From Scratch: Branding an MBA Program

Posted: June 27, 2012

Tony Poillucci Vice President & Creative Director

I LOVE info sessions!

I’m not applying to school and I don’t have an odd fetish (at least not one related to information sessions), but at VisionPoint, we do quite a bit of work in higher education. So in order to see if we’re helping our clients communicate their offerings clearly, we sometimes attend info sessions so that we can interview prospective students.

As prospective students are waiting for the info session to start, we ask them a few questions. We ask them how they heard about the school or program, what they think about the content on the website, what other schools they’re considering and so on. But if we have time for just one question, we ask them to describe the school or program in a sentence or two. We ask them what they see as the school’s or program’s strengths and differentiators.

The 5 Pillars

In the case of the NC State Jenkins MBA – a long-time VisionPoint client-partner – what we hear is that the program has a strong focus on *technology*, and that student work involves working with real companies on *real projects* (as opposed to other programs that focus more on theory and case study analysis). We hear that, while the *price point* is considerably lower than the ‘blue’ schools up the street, you’re still going to *work hard* for your degree. Finally, we hear that they think it’s pretty cool that the MBA students collaborate with students in *other colleges* like Engineering, Design, Textiles and even the top ranked Veterinary programs.

Essentially, these prospective students regurgitate what we’ve been trying to communicate to them for the past four years. Something we call the ‘5 Pillars’: Technology, Real Projects, Value, Academic Rigor and Partnerships.

And so, this is why I LOVE info sessions! Hearing this kind of feedback is incredibly rewarding for someone in my position. Not only am I thrilled and proud of the fact that all the work we’ve done with the program over the years has paid off in spades; it also makes me happy because this is all TRUE. The 5 Pillars really do represent the program and its offerings.

We had to start somewhere

But this was not always the case. Years ago when VisionPoint was asked to redesign the NC State Jenkins MBA program’s website, we conducted a 4-month research and strategy phase that included rounds of stakeholder interviews in which we met with and listened to staff, faculty, prospective students, alumni and current students.

When asked about the core values of the program and its offerings, we got about as many different answers as were interviewees. It quickly became apparent that this young program was going to have to establish a clear, distinct brand promise before it could be successful; especially against the well established and highly ranked MBA programs in its own backyard.

Defining your brand promise

It’s one thing to SAY that your program is all about x, y and z. It’s another to live up to that brand. Too often, organizations define their brand in a bubble and aren’t able to deliver on that brand promise. After all, a brand is simply a by-product of the product or service of the organization that it represents – not the opposite. You can define brand attributes and mission statements until you’re blue in the face, but if your offerings don’t live up to that defined brand, you will ultimately fail.

Sometimes it’s best to have an objective third party partner help define your brand promise. While we heard a lot of different opinions about the program from stakeholders, there were definitely patterns and themes that consistently came through. We took these themes and tested them against the program’s vision, curriculum, faculty expertise and research, and were able to distill what we heard into the 5 Pillars.

The 5 Pillars are representative of the reality of the program’s offerings and approach. They are the brand promise distilled into clear, concise messaging points.

Extending the brand

And now we had something to talk about. Something that resonated with the reality of the program’s offerings and that stakeholders could embrace.

We were able to infuse these pillars (or ‘key messaging points’) into the creative components of the multi-year marketing plan we had developed. They were used as:

  • a guide by which to choose topics for developing content for the website, printed materials and social media
  • a key influencing factor in the design of the website, viewbook and other marketing materials
  • a structural element in the content areas of the website and SEO keywords
  • a voice for social media and outreach efforts
  • a table of contents for info session content
  • and so on

Consensus building (creating brand evangelists)

Although it was a fairly small effort in terms of the amount time we spent on it, one of the most important things we did was to introduce the 5 Pillars to the program’s internal stakeholders and influencers (deans, marketing department, faculty, staff, board members) in a formal presentation.

We walked them through our research methods, shared findings, listened to, and answered their questions and distributed  a one page leave-behind, that defined the pillars and provided practical tips on how they can speak and write about the program.

In a one-hour timeframe, we got great feedback, gained consensus on the key marketing messages and – most importantly – we converted a very important group of team members into true brand evangelists.

Clear brand promise leads to increase in applications
So while it’s great to hear that the program’s messaging resonates with prospective students, that doesn’t mean jack when it comes to real success. Yes, we win awards and produce work that the best creative directors would be proud of, but what really matters is how the work we do affects our clients’ bottom line.

What we’re most proud of (and what makes me even happier than even the sexiest info session) is that after using the 5 Pillars in their marketing efforts:
NC State’s MBA program now OWNS a niche in the marketplace. We are the place you go to get an MBA that is Tech focused and that will help you take the next step in your career. We are NOT an ivory tower education – not just a piece of paper and access to a network.

  • Brand recognition is way up
  • 20 percent increase in pageviews on their blog
  • 18.9 percent increase in referral traffic
  • 52 percent increase in Twitter referral traffic alone

Prospective students now come to info sessions with a clear understanding of the program and what it’s all about. They tell US about the program’s tech focus, etc. Internal stakeholders use the pillars in how they tell reporters and prospective students about the program. New hires come to the program with a clear understanding of what we’re about. The NC State Jenkins MBA program enjoyed a 94 percent increase in qualified applicants in just three years based on the number of enrolled full-time students from Fall 2006-09.