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March 4

Driving Affinity Through Innovative Marketing at Universities


by | Mar 4, 2021 | Blog, Featured, Podcast

My co-host, Troy Singer, and I had the privilege of sitting down with Ethan Braden of Purdue University. Read how they used higher ed marketing to drive affinity during one of the first campus reopenings after the Covid-19 shutdown.

The Covid-19 pandemic has turned the world upside-down.

For many, their lives will never be the same because they lost people they loved to the disease.

But even for the rest of the world fortunate enough to still have our loved ones with us, life simply will not be the same.

In what may have been the largest voluntary quarantine in the history of mankind, colleges and universities around the world shut down their campuses in March 2020 when it became clear the coronavirus outbreak was a true threat to the health of students, faculty, and their families.

One of the first major universities to reopen after the pandemic struck was Purdue University.

This was no small feat.

Led by university president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, one of the biggest names in Midwest higher education became known for its strategic approach to reopening while keeping everyone as safe as possible.

The reopening strategy was branded #ProtectPurdue.

It was hugely successful in bringing back students to campus, keeping enrollment numbers healthy, and keeping students and faculty healthy.

“Purdue leads the Big Ten with the most students in classrooms, roughly tied with Nebraska for the largest share of in-person classes.” – Purdue President’s Annual Open Letter 2021

Of course, the marketing and communications team had a big part to play in the success of Purdue’s reopening.

Good communication was crucial to keeping everyone safe and keeping enrollment at a healthy level.

There was also a lot of criticism for their bold move to open back up which the Purdue’s marketing team met head on with timely answers to questions, bulletproof rationale, and inspiring encouragement to students and parents alike.

Purdue Ethan Braden Through their outstanding efforts from many successful initiatives, Purdue’s marketing team became one of the AMA’s three finalists for the Higher Education Marketing Team of the Year award.

Every good marketing team has a great leader.

And for his leadership, Purdue’s Senior VP of Marketing & Communications Ethan Braden received AMA’s Higher Ed Marketer of the Year award.

That’s why my co-host, Troy Singer, and I were thrilled to get the chance to speak with him during the second episode of The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

Secrets to Driving Affinity Even During a Crisis

In this episode, Ethan reveals the secrets behind the success of the campaign, and how he and his team were able to drive affinity even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Expand your team through third-party agencies and vendors.

Right off the bat, Ethan pointed out that the Purdue marketing “team extends beyond those that wear the Purdue badge.”

One of the reasons Purdue’s marketing team was able to keep up with the rapidly changing landscape due to Covid was they had already cultivated an outer circle of third-party consultants, vendors, partners and agencies working with them.

“Team” extends beyond those that wear the Purdue badge. For us, we’ve got some great partners, consultants, vendors, as well as an agency in partnership here.

They played a huge role, especially in initially formulating the attitudes, behaviors, the audience, [as well as] understanding the objectives and the phases that we really wanted to execute with.”

It’s important to create these partnerships and get to know your third-party marketing partners well before a crisis like Covid-19 happens.

The level of trust and camaraderie that Purdue had with their marketing agency partner allowed them to move quickly to meet the challenge and launch the campaign in record time.

Higher ed marketing needs to follow executive leadership.

There’s no doubt that a big part of Purdue’s successful reopening and marketing campaign was due to Mitch Daniels’ leadership.

In the podcast episode, Ethan stressed how everything started with Mitch, who was really the “tip of the spear.”

The university president started the effort to reopen the campus literally the minute Purdue decided to shut its doors.

Consulting with the scientists and medical personnel among the faculty and staff, Daniels tried to get a science-based view of the risks, threats, and possibilities of the current situation.

When he made the decision to reopen, and the protection plan was first adopted sometime in early summer of 2020, Daniels published an op-ed in the Washington Post announcing the reopening and stating the university’s position.

The piece, “Why failing to reopen Purdue University this fall would be an unacceptable breach of duty,” proved to be highly influential in the success of Purdue’s overall marketing objectives.

Purdue’s marketing team followed his lead and developed a 16-week marketing strategy which laid out eight distinct messaging campaigns, each covering a period of two weeks.

This marketing strategy provided the “air cover” needed to promote and defend President Daniels’ leadership decision.

Too many times, executive leadership and marketing get their wires crossed.

But success happens when the marketing team can pick up the cues from their leaders.

One way Purdue kept their marketing and leadership team in sync was through a daily 8:30 a.m. meeting with the university president.

This daily meeting with the president continues today, and has the provost and vice-provost in attendance.

That means pretty much the entire campus is represented in these brief meetings, keeping them on the same page.

Create a teamwork culture across the organization.

Because of the complex, piecemeal way colleges and universities are often composed, getting your marketing messaging consistent across departments and audiences is complex.

Due to Purdue’s large size, they constantly work hard to get all of their communications teams to work together.

Ethan revealed in our talk how its important it is for the enrollment marketing team to create a teamwork culture across the organization to help unify their messaging.

“At the end of January [2020], we rolled out our new brand platform. [It was] really a response to the “150 Years of Giant Leaps” anniversary campaign that took us through ’18 and ’19. But after that celebration of 150 years, were all of the departments, were all the communicators, were all the colleges going to go back to their disparate corners?

Or, are we going to continue together on the same song sheet?”

Drive material results rather than just taking orders.

In our conversation, Ethan cautioned higher ed marketers not to become “short-order cooks.”

Education marketers should be more than frustrated short order cooks. As marketing teams seek to serve their colleagues and leaders across the school, it is very common to turn into order takers.

Need a graphic for that social media campaign? We’ll have it for you in five business days.

Need an email drip campaign written and designed for that new campus initiative? Give us two weeks, and we’ll have it back to you.

When you start to work like this, your marketing becomes a series of projects rather than a cohesive strategy.

Like a shotgun spraying shot everywhere, you really don’t hit any substantial target.

So how do you get out of this “short-order cook” mode?

By driving the brand, rather than being driven.

Marketing is the catalyst of exemplary customer experiences. We are the drivers of those experiences. We are the drivers of the brand – and not the driven.

[One of my goals is] to get away from being the driven short-order cook of random acts of marketing for Purdue University to be the driver of great positioning, of great understanding, of great promotion, and great protection or preservation of our brand.”

Stay tuned to the Higher Ed Marketer Podcast!

As Ethan said, I want you to be the driver of great positioning, understanding, promotion, and protection of your school’s brand.

One way you can do that is by subscribing to The Higher Ed Marketer Podcast on whatever podcast player you use to listen to your podcasts.

Every week my co-host Troy Singer of ThinkPatended and I will bring you amazing conversations packed with practical takeaways to help you drive affinity for your brand rather than being driven by scattered, random marketing piece requests.

And what you’ll get in these quick, 15 to 20 minute conversations with successful higher ed marketers is much more than I can deliver in one blog post.

In fact, in this episode with Ethan Brayden, you’ll hear so much more than I covered today in this follow-up article – like how to…

  • Handle push-back and criticism through your marketing,
  • Keep your enrollment marketing tasks running together smoothly, and
  • Integrate messaging across marketing campaigns.

But don’t take my word for it.

Go listen to the episode now if you haven’t already!


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    • 25 enrollment marketing content ideas you might never have considered before
    • Guidance on how to use each one for best results
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Featured image by wolterke via Adobe Stock
Exhausted Cook image by ViDi Studio via Adobe Stock

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Fill out the following form to get instant access to our ebook, 25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content.

Looking for other higher-ed content and resources from Caylor Solutions?

Subscribe to The Higher Ed Marketer podcast today!

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