Things We Wish They Knew: Part 1

Posted: May 6, 2014

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

Dispelling Misconceptions that Threaten Great Partnerships

Before joining the VisionPoint Marketing team as a content strategist, I’d spent the previous ten years immersed in higher education in a number of different roles: undergraduate student at a small private liberal arts university, graduate scholar at a large public research university, teaching assistant, adjunct professor, communications writer, public relations officer, special initiatives director, and finally a major gifts officer at my alma mater, Gardner-Webb University.

During that decade, I had the chance to participate in two campuswide rebranding initiatives in partnership with external marketing firms, one as a student and one years later as a staffer. Now having joined the VisionPoint Marketing team as a content strategist, I’ve enjoyed the rare opportunity to sit on both sides of the table in a rebranding partnership: the institution’s side and the “agency” side.

Double Vision

To be candid, depending on which side of the table you’re seated, I think there are several perceived misconceptions that sometimes go unspoken, misconceptions that can threaten to undermine the trust on which successful partnerships are built. While I’d never presume to speak on behalf of all colleges or all firms, I’d like to bring a couple of those lessons to light in a two-blog series called “Things We Wish They Knew.”€

In this first post, I’ll indulge in the personal pronoun “we” and speak from the institution’s perspective, and in the second I’ll flip roles and share insights from the firm’s side of the table. Hopefully these insights will help schools and firms build better collaborative partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

3 Things Schools Wish Their Agency Partners Knew

1. True Engagement Starts at the Grassroots

It’s no secret that brand and marketing initiatives need the endorsement and commitment of senior leadership if they are to succeed. As a result, many agencies seem to work three times harder to earn the trust and confidence of senior leaders than they do to engage grassroots stakeholders across the institutional community. The fundamental flaw in this approach, though, is that the grassroots stakeholders embody an institution’s brand.

By its nature, any rebranding initiative involves some level of fundamental cultural change, for those of us who live and breathe that brand every day, that proposition can feel as threatening and scary as it is exciting. To really achieve organic change, we wish firms knew to work just as hard to build ground-up momentum–to earn the trust, the understanding, and the endorsement of a critical mass of grassroots stakeholders (including students) across the campus community.

2. To Build the Trust, You Have to Spend the Time

If trust is the soil in which partnerships are planted, quality time is the water that helps them grow. Frankly, most institutional stakeholders during a branding engagement find themselves feeling far too thirsty.

Listening tours. Stakeholder interviews. Competitor research. Strategy meetings and brand presentations. From a firm’s perspective, these hours and (billable) hours probably seem like an ample, even an abundant investment into early-stage relational research. From the school’s perspective, though, it’s hard to believe that any firm could really know us, through and through, after a few short conversations. Plus, much of this time is usually focused on one or two key stakeholder groups and a smattering of representatives from other groups across the community. No matter how you slice those cross sections, it’s tough not to leave people out.

We know it’s unfair to expect a firm to speak with every single individual who wants to contribute to (or thwart) a rebrand. Still, we wish firms knew that their extra effort to spend more quality, relational time on campus will make it far easier to trust their recommendations. The more time a doctor spends with a patient, the easier it is to be confident in the prescription.

3. Fake It ‘Till You Make It Usually Breaks It

There’s something to be said for entrepreneurial pluck, for a fake it ‘till you make it approach to learning new things. But when our institutional brand (and considerable marketing investment) is at stake, we wish firms knew that we’d rather them shoot straight with us about what they’re qualified to help us achieve–and what they’re not.

Far too many firms embellish their core competencies and, as a result, lead schools to invest resources into components of a brand engagement or marketing plan that, quite honestly, would be better served if invested elsewhere. For example, if a firm doesn’t have the expertise to leverage a new brand to attract new prospective donors, but they do know how to drive undergraduate enrollment, then all sides are best served when those capabilities are out on the table. From the earliest pitch, let’s set goals that are ambitious but also realistic, measurable, and attainable.

The Bottom Line

Partnerships are built on trust. The harder firms work to cultivate that trust through honest communication and quality time with stakeholders across the campus community, the more likely that brand and marketing initiatives will succeed and partnerships will thrive.