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Building an Institutional Brand: Education Redefined at Ball State


Building an Institutional Brand: Education Redefined at Ball State

Nov 17, 2008By Michael Stoner

Dr. Gora was the luncheon speaker at the American Marketing Association’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in Chicago on Monday, 17 November. During her presentation, she chronicled the four-year effort to reposition Ball State University.

She came to Ball State to lead an institution that had moved in public perception from the lower tier of institutions to the mid-tier in Indiana. This was the result of marketing efforts initiated in the 1990s, when the universitys tagline was Everything You Need. Ball State had limited name recognition, but faced declining enrollment and retention and was far behind its larger competitors-Indiana University and Purdue University-in attracting the best and the brightest students in Indiana.

In short, nothing distingushed Ball State in the public’s mind. But what Gora discovered when she met with the academic departments and centers on campus was program after program where students were actively involved in learning—they were solving real world problems and learning an immense amount from the experience.

One of her early encounters with the way Ball State redefined education by immersing students in hands-on, focused experiences was NewsLink Indiana, a student-run project that creates three daily 3‑minute newsbriefs for public television, a student newspaper, and an Internet news operation.

Like other immersive learning experiences at Ball State, NewsLink Indiana involves an interdisciplinary team of students; a community partner; a tangible outcome of some kind. It’s guided by a faculty member, but is student-driven and involves active learning on the part of the students. Students get academic credit for the experience—indeed, it often helps them to define their career goals and may result in a job offer or helps them get plugged into a professional network.

Gora knew that Ball State needed to communicate what differentiated her institution from its competitors. The key, she believed, was in these “immersive learning” experiences. Thus began a successful effort to reposition the university, one that continues to this day and has, in fact, won over one-time cynics or critics of the university. [Examples of immersive learning projects at Ball State.]

Gora and her colleagues knew that coming up with a cool tagline that didn’t reflect the reality of Ball State was not going to work, and she described her delight when a focus group of students, looking at a series of taglines presented to them by the university’s consulting firm, said: “Education Redefined! That what we do here, we redefine education. We do things diferently.” And students began to tell how Ball State redefined education.

Education Redefined

The “Education Redefined” tagline is key to a recruiting campaign, a successful series of TV commercials, a billboard campaign highlighting some of the academic distinctions of Ball State, and Ball State’s award-winning website.

When the university launched a capital campaign to raise money for more immersive learning experiences, alumni urged them to focus on the future and be bold. The theme of the campaign? Education Redefined BOLD. With a campaign goal of $200 million, Ball State has already raised $129 million.

But this really isn’t a story about clever taglines or marketing. It is really about how Ball State aligned itself to be successful in rolling out a new brand. Gora reorganized the university’s marketing communications: enrollment, marketing, and communications now reports to a single vice president. And the university’s Business Affairs division became a major player early on. Every budget decision is tied to one (or more) of 123 outcome measures in Ball State’s strategic plan. Student affairs and academic affairs are also focused on creating more immersive learning experiences. Even the legislative agenda tied to immersive learning-Ball State received a $1 million appropriation for immersive learning initiatives. There was a concertedand ongoing-effort to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk.”

The results look promising, Gora said. The results? Applications for enrollment are up 40 percent in the last three years. This year, they had an increase in the size of the freshman class and also increased admission standards. And 54.4 percent of freshman hold an academic honors diploma (about 38 percent of Indiana students earn this degree). Now up to 78% retention; goal is 80% by 2012.

Lessons Learned

The lessons, Gora said:

Branding needs to be seen as university-wide commitment.
Branding needs champions; everybody needs to get on board and they need to reinforce message all the time.
Branding requires an investment of resources.
Branding must be authentic: what does make you different? messages, clear, consistent, steady.
Branding is bound to tick off some people: but by and large, people have bought into the “Education Redefined” message at Ball State.
Branding is never over: there may be beginning and middle, but never an end.
And finally, real branding is a lot of work also a lot of fun and the payoffs can be incredible.

One byproduct of the work that Ball State has done is to capture the attention and reignite the affection of David Letterman, an alumnus who has rediscovered his affection for Ball State and acquired a strong measure of respect for the university’s programs. Not that a champion football team hurts.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?