Revamping the Seattle University Brand

2013-09-27
By Mike Thee, SU Commons Editor
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Photo Credit: Chris J. Taylor

A new brand strategy for Seattle University will be introduced to the campus community later this quarter. Scott McClellan, vice president for university communications, recently provided an overview of the process by which the strategy is being developed, why this is important to the university and more.

SU Commons Editor:  Why is the university undertaking this brand initiative?

Scott McClellan:  We are in a very competitive higher education market and higher education is going through a period of disruptive change. It’s important to make sure we’re telling our unique story with greater clarity and impact. The brand initiative is an important step toward raising awareness about Seattle University and elevating our academic profile—the profile of our accomplished faculty and the transformational education students receive. It is about how we position ourselves, moving forward—about how we differentiate ourselves. The competition in higher education these days is intense and there is a lot of white noise in the marketplace. Many universities are saying and promising the same thing. What we need to do is differentiate ourselves. We have a great story to tell and I want more people to hear our story. The message needs to authentic to who we are, but to stand out and break through all the clutter, it also needs to be clear and distinctive.

SU Commons Editor:  How has the process played out thus far?

Scott McClellan:  The first step in this process was to bring together a group of individuals in the university community to oversee the development of a comprehensive brand strategy. The Brand Leadership Group (BLG) is a select group of key stakeholders, including experts in branding and marketing. We have two faculty representatives who were selected from a list of recommendations from our deans. It also includes our vice president for Enrollment Management, the vice president for University Advancement, the associate provost for Graduate Education and Research and the dean of Admissions. The Brand Leadership Group has been meeting roughly every other week since March. Our first priority was to identify a branding firm that, one, had experience in higher education, and two, could conduct the necessary research to support the direction we head with the brand concept and ensure we are on target. There were three finalists and the Brand Leadership Group came to a strong consensus around 160over90.

SU Commons Editor:  What was it about 160over90 that appealed to the Brand Leadership Group?

Scott McClellan:  We felt that 160over90 will push us to be more creative, maybe even more edgy than some others might have. We think that’s what need if we’re going to differentiate ourselves and really stand out in the marketplace. We need a bold approach and that is what we believe 160 will bring to the table.

SU Commons Editor:  Where did the agency go from there?

Scott McClellan:  160over90 has five stages to their process. The first was the discovery phase in which they did a review of all our marketing assets and recent research we had already done. In May, they conducted a two-day immersion on campus in which they met with a wide range of stakeholders—from faculty to our Jesuit community to students at both the undergraduate and graduate level to leaders in each of the four pillars of the university community—Academic Affairs, Mission and Ministry, Student Development and Athletics. They also interviewed alumni, trustees and parents. From the immersion, 160over90 was able to get a good sense of who we are and how we view ourselves. They also did a competitive peer assessment and conducted external research targeted toward prospective undergraduate and graduate students.

SU Commons Editor:  Can you share a little bit about what was revealed as a result of this research?

Scott McClellan:  What we learned, especially from the external research, is there’s a significant gap between how we perceive ourselves and how prospective students perceive us. That’s a gap we need to close. The external research also verified the need to increase awareness about Seattle University in general and our core attributes more specifically.

SU Commons Editor:  Getting back to the process, what came after the discovery phase that you just described?

Scott McClellan:  The second phase was the development of a strategy, in which they looked at the key messages and themes that the brand concepts would be developed around. The agency is now in the middle of the third phase which is developing the two brand concepts that they will present to the brand leadership group in October. Then a decision will be made on which direction to take. The fourth phase is the roll-out. It will include open forums on campus so everybody—students, faculty and staff—will have an opportunity to learn about the new brand concept. There will also be new brand guidelines and brand camps so those who need them have the tools to ensure consistency of look, feel and messaging. The fifth is the execution phase. The Brand Leadership Group is in the process of prioritizing which executions will be carried out in the near term and which will be carried out longer term. One of the key executions being discussed within the university community is the need for an ongoing visibility campaign to increase awareness about Seattle University and help us break out of the pack so to speak.

SU Commons Editor:  If we were to fast-forward a few years, what would you like to see, broadly speaking, come out of the executions of the brand concepts?

Scott McClellan:  The ultimate message we send has to be clear, consistent and compelling. It takes time for the message to really sink in—consistency is key. My top priority is to make sure we are no longer viewed as “the best kept secret.” I think that’s a priority that many in our university community share. That’s why the brand initiative is so important—we must make sure that we are clearly communicating the overarching message and engaging our audiences in new and innovative ways to break through all the clutter of marketing they are exposed to on a daily basis.

SU Commons Editor:  As you mentioned once the brand concept is approved, there will be opportunities for the university community to learn about what comes out of the process and what’s next, but is there anything you can share at this point, even in general terms, on where this all might be leading?

Scott McClellan:  Let me mention a few things without getting out in front of concepts that are still being developed.First, we have very solid data that is driving the direction of the brand concepts. The data is the basis for the concepts 160 is developing. We, the Brand Leadership Group, have signed off on the creative approach they are taking. There are three core supporting themes emerging that form a pyramid, if you will. The foundation, or bottom, of the pyramid includes the forward-looking, innovative ecosystem of Seattle where we are centrally located and our Jesuit educational experience, which is grounded in 450 years of excellence and transformation. The top of the pyramid is the impact we have. When you talk about our impact, it is about the impact our students, alumni and faculty have locally and globally. There is a certain expectation attached to a Seattle University education. It is an expectation that you are committing yourself to something more, to something greater than yourself—to serving others. We expect you to lead and serve, to be engaged. We expect you to be an agent for change in your careers and in your communities. The impact we have is sustainable; it’s not short term. Our impact makes a lasting difference in communities, locally and globally.  

SU Commons Editor:  Anything else you’d like to share about the brand initiative?

Scott McClellan:  First, I’m pleased by the participation of a broad and diverse segment of the university community. During the discovery phase 160over90 was able to hear from all the various stakeholders. Second, members of the Brand Leadership Group deserve the credit and I am grateful for their work overseeing this effort. We have a very talented team, especially our faculty experts, who have remained fully engaged throughout the process. Finally, as Fr. Steve mentioned during the President’s Welcome, we are all brand ambassadors. I look forward to working with everyone in our university community to successfully implement our strategy.

SU Commons Editor:  You just celebrated your one-year anniversary at the university. What have been the highlights of your first year here?

Scott McClellan:  There are a number of highlights. Let me just mention one, and that isbeing part of our wonderful community. I love being part of our Seattle University community. We have a talented and accomplished group of faculty and staff who are fully committed to the mission and fully committed to the students, alumni and community we serve. I feel blessed to be a part of it.