In the Brand Kitchen
There is a technique in cooking known as reduction. For the uninitiated, a reduction is quickly simmering a liquid, reducing it down to a thickened consistency. Reducing liquid in such a way brings out the essential flavor, creating a bold, exciting taste. In that sense, reduction is a metaphor we can use to describe the University of Michigan-Flint’s approach to our “brand.”
Too often, “brand” is considered from a point of view diametrically opposite this process and parable of reduction. Asked if brand means a logo, a tagline, a billboard, a website and a t-shirt, we are inclined to answer, “Yes, of course. All of the above.” We think that if brand is the consistent, recognizable, overall feeling individuals take away from all the messages and emotions marketers desire to clearly convey, surely more must be better. We believe intuitively that every possible positive attribute and anecdote one could tie to an entity’s identity would enhance its overall image and further “build the brand.”
However, to continue the cooking analogy, endlessly adding more chicken stock, meat and vegetables to the pot will not automatically make for a more memorable meal. In fact, despite the deliciousness of individual ingredients, the end product risks becoming watered down, bland, and potentially tasting quite dissimilar to different individuals depending on when they eat, the size and aim of the ladle, and who is doing the cooking. Sometimes, more is just simply more. To avoid dilution, control quality and consistency, and to truly bring out the best, boldest, and most distinctive flavors, the best chefs mesh their creativity with proven techniques like reduction.
Last year, the University of Michigan-Flint engaged the firm Education Marketing Group to conduct the institution’s first comprehensive marketing research analysis in nearly ten years. The resulting “Awareness and Perceptions Report” was based on surveys with individuals from five designated segments within Genesee County (Business & Opinion Leaders, Prospective Students, Parents & Influencers, Non-matriculating Applicants, and Adult members of the General Pubic). The findings not only allowed us to gauge the effectiveness of previously marketed messages, but also to explore the credibility, importance and palatability of messages about the institution that had not previously been given prominence.
The totality of that data, including results from focus group testing of new marketing concepts featuring those previously untested messages and visual treatments, was then reduced down to UM-Flint’s “brand promise.” Again, the recipe followed to achieve the most flavor-packed, memorable, distinctive and deliverable “brand promise” began by considering all of the possible ingredients in UM-Flint’s pantry (all potential positive messages), asking our dinner guests (our target audiences) which they most preferred (viewed as important, believable and differentiating), to finally arrive at a concise, delicious, and deliverable brand promise:
The University of Michigan-Flint is the premier urban center for learning, research and civic engagement.
The brand promise is not a slogan. It really serves as a guide to developing the menu of examples that fully illustrate the brand. We believe that to leave an indelible impression on the minds of our stakeholders, we need evidence of concrete examples of the learning, research and civic engagement that takes place in and around the campus.Follow the Recipe
Similar in logic and practice to what political consultants refer to as “staying on message,” the concept of “staying on brand” is key to ensuring all brand messages are relevant, resonant, and thereby, remembered. Because it may not be immediately evident where and how a particular department or initiative falls within the scope of the brand promise, let us further break down (or reduce) the statement to its separate elements and examine how some concrete university examples fit.
What is a “Premier Urban Center?”
The most significant factor contributing to UM-Flint’s “premierness” is our affiliation with the University of Michigan. UM-Flint certainly has traditions, integrity, and earned respect of its own. However, the ability to accurately and authentically make the connection between the achievements of this institution to those of the University of Michigan give us an advantage over other universities. We are part of this world-renowned university, and we need to make that clear.
Some might say that all the benefits of our connection to Ann Arbor’s reputation are voided by Flint’s. For years, there was a tendency, intentional or unintentional, to downplay the urban location of the UM-Flint campus. The fact of the matter is that the campus is located in the heart of downtown Flint. There is no denying it, and based on the marketing research there is no shame in it. Rather, there is opportunity to celebrate our urban location and all of the strong qualities associated with that reality.
As a premier urban center, it is essential to highlight all of the aspects that contribute to this concept. The University of Michigan-Flint Honors Program certainly falls into this category, providing our best and brightest with unique opportunities and distinct advantages when they graduate. UM-Flint is also home to the only Physical Therapy Department and Journalism Department for all of the University of Michigan. And, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the special relationship the university has with its surrounding community in the downtown area. Such things as the College Town Membership partnership with the Flint Institute of Arts and the numerous community partnerships that provide service learning opportunities for students are examples of this special relationship.
What do we mean by “Learning?”
Learning can be a rather nebulous notion. For the purposes of the brand promise, it is primarily recognizing and celebrating our faculty and their personal connections to students. University of Michigan-Flint faculty were highly praised in the 2008 Marketing Report. Noted for strong mentoring relationships with students, this is a source of pride for the university, and an important message to convey to future students.
UM-Flint is primarily a teaching institution. As such, faculty who work at UM-Flint are in the classroom. Classes are generally not taught be graduate assistants. For the most part, class sizes are small, creating a more intimate atmosphere for learning, more in depth conversation, and more one-on-one interaction. Our faculty are different because they truly care about the individual success of our students.
As marketers, we are fortunate to have an endless supply of stories and examples upon which we can draw to illustrate how learning at UM-Flint is a different experience than at other universities. The boundless creativity and energy that goes into so many classes produces a rich abundance of ways learning takes hold at this premier urban center.
What the Research says about “Research”
It is true that on a strictly surface-level, being known as a university that actively engages in research elevates that institution’s perceived academic quality.
Beyond that, in much the same way we are able to boast about the level of faculty/student interaction, the marketing research supports our touting of the numerous opportunities our students have to participate in meaningful, hands-on research initiatives with faculty members. What is particularly special about UM-Flint is that these opportunities are available to students early in their academic careers. Not only do these research opportunities bring classroom knowledge to life in more immediate and relevant ways to those who take advantage of them, but they have a profound impact on students’ ability to distinguish themselves from candidates at other institutions when applying for graduate and professional schools, or interviewing for a job.
Generation Civic Engagement
For a long time, observers both inside and outside academia expressed skepticism about what was really driving the push for increasing “civic engagement.” Was it the heads of universities? Was it public relations departments? Or was it the students? Based on the hard data from the marketing research, as well as strong empirical evidence from last year’s Presidential election, today’s young people have a genuine desire to make the world a better place.
An anecdote from the focus groups we conducted last fall with local high school students is that while many did not understand the term “civic engagement,” they did understand the concept of volunteering and learning-by-doing through service projects. The strong sentiment we heard is that they liked the idea of being part of something that “was bigger than themselves.”
For the growing number of students who fit this mold, being able to engage in actual, results-driven actions aimed at improving a community like Flint is an extremely powerful idea. They see the challenges faced by local communities as part and parcel to the challenges faced by the entire world. They know what is said about Flint. They can determine what is myth and what is reality. They want to immerse themselves in the issues and work hard to find real solutions.
This level of engagement helps young people forge their individual identities in relationship to the larger forces they are tired of feeling powerless to change. By connecting this institution to efforts that prove to young people that progress does happen, even in – or especially in – a community like Flint, we are tapping into the positivity, courage, and less-talk-more-action attitude this generation aspires to and respects.
Actions and Words
We know it is not enough to simply say the University of Michigan-Flint is a special place. We all have our own reasons for feeling affection for the place we learn, work and in some cases, live. However, we must show what is special about our beloved university. It is the old axiom “actions speak louder than words.” But, this research has given us the opportunity to have our words match and mirror our actions.
The truth is, the everyday actions of our faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors are the brand of the University of Michigan-Flint. They deliver on the brand promise everyday. We are not a university that is built upon a foundation of meaningless, trendy words. We have concrete, compelling examples that show our university has something special to offer everyone. We hope you will keep us abreast of all the living and breathing examples that make the University of Michigan-Flint so uniquely appealing. By doing so, you will help us to show the full menu of what we have to offer as a premier urban center of learning, research and civic engagement.