metropolitan research university.” Further, the institution has experienced many leadership transitions over the years. These shifts have increased the importance of creating a steady brand with a consistent voice that can transcend major changes throughout the campus’ evolution.

“Brand positioning is meant to be leadership-agnostic,” Powell said. “We help uncover and articulate the DNA of the institution. It’s not about the DNA of the leader. It’s about the institution.”

Examining challenges of a brand integration strategy

Butterweck believes that the basic principles of branding are not easily understood, particularly in higher education. In fact, the industry is unlike many others, noted podcast host and Baker Tilly’s fiscal resiliency specialist, Christine Smith, as higher education is one of the few industries where “your customers (the students, in this case) are also your product.”

That said, current and prospective students are not the only target audiences that UofL focused on when developing its brand. The University also considered the opinions of:

  • Alumni
  • Faculty
  • Staff
  • Donors
  • Constituents in the city of Louisville and across the Commonwealth of Kentucky
  • Business partners

With so many stakeholders involved in the process, UofL leaders had to obtain buy-in from many individuals, and they were challenged to help everyone see the entire puzzle, not just their piece of it as they embarked on the road to creating one unified voice.

“The branding campaign has given a voice to all those people,” Gonzalez said, “and we've all agreed on what we are and where we're going.”

That puts UofL a step ahead of other institutions, which tend to create a brand position and a marketing campaign and then stop before they have operationalized the brand.

“It’s difficult,” Powell explained, “because brand is an uncomfortable word in higher education.”

Why is this? One reason is that some institutional leaders misunderstand what brand positioning actually is. Academic leaders often view it as a marketing construct, which is something that they tend to be opposed to because they believe it gets in the way of the work they are meant to be doing. Smith emphasized that, “in reality, the brand provides clarity for how the University’s employees should ‘live the brand’ on a daily basis.”

“That’s why it was music to our ears when Provost Gonzalez (at the time the brand evolution began) was saying, ‘Yes, I get this and I understand it’,” Powell said. “That made our jobs 1,000 times easier.”

Looking ahead through the lens of UofL’s brand

Gonzalez believes that UofL needs to use its branding strategy as a foundation to tell more stories about the institution – stories about the richness of the student experience, the University’s focus on social justice and the connection between UofL and the city of Louisville.

“We’re not just in Louisville. We’re of Louisville,” Gonzalez emphasized. “And as we succeed, so does the city. The next step is taking our story to the city and then to other institutions. And all these stories can be told using the brand platform.”

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