Exploring advertising and branding initiatives at Laurier

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The trappings of Wilfrid Laurier University’s centennial celebration, an event that spanned the better part of two years and included all manner of recognition that a Lutheran seminary was opened at this campus in October 1911, have been relatively prominent. From the banners adorning various buildings to the pricey statue of the university’s namesake at the centre of campus, there were ever-present reminders that this milestone was to be celebrated to the nth degree.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the occasion was seen as a good opportunity to increase visibility of the university locally, provincially and beyond. The Laurier100 centennial advertising campaign included full-colour ads in major national publications including The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s magazine as well as in regional media like the Waterloo Region Record and Grand magazine. Prominent homepage advertising space was taken out on the Globe’s homepage and the iPad app version of the Maclean’s university rankings for this year featured ads for Laurier as well. The recognizable logo was also splashed on the bodies of Grand River Transit buses.

The sheer extent of the campaign made it notable and in the interests of finding out more, The Cord spoke with those behind it and others familiar with the branding and marketing of institutions of higher learning.

All told, the tab for the Laurier100 campaign ran to over $825,000 not including the associated market research conducted prior to its official start as part of an envisioning process that took place in 2008. This puts it in the spending category of many larger institutions in Canada, who spend up to and upwards of $1 million on advertising annually — albeit briefly.

“We wouldn’t have run these sorts of campaigns in the past for sure,” said Jacqui Tam, assistant VP of communications, public affairs and marketing at Laurier. “If I use the last decade as an example, we would have probably run $50 to 60,000 in general reputation advertising in a given year and it would be tied to opportunities that seemed appropriate during that year.”

For the national advertisements, there were over 15 million impressions, meaning page views or copies sold of a print publication. “There would have been literally millions of people seeing the Laurier message this year really for the first time ever, which we saw as quite positive,” Tam said, underscoring that the motivation of the campaign on a national scale was in part to make the university more visible outside of Ontario, which it has traditionally struggled with.

“We really looked at it from the perspective of what audiences is it important to reach, what the primary and secondary audiences are,” she continued. “In terms of the primary audiences, we were really looking at business, government and groups and individuals that really impact university funding as much as anything.”
In a more competitive environment for government funds as well as for students, which Tam acknowledged is a concern given that out-of-province schools increasingly seek out Ontario’s high school graduates, other Canadian universities have embarked on marketing and branding initiatives with varying degrees of success. The concerns some observers have raised circle around the seemingly petty tactics particular universities have used to assert that they offer a superior educational product. The commoditization of education that such a situation suggests is also of concern.

Encounter challenges

Marketing of universities in Canada varies by institution and there has been some question as to whether it has always been executed effectively or in some cases undermines the institutions through haphazard citing of rankings or other methods that leave the marketing of a university education similar to that of selling cars, beer or other products.

Yves Gingras, a history professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in History and Sociology of Science at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) has been critical of some methods employed by Canadian universities in marketing campaigns. “It’s okay to have marketing as long as it’s based on the values of the university — meaning that if your professors are winning prizes or students win prizes, it’s good to show that because it’s the dynamism of intellectual work,” he explained. “But that’s not what we see all the time.”

He cited his own institution’s “Prenez position” campaign that plays up UQAM’s reputation of radical action among its student body as less petty than some others he has seen.

“Every university should define its core values like that,” he said. “It’s when they start to compare rankings that it gets ridiculous.”

Branding initiatives have come to be seen as increasingly crucial among post secondary institutions, either to attract government or other donor support and capital or students, explained Rick Hesel of Art & Science Group LLC, a higher education marketing firm in Baltimore.

“Branding has gone crazy, a lot of institutions in the U.S. are spending a lot of money on branding initiatives and a lot of it is wasted money because in many cases it’s focusing on things like taglines, logos and graphics,” he said.
“In the end those things don’t make much of a difference. Branding is effective when it’s based on the substantive differences of the institution, curriculum, differences that have to do with the fundamental nature of the education at an institution.”

Come out ahead

Tam is confident that the Laurier100 campaign avoided these pitfalls. “When we looked at the audiences, we were also looking at the key messages, really we were focused on telling the story around leadership and purpose […] that’s the short form of how we talk about the vision,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been appropriate to have a campaign that simply said ‘we’re 100, yay!’ That doesn’t work.”

“Of course when you’re doing a limited number of ads you can’t hit everything but we were looking at getting the attributes out there,” she explained, describing the university’s brand that the campaign aimed to express and build upon.

“In the fall campaign in particular, we were very much focused on making sure there was a research message, a globalization message, integrated and engaged learning and multi-campus as well.”

While the primary audience for much of the advertising was business and government, alumni and prospective students were also considered in the planning and rollout of ads to a lesser degree. Tom Buckley, who oversees undergraduate recruitment as assistant VP of academic services at Laurier noted that this focus was deliberate and targeting students who may attend Laurier was never part of the plan.

“When we look at what students tell the enrolment management thinktanks and what they tell us about their decision to come to Laurier, they don’t cite things like ads in movie theatres or newspaper ads,” he said, explaining that there is little point in trying to engage students this way when they along with their parents are making such a significant decision. “They talk about the importance of visiting the campus and sealing the deal; in our core markets, you can spend a lot of money on traditional media, students tell us it doesn’t matter.”

While the idea behind the Laurier100 campaign was not expressly student recruitment, the visibility created for the university is intended to have a positive impact as it develops in years to come by spurring whatever funding is available and building upon its existing reputation.

The idea that it might make each degree granted by the institution more valuable in the long term by fostering that reputation is also a desired side effect.
“I want to try and avoid business terminology here, but closing the deal, finding the people and finding ways for them to make a connection with the institution … it’s not about big glossy ads,” Buckley said. “We don’t get in a media war with other schools.”

“That said, the overall reputation of the institution and awareness, particularly in markets outside of Ontario was definitely enhanced by the centennial campaign, there was increased awareness and we can build on that.”

Get results

The results of the campaign are difficult to measure, though Tam noted that follow-up market research is being considered contingent upon funding. “Our sense is that it’s been extremely successful and that would be tied really to the anecdotal, word of mouth evidence that we get,” she said.
“When we did the initial market research in 2008 […] we saw that as a benchmark. The intent was certainly to repeat it at regular intervals, be it two or three years or whatever seemed logical and affordable.” She expressed confidence in the scope and quality of the initial research, justifying its $150,000 price tag.

Hesel explained that in his several decades observing and consulting in the marketing of higher education in the U.S., a lack of proper planning and research can and has in many cases led to effectively dumping money down the drain. “The biggest mistake that institutions make is proceeding to spend a lot of money without having any empirical understanding of what the outcomes are going to be, what the return on investment is going to be and that happens a lot,” he said.

Only time and re-examination of Laurier’s profile in the targeted areas will provide evidence that the centennial ad campaign was worth the resources devoted to it, especially in the areas of focus Tam outlined, including a reputation for quality education as it expands to multiple campuses.

As Hesel concluded talking about general trends in university branding and marketing initiatives, he seemed to give some evidence that the campaign may be moving in the right direction toward raising Laurier’s profile.
Though he admitted beforehand that he knew little about Laurier specifically, he said, “It sounds like an interesting situation, it’s a place with multiple campuses, right? And the reputation across Canada is pretty good, right?”

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