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January 11

Brand Framework: Reshaping and Rediscovering Your School’s Promise


by | Jan 11, 2024 | Branding, Featured, Podcast

For any number of reasons, higher ed institutions can sometimes end up in urgent need of a new brand framework.

And it’s often up to their marketing departments to reshape — or rediscover — the magic behind their school’s messaging.

Kim Butterwick from University of Louisville shows us how they rest their school's brand framework. Such was the case at the University of Louisville in 2017. 

It was then that the school’s Executive Director of Brand and Marketing, Kim Butterweck, and Director of Marketing, Erica Walsh, and their team set out to rediscover their brand’s promise.

If you’re going through a brand crisis, or if you’re seeing the slow and steady decline of your brand’s impact, then this conversation will be very encouraging and a big help.

In this blog post, we’ll review what Kim and Erica shared about how training internal stakeholders in brand awareness and redefining student success became integral to their school’s renewed brand messaging strategy.   

In Need of a New Brand Framework

Even venerable, well-known institutions like the University of Louisville fall short of brand perfection. 

At the beginning of our conversation, Kim shared some of the reasons why the university needed a new brand framework.

This started back in 2017. [In the past,] the university had some public challenges, scandals, and leadership turnover. 

During one of those “reputation management initiatives,” [it] turned into us saying, “Okay, it’s time for us to reclaim who we are as a university because these little incidents that are happening by lone players do not represent all that we do here at the university.” 

It was an emotional call to arms for our campus community. So we had a very organic “We are University of Louisville” campaign that rolled out to take back some pride in who we are. 

That’s what really kicked off the brand evolution for us.

A lot of schools can relate to what happened to the University of Louisville brand. 

PR challenges, scandals, and unexpected changes are just some of the issues that can happen to derail all the work you’ve been doing in the marketing and admissions teams. 

There’s a deflating feeling that begins to come up in everyone’s heart when that happens. 

People start asking, “What are we going to do?”

For Kim and Erica, it was important to hear all the fears and the doubts first before diving into the work of a brand reset.

The Importance of Brand Research

Before starting any brand framework reset, it’s critical to gather all of the necessary information.

You’ve got to know exactly how your brand is currently being perceived, no matter how difficult it might be to hear it.

Erica pulled back the curtain to show us the hard work they put in to better understanding their target audiences.

It had been quite a while since we had launched any sort of public-facing campaign. So we knew we had to establish what people thought [of us] as a university. 

We started out with a lot of quantitative and qualitative research. We talked to students, faculty, staff, prospective students, prospective parents, people across the state—really anybody we could get our hands on! 

Throughout the entire process, more than 6,100 people had the opportunity to weigh in. 

The research grounded us when we were building this [brand framework reset] because it made it easy for us to show people that it’s not just our office or our partner agency sitting around saying, “This is who we are.” 

[On the contrary,] we really did the work to figure out who we are, who people thought we were, and then [determine] those areas [of their perception] that we had to fix.

Including Internal Stakeholders in the Brand Framework

One of the most important things Kim and Erica did during their discovery process was to talk to internal stakeholders: faculty, staff, current students, and current parents. 

A lot of times we fail to remember that these brand evolutions are as much an internal exercise as they are an external exercise. 

Too often, marketers get so focused on what we are to the outside that the inside marketing work decays while we’re not addressing it.

Our internal audiences are some of our toughest critics. 

So we really hit a lot on how we need to be speaking with one voice. How we are all one [Louisville] Cardinals community!

 We’re one brand, and we all play a role in that because we want to empower people, even if they [aren’t] experts in marketing and communication, to help us market [our school]. 

[We wanted them to know] “You’re our brand.”

More than logos, colors, fonts, and marketing pieces, Kim and Erica understood that the people of the University of Louisville are the ones who make up the U of L brand.

Defining their Brand Framework as a Cultural Concept

Unfortunately, many marketing professionals struggle to understand what a brand really is.

Due to the confusion, they have a hard time creating a proper brand framework while instead spending their time on creative graphics and campaigns that don’t make a long-term impact.

Kim brought up some incredible insights on how they saw the role of their people in the brand framework process.

Your brand is represented by your people.

You have a brand promise, and [it is] the people that work there and attend there that make good on that promise day in and day out. 

[That’s why the whole brand reset] must start internally. It is the first step. 

We didn’t just sit back in an office and decide that, “Oh, this will be fun!” 

To create this thing, we had to uncover who we already were, and that is embodied by our history and our people. 

Internal [audiences are] critical and a huge part [of building a brand framework]. 

Brand is more than a logo. Brand is culture. Brand is a promise. 

Sometimes I’ll run across different marketing teams and even people within marketing that still get a little confused on what the essence of a brand really is. 

It’s kind of like the air that we breathe. It is ultimately the culture of our schools. 

It’s our job as marketers to create the visual markers that convey that culture to outsiders and insiders.

Implementation and Getting Buy-In

As Kim and Erica began to craft messaging and creative materials based on the research they had been gathering, they needed to bring various people on board to the new way of expressing their brand. 

Here is one way that Kim was able to bring her colleagues on board to the idea of using the brand framework they had been creating.

Especially in times [of a brand reset], we might be frustrated because some of our colleagues are not abiding by our brand standards or want to do their own thing.

[Remember] that part of working in higher ed is [being] around a lot of passionate people who care very much about their specific area of focus. 

It’s our job in the central office of Communications and Marketing to help them put [their area of passion] in the context of something bigger and something that’s stickier. 

Of course, we have the same problem as everybody else with people not wanting to stay on message or wanting to have their own logo. But for the most part, it comes out of a place of people being passionate about the work they’re doing. They just want to feel seen and represented. 

It’s our job to [assure them that], “You’ll be seen and remembered more if you’re represented in the context of this bigger thing.”

That “bigger thing” is the education brand that they are a part of. It’s not a separate brand. It really is who they are as well. 

If you can get your people to see just how much the overall education brand represents them, it will be much easier to get them to buy in to the new brand framework.

There is More to Discover in the Entire Podcast!

Unfortunately, I simply can’t cover everything that we discussed in this episode of The Higher Ed Marketer podcast. 

But I really encourage you to give it a listen! Especially if you want to see how Kim and Erica have successfully set up ongoing training sessions across campus on how to represent their brand framework compellingly and consistently.

Listen to our interview with Kim Butterweck and Erica Walsh to get even more insights into:

  • Working with internal stakeholders on brand messaging (8:25)
  • Cross-training departments through group workshops (17:12)
  • The 3 pillars of University of Louisville’s brand messaging strategy (25:57)

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Featured image via louisville.edu

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