Our Work In Practice

Branded Academic Programs: An RHB Case Study

In recent years, clients have enlisted RHB’s assistance to discover, develop, shape, position, name and brand their core curriculums. Our participation has been as diverse as the needs and demands of our clients. With Summit at Agnes Scott College, we were invited to be embedded with the faculty and administrative staff from the earliest inception of the idea for the curriculum and helped to develop it from the ground up, stewarding the program all the way through the iterative process. With the University of Miami, we were brought in to evaluate the place their new general education program should occupy in the University’s branding and helped them identify a stronger market position and storytelling capability. These two examples can represent the most hands-on and most hands-off RHB has been in working with our clients on this type of endeavor; with institutions like Earlham College, Concordia University Irvine and Bay Path University, we’ve amassed a wealth of experience in everything in between.

In each of these cases we guided our clients through a process that doesn’t just help them create a shiny new thing—a sub-brand—but also, and perhaps more critically, helps them evaluate the value of something far more important: their market position. We’ve written about this before, but it’s important for any college or university that is thinking about creating any type of sub-brand—whether that’s a branded curriculum or experience or orientation program—to consider the effect it will have, and the effect they want it to have, relative to their parent brand. Do they want to strengthen that brand? Build more allegiance for it? Create freedom from it? Express more diversity within it? These questions reflect a level of intentionality, and awareness about audience, that you must have before you decide to brand a curriculum (or anything else).

As it relates to curriculums specifically, we’ve broken this process into four simple steps to help guide the development of the strongest, most coherent sub-brand possible:

  • Listening
  • Learning
  • Planning
  • Making

In the listening phase, we work through a series of questions meant to help us—and our clients—articulate the clearest possible understanding of the curriculum’s purpose, application and outcomes:

  • How does this curriculum reflect your mission, values and vision?
  • How does this curriculum suggest your particular point of view?
  • How does this curriculum shape the choice of prospective students to enroll?
  • How does this curriculum differ from your peers and competitors?
  • How does this curriculum shape the student experience?
  • How does this curriculum engage the faculty?

To find answers to these important questions, we like to sit down with key faculty and staff decision-makers to develop a clear picture of the curriculum from the inside out. We then employ our signature research methodology, Circles of Influence, which allows us to hear from groups of students and the people who have helped shape their time on campus, so that we can understand the lived experience of the curriculum and how it is perceived by its primary users.

In the learning phase, we set out to discover as much as possible about the curriculum relative to our client’s market position. We engage in further research and observation to find answers to the following:

  • How do competitors and peers describe their curriculums?
  • What do students walk away with as a result of this curriculum?
  • What do prospects know, understand and care about this curriculum?
  • What is the value of this curriculum?
  • What distinctive values, history, point of view, etc. might we employ to shape the curriculum differently?

In addition to interviews with current students and faculty, we may conduct focus groups, an environmental scan and a coherence inventory to uncover the answers we need here.

Once we’ve worked through the critical research and discovery unearthed by phases one and two, we’re ready to enter the planning phase. This finds us creating key messages, strategy and supporting assets like a Coherence Manifest (our version of a brand book) or a communications calendar to help our clients tell the story of their new sub-brand in the most expressive, unified and effective way possible.

The final phase is about making creative and compelling expressions that help teach external audiences about the new curriculum. This might take the shape of a beautiful microsite, an animated video, a series of emails, an educational brochure, a script for an admissions presentation or all the above. Along the way during this phase, we are evaluating and assessing the effectiveness of these materials and the responses they elicit.

With some of our clients, we’ll need to devote more time to one phase than another, but we work through all four, in some capacity, with each institution we serve. In the following case studies, you will get a sense for how this plays out from client to client, based on their individual needs and capabilities.

Photography by Tom Galliher. Art direction by RHB.

When it was time to reimagine the liberal arts for the 21st century, Agnes Scott came to RHB.

We formed a great partnership with Agnes Scott College (ASC) during our work on their highly successful recruitment and yield campaigns. So when the institution made the bold decision to design and market a new signature curriculum, they called us to help develop it.

Based on internal and external market research, including discoveries made during our Circles of Influence engagement, the College identified global learning and leadership development as areas of growth. “As we thought about our mission as a women’s college in the 21st century, the concept that came to the forefront was that we need to be educating women to be leaders in a global society,” President Elizabeth Kiss said. With that goal set in place, we began working with ASC to develop, name and brand Summit, their signature approach to the liberal arts.

We were invited to participate in faculty planning meetings, lead brainstorming activities and conduct research with students to measure Summit’s efficacy. With our input and assistance, Summit took its current shape: it affords every first-year student a global travel experience in their first semester, provides a leadership curriculum grounded in asking beautiful questions and offers all students the support of their own dedicated Board of Advisors, including professional, peer and faculty advisors as well as career mentors. We created marketing materials to teach prospective students about Summit, including a Summit-specific brochure and microsite.

Because Summit was intended to attract new audiences to Agnes Scott, it was important that the name of the program reflect its new offerings more so than the traditionally understood Scottie experience. We worked with the College to create a naming task force made up of RHB and ASC faculty members so that, together, we could arrive at a name that best described the scope of the new program. “Summit” is in some ways abstract, which makes it easily applicable to a variety of expressions—it can be a noun and a verb; it is associated with both feats of strength (scaling a mountaintop) and exemplars of diplomacy (hosting a global symposium on a given topic). And, as our colleague David Straus from Arts and Sciences taught us, it’s a word students can put “my” in front of (i.e. “My Summit”), which expedites their road to embracing it.

Summit has garnered national attention, including from The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report, who recently ranked ASC among the top five most innovative colleges in the United States. Summit has helped to recruit the largest and most intentionally shaped class in Agnes Scott’s history, successfully building brand awareness for the institution as a whole.

Photography by University of Miami.

We helped the University of Miami (UM) identify its true place among the nation’s great schools.

While UM originally brought us in to help identify and articulate the value of their Cognates general education program, during our time on campus it was evident that some university-wide positioning work needed to be done as well.

In Circles of Influence and interviews with key stakeholders, it became clear to us that the University suffered from perception problems related to its storied athletic program and location. We learned that UM’s exceptional and noteworthy academic offerings had not garnered the same level of attention or spirit as the athletic program had. Similarly, the extraordinary benefits of their campus location in a vibrant, future-oriented, global capital were taking too much of a backseat to the nostalgia associated with “The U” and notions about what it means to be located within arm’s reach of Miami Beach.

In our visits to campus to meet with faculty, staff and key administrators in addition to visits dedicated to conducting Circles of Influence with UM students, we observed ample evidence to suggest that there is a lot more to be excited about at Miami than football alone. Students told us about incredible research, scholarship and internship opportunities. They talked, with enthusiasm and appreciation, about the freedom they felt to explore their different passions from within the University’s 11 distinct colleges. And we were able to observe firsthand how the particular symbiosis of that freedom combined with life in a city as vibrant as Miami provides students with an unparalleled collegiate experience.

Out of this research we developed a positioning strategy for Cognates specifically and for the University more broadly. The Cognates program, which allows students to curate their gen ed requirements by specific interests, topics or complementary themes, was obviously enjoyed by students but still somewhat confusing to them in ways that their major and minor coursework were not. We helped the University reframe their conversation about Cognates by highlighting the way it enables students to access all 11 of UM’s colleges and provides them with an educational background that doesn’t just make them more informed, but more interesting. We then turned our attention to creating a University-wide positioning strategy that highlights the University of Miami as an academic powerhouse offering students a depth and breadth of learning opportunities within a vibrant, multicultural environment. In a new positioning statement and key messages, we articulated the value of the University’s academic offerings, the tremendous cultural and professional opportunities afforded by its location and the advantages presented by its relative institutional youth (UM was founded in 1925, which makes it more than 100 years younger than many of its closest competitors). We helped identify UM, based on its culture, location, offerings and opportunities, as the premier educational and research resource for the Americas.

We were invited back to campus over the summer to lead a brainstorming and creative retreat with the exceptional team of in-house admissions and marketing professionals at the University. Over the course of two days together, we worked through exercises designed to help us best articulate the new key messages and market position, made plans for storytelling opportunities throughout the year and began work on a travel brochure to set the tone for the pieces to come. Our work has empowered the internal team to promote all the wonderful qualities that make a University of Miami education distinctive.

“(This work) is elevating the conversation and we are talking from a perspective of values and opportunities, and not just listing attributes.”

—Karen Long, Assistant Vice President of Undergraduate Admission and Marketing

Photography by Earlham College.

When Earlham College came to us for help branding a new initiative, we provided it—and counsel about how to position the program more coherently.

RHB and Earlham have been friends for some time. Years ago we collaborated on a successful recruitment campaign and have maintained ties ever since. Most recently, the College came to us seeking advice about how to promote a new initiative they were developing that was meant to attract more best-fit students to the institution.

While we were brought in primarily to help rename and market this initiative, we quickly noticed that its offerings related to the established thrust of the program in name only, whereas its substantive parts focused more on cross-disciplinary experiences, collaboration and integrated learning. This was a happy discovery, as these qualities more accurately represent the Earlham we have always known than what was initially being presented. In a place founded on Quaker values, where decisions are still made by consensus, integration and collaboration have always been a natural lodestar; the new initiative was simply a new chance to talk about, enact and prove them out in innovative ways.

Working closely with the College through a series of meetings, listening sessions and brainstorming workshops with faculty and staff, we developed a new name and positioning statement for the initiative that more accurately reflects its offerings and Earlham’s character. The Earlham Plan for Integrative Collaboration (EPIC) launched this fall. In addition to key positioning language, we provided a communications strategy to serve as a blueprint that the talented in-house team can work from, an animated video to describe what EPIC is and how it works, and an educational brochure that gives an overview of the program and its key features.

“We believe EPIC highlights many of the historic and time-tested strengths of Earlham while providing exciting new areas for innovation and growth to meet the challenges of the 21st century. EPIC also will produce tangible and demonstrable outcomes and benefits for our current and prospective students.”

—Jay Roberts, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs

Photography by Tom Galliher. Art direction by RHB.

We helped Concordia University Irvine better tell their story.

When we began our work with Concordia University Irvine, they had a popular and well-constructed core curriculum new(ish)ly in place, a solid incoming class and a talented in-house marketing team. But they wanted help articulating their story and setting themselves apart from both their competitors and their sister Concordia system schools.

During Circles of Influence, we heard from students, faculty and staff that the advent of the core curriculum had dramatically improved the academic rigor of the University. While students admitted to struggling with the demands of the program initially, they said that they were stronger scholars, learners and thinkers for having completed it. And staff who had attended CUI years ago as undergrads consistently reported that the academic atmosphere and profile of the institution had palpably improved since their collegiate years, yet the school’s reputation had not yet met up to its new reality. In their minds, CUI was still better known for its community, location and faith-based perspective than for the quality of its academic offerings.

Our charge was to create a campaign that helped tell the whole CUI story. From our on-campus research, it was clear that CUI was a place where students were comfortable occupying many roles and pursuing multiple interests. It was also clear that the University was both solidly rooted in its Lutheran faith and incredibly welcoming to students of other religious backgrounds; the environment on campus was both academically rigorous and comfortably laid back; the core curriculum that helped create this atmosphere was interested in exploring academic pairings and intersections. All of these observations had something in common, an important hinge that linked them all—an and. Based on this, we developed the “&” campaign, which highlighted CUI’s inclusivity, multidimensionality and the elevated core curriculum that helped inspire it, which we helped brand and rename. Rather than “core” it is now known as Enduring Questions and Ideas, or Q&I, for short. We created a compelling new viewbook in which we unveiled the new name, logo and way of thinking about Q&I.

“The icing on the cake with the new campaign and literature is that it accurately tells our story in a creative way. As I think back, I remember one of the main reasons we brought RHB in for this work was to find our brand and bring coherence to our efforts so that we would be better preparing our students for what they were actually going to experience. I believe we’re now doing that.”

—Rick Hardy, Associate Vice President for Marketing Communications

Photography by Bay Path University.

We helped Bay Path University do WELL.

Bay Path University (BPU) has been a client since 2011, when they were known as Bay Path College. We’ve worked with them through multiple transitions, including that one. So when it came time for the University to launch their signature curriculum, which they named Women as Empowered Learners and Leaders (WELL), they came to us for help finessing and expressing its value.

WELL was developed by the internal team at BPU and was being designed as we launched our initial engagement. When we were on campus conducting Circles of Influence four years later as part of a refreshed campaign, we heard how WELL was affecting the campus community. Students, faculty, staff and parents sang the praises of the program. They credited it with helping students achieve more rigorous academic standards, a deeper level of involvement and a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. Bay Path asked for help telling this story to both their internal and external audiences.

Working from the blueprint the University had already established for the program, we helped to reframe its key features using sub-categories that were easier for audiences to digest: Learning WELL, Leading WELL, WELL Supported, WELL Advised, Sharing WELL, Achieving WELL and Preparing WELL. We created a new logo and wordmark for the program and parsed these seven sub-categories throughout the viewbook on relevant pages (for example, a sidebar about Leading WELL appeared on a spread about the Women’s Leadership Conference and other similar opportunities). Components of the WELL logo appeared on each page that featured one of these sub-categories as a visual cue for readers and a way to help build recognition about how WELL fit organically within other aspects of the Bay Path experience.

We also created a beautiful microsite that uses two of the main keystones of WELL—learning and leadership—as organizing and navigational principles. Similar to the treatment in the viewbook, WELL’s seven sub-categories are parsed throughout the microsite to appear alongside the content with which they naturally align. For example, Preparing WELL appears on the same page as information about the career and life planning center.

If your institution needs assistance developing, naming, branding or simply assessing the value of a curriculum, RHB can provide counsel at any step of the process. Our commitment to coherence means we are committed to helping every institution we work with create sub-brands and branded curriculums that resonate with their internal campus communities in natural and authentic ways. New offerings can be wonderful, but we’ve seen them be most successful when they work as a natural outgrowth of the experience a client already provides and align organically with who that client is.