Creating Mid-21st Century Higher Education Branding

One of the tensions we hold at Elliance has to do with the pros and cons of specialization. While most of our work focuses on higher education marketing — where we have deep experience — we also meet a wider set of client challenges in manufacturing, banking, non profits and other worlds far from campus.

Google’s search engine bot and people generally, favor simplicity. Elliance gets it — we know why many higher education marketing firms keep a singular focus. We also know first-hand the many ways that our higher education clients benefit from our broader exposure and reach.

In the end, we find that higher education branding and marketing clients have plenty in common with clients in other verticals when it comes to solving the essential marketing challenge: turning awareness into inquiry, inquiry into conversation and conversion, and conversion into engagement, community and lasting brand loyalty.

That premise led us recently to ask a bigger question: “What does it mean to be a “mid-21st century brand?” We roughed out criteria, concluding that mid-21st century brands routinely:

  • display mastery of owned and earned media, bringing the two into a more mutually reinforcing relationship
  • regard storytelling and content as the essential currency of any ongoing brand conversation
  • flash quick and agile orchestration and deployment of all content assets, with a keen sense of timing
  • reconcile the singularity of a brand position and voice — and the complexity that comes with articulating what you stand for in new, unexpected and revealing ways
  • give tireless attention to detail and go the extra mile to raise the level of discourse across touch points
  • keep a far horizon and an optimistic sense of purpose — measuring success as more than just sales
  • never lose sight of the higher good — creating community

It’s a topic we will revisit, but for now, we look beyond the Elliance portfolio for two examples — one from higher education and one from retail/banking — of how to get moving in the right direction.

RISD…Art School Revival

Widely regarded as America’s oldest and “best” art school, the Rhode Island School of Design — RISD — fit all too easily into the “cobbler’s children have no shoes” fable. Steady enrollment demand enabled brand complacency to creep in, until one day RISD looked in the mirror of its own website and no longer recognized itself.

That identity crisis led to self-study, and some wide-ranging conversations about how to position itself among prospects, donors and the public, and decisive action to bring the school’s reputation and its communication into accord.

Today, RISD leads from the front. It’s website captures the brand essentials both the in the simplicity of its architecture, the beauty of the design and the raw emotional power and boldness of its point of view and story telling. RISD extends the approach and high standards to its undergrad viewbook and alumni magazine.

The RISD academic culture of iteration — an openness to constructive critique and a summons to fail harder, when necessary, to find greatness — has not been lost on the school’s marketing and communications team.

RISD is also taking on the challenge of building community, laying conduit between prospects, current students, faculty, alumni and friends. RISD is winning, now and for the future, by creating a strong community of artists at every stage of their craft  — who draw inspiration and support from one another, and who carry the RISD brand forward.

Umpqua… the un-bank

Imagine a bank so widely loved that it sparks equal brand loyalty and word-of-mouth fervor among idealistic young employees and demanding entrepreneurial customers.

Launched in 1953 as a backwoods cash-checking and deposit window for piecework loggers, Umpqua grew from a single location and six employees to nearly 200 branches across the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley.

With board approval, Umpqua CEO Ray Davis took a cue from market-leaders such as Starbucks and Nordstroms and re-imagined the retail banking paradigm, flattening the organization, re-launching branches as “retail financial stores,” and setting a five-star standard for staff development and customer service. Assets grew from $40 million to $7 billion in just over a decade.

The Umpqua story has its share of converts and critics. Regardless, they continue to walk the talk.

Umpqua’s newest location in San Jose aims to fuel Silicon Valley innovation with its industry shaking “mi casa, su casa” approach, offering start-ups and giants alike free business lounge and conference space, a recharge bar for coffee and wi-fi, after hours art talks and yoga classes, and a monthly showcase of local products, this month featuring long-bard maker Knotty Boards.

A special thank you to Brian Clark, Senior Director, Digital Media/Communications at RISD MEDIA GROUP, for his insights on how the institution established strategic goals and set a number of changes into motion.