The path to distinctiveness
In 2010, American University grabbed attention in Washington DC with a high-profile communications campaign, which aimed to remind audiences of the identity and strengths of the university. It was the visible part of a strategy-driven process and the culmination of many months of research and discussion, championed by the President and Provost.
The programme to find AU’s distinctive identity was led by Dr Teresa Flannery, Vice-President for Communications at American University. Susie Baker, Communications Director at Oxford Brookes University, and Terry Flannery both serve on the Communications Commission for CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. At the Spring meeting in April 2012, Susie asked Terri to reflect on the journey.
S: There are a lot of very strong universities in Washington DC. When you started off thinking about American University and its identity and reputation, did you believe it would be distinctive?
T: Yes, to the people who come to the university, it has a very distinctive culture, tone and character, even though our programmes are very much like those at some other very strong research universities in Washington. It had become critical for us to differentiate among those institutions. We had clear support from the leadership, from our President and Provost in particular, that it was going to be necessary to do that, to create that differentiation, in order to meet our goals.
S: What sort of evidence did you gather to help you think about what made you different from the other universities in the area?
T: We started with some very foundational market research to look at levels of awareness and perceptions of quality among our key audiences, whose support we need to meet our goals.
We did also test some positioning strategies that really brought out the distinctiveness of the university. We chose the positioning statement elements that were the most powerful and elicited the kind of support and positive response that we would need, and then we used them to build our brand strategy.
S: How long did you take to go from your initial research through to completing that testing?
T: It was a big project with twelve audiences, so between planning , results, sharing them with the community and developing the strategy, it was almost a year.
S: So when you reached the point where you understood your identity and you got agreement on your new positioning, you launched a very high profile communications campaign. Can you tell me how you’re going to evaluate the campaign?
T: Well, the ultimate test of whether or not it’s successful is to see whether the levels of awareness, perceptions of quality and the recall of the positioning messages have changed; will we have seen progress?
But that takes years to do, so we plan on repeating our stakeholder study in the next year. That will be about two years up from the beginning of the campaign and we’d expect to see small movements in a positive direction for each of those things. In the meantime, people are not patient about seeing results of their investment, so you have to have short-term measures that show that the campaign is registering, that it’s making an impression, and you have to have mid-term measurements of the things that should be moving in the right direction, if they’re leveraging the strengths, delivering a strong branding strategy.
And so all of the related effects that you’d expect to see in terms of enrolment, alumni engagement , partnerships – those are things that need to be moving in the right direction, even if you can’t demonstrate that there’s a specific amount of that explained by the campaign.
S: To truly adopt a new position, for the organisation to be distinctive, it isn’t just about communications, a range of strategies come together to reinforce that position. Are there other ways that you think American University and its leadership has really changed its strategies or its ways of working that has reinforced its positioning and distinctive identity?
T: I was fortunate to build this process at the beginning of a strategic plan phase. Now there are ten transformational goals, and one of them is to win recognition and distinction. It calls specifically for the development of these kinds of campaign initiatives.
But there are others, including engagement with our location: in order to engage with and serve the nation’s capital and the city in which we live, there are initiatives and a goal to build partnerships with the pinnacle organisations in Washington DC that represent connections to organisations all around the world. While those are academic partnerships that develop co-laboratories with people from multiple universities or funding partnerships for research, they are embedded in the same strategic plan, and so we should be working together.
Communicating your distinctiveness.