April 1

Creating an Adaptable Brand Promise in the Age of Social Media


In the age of social media, your education brand has to shine through on different platforms, mediums, and to different audiences. In a conversation with DePauw University’s Deedie Dowdle, we get to the heart of what makes a truly adaptable brand promise.

Too often, people consider branding to be a lot of things that it isn’t.

Sometimes branding gets confused with the institution’s logo or with the tagline.

But branding is so much more than that. 

Branding is really the concepts, messaging, and creative design that differentiate your school from the rest. In short, branding is a promise to the prospective student and the world about who you are.

Coming up with those concepts, messages, and designs that will set you apart is hard enough.

But in today’s fast paced world, you’ve got to be able to craft a brand promise that can be easily adapted to various channels, audiences, and constituencies.

That’s why I’m excited to introduce you to Deedie Dowdle in a conversation on The Higher Ed Marketer Podcast!

Deedie is the vice president of marketing and communications at DePauw University.

In our conversation, she walks us through how she and her team of education marketers launched an all-new brand promise that took off like wildfire.

DePauw University did an amazing job at creating a brand promise that resonated with their audiences.

Image Source: depauw.edu

Humble Beginnings of the Brand Launch

DePauw University tried launching their newly crafted brand back in the latter half of 2019, before the craziness of COVID-19 and the 2020 lockdowns happened.

If anyone knows how to create and launch a brand, Deedie Dowdle would be that person.

She’s been in the education marketing space for decades on both the agency side as well as an in-house marketer.

Typically, the process would be methodical and precise.

In higher education institutions, branding is very much about doing that research, doing all that homework, engaging your constituents. It’s a tried and true process that is desirable.

But conditions on the ground just didn’t allow Deedie or her team to do things the normal way.

A presidential transition along with other internal shifts  put a massive hold on many of the things typically done  during a major brand relaunch.

However, Deedie along with members of the board, felt that the discovery work they had done over the years with the trustees and cabinet was enough to launch, even during the leadership transition.

There was a lot of enthusiasm, despite the fact that our constituents didn’t see it in advance. They sort of saw it as it was rolling out. We had done enough testing to know that the idea of “Gold Within” — the brand promise that encapsulates what DePauw is and what we stand for — would resonate. We were pretty confident in that. And so we did those 30 to 40 presentations with constituents at the same time we were rolling out in the market.

Pivoting During the Pandemic

Deedie and the team were into the brand rollout just four or five months before the pandemic hit and “the bottom fell out of the world.”

Despite the promising results they were seeing, the threat of the novel virus forced them to put everything on pause.

We were still very much in the beginnings of this virus where we didn’t know what was causing it, where it was coming from. We didn’t know what we know today. There was no way that you could be out there with positive advertising [promoting] all of the wonderful things that we were doing. Those two things just don’t go together at all.

The number one priority at that point became taking care of our students, making sure they got home safely, everything shifted to [the internal work of] focusing on the students and certainly taking care of our staff and faculty at that time.

Although they felt they had created good momentum, they felt the right thing to do was to pause the campaign.

Everything stopped for a while except for the outdoor advertising of their brand promise, which had already been contracted.

DePauw University promoted their brand promise through digital and traditional marketing like these billboards.

Image Source: depauw.edu

But during fall of 2020, DePauw University relaunched the brand promise #GoldWithin.

Creating Brand Ambassadors

One of the critical ingredients to a successful brand promise, is that it resonates with people so that they become brand ambassadors.

The brand promise has to be something they believe in so much that they are excited about sharing it with others.

There’s a lot of work that goes into cultivating brand ambassadors.

By engaging with notable alumni in various markets and sectors, Deedie and her team were able to raise a massive amount of support from these brand ambassadors.

DePauw University campus

Image Source: depauw.edu


One of the best things DePauw did was present their alumni with proof of how effective their educational brand is.

Basically, to find proof that the brand promise is real, you just have to take a look at these successful alumni.

So what we did in the Indianapolis area, we found those outstanding alumni and also students from local schools in Indianapolis. We featured them on the outdoor boards as representing that outstanding overall — not just academic — student experience at DePauw. So we had very prominent alumni, [like] CEO’s, CFO’s, and broadcasters, just terrific alumni who didn’t even hesitate [to help us]. The minute they saw the concept there, they said, “We’re in!”

And there was no cost to that. They were happy to participate. In nine days, we launched that outdoor campaign with almost 30 [alumni brand ambassadors].

Crafting an Adaptable Brand Promise

So what is the secret ingredient to making your educational brand promise adaptable so that it resonates across audiences, channels, and platforms?

A successful brand launch is one that takes on a life of its own once you’ve put in the hard work up front.

Suddenly, you’re seeing people from all of your target audiences sharing the brand promise across their social networks, slogans, and publications.

In other words, an adaptable brand promise is “word of mouth” advertising, the holy grail of marketing.

So how did DePauw accomplish this?

They spent massive amounts of time asking students, faculty, parents, and other stakeholders what “The Gold Within” meant to them.

“Because the best brand promises out there are those that people begin to define for themselves.”

They heard the words, catch phrases, and expressions people used to describe the brand.

Also, they understood the imagery that came to people’s minds as they thought about the brand promise.

Then, they took that language and imagery and used it in future messaging and design.

This had a compounding effect as the brand promise picked up momentum across social media, live events, and other platforms.

When you let go of that control a little bit and let others define [the brand] and make it personal to themselves, you find out things that you haven’t even thought of.

That’s what I love about a brand, a concept, and a brand promise that is malleable and adaptable. It just kind of takes on a life of its own! And that’s when you know you’ve got some magic.

So much more in the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Deedie Dowdle to get even more insights into:

  • Building a small yet high performance marketing team
  • Putting on community events around your brand promise
  • Crafting a brand promise around “the pillars” of your institution
  • How they created the ingenious AU periodic table element design for their campaign!

Don’t want to miss a future episode?

Subscribe to The Higher Ed Marketer podcast today!

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Images via Depauw University website

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