A brand can be an elusive concept. A consultant hired by IUP loosely defines it as what people think, feel, and do when they hear an organization’s name. In the summer, IUP began following a new brand strategy—in essence, telling stories in a way
intended to improve audiences’ connection with the university and their understanding of its strengths and distinguishing features. Themes of the brand are evident in each story in this magazine edition, as they are in all new IUP communications.
How the university arrived at that strategy is a story in itself.
As IUP’s president, Michael Driscoll may hear more about the university than anyone else does. Attending hundreds of events each year, he has listened to scores of stories from alumni about how IUP changed their lives and made them who they are today.
But when he talked with those less familiar with the university, he found they weren’t hearing the same great things. Stories like that weren’t rising “above the noise” of everything else.
Growth and community are key themes of IUP’s new brand
Communicating IUP’s good news is more critical now than ever, Driscoll said, because of unprecedented competition in higher education. College enrollment has been on a downward slide the last eight years, according to national reports, and the Mid-Atlantic
is among the hardest-hit regions. In Pennsylvania, the population of high school students—the traditional market—has declined steadily since 2012, and experts predict college enrollment could drop another 15 percent after 2026.
The impact is clear at IUP, where enrollment has dipped 26 percent since a record high in 2012–13.
“We need to tell the IUP story in this competitive marketplace, as we’re trying to take what we do so well out to new generations of people and attract them to this institution,” Driscoll said.
“We can’t do a good job of serving students and creating leaders for tomorrow if we can’t get them here. And, we can’t do a good job of reinventing key parts of the university to meet the needs of today and tomorrow unless we communicate effectively internally
Earlier this year, IUP embarked on a rebranding effort—essentially an overhaul of the communications strategy—to help audiences hear the real IUP story.
First, Driscoll put up the scaffolding needed to handle such a rebrand. That involved creating a division to house all of IUP’s communications professionals and hiring Chris Noah to lead the team as chief marketing officer. Noah came to IUP in July 2018
after shepherding several rebranding efforts in his more than 30 years in corporate communications.
Last October, the university hired 160over90, a creative agency based in Philadelphia, to assist with the rebrand. In addition to having higher-education experience, the agency has served such clients as Nike, Under Armour, and Urban Outfitters and sports
teams including the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Cavaliers. “So they have the pulse of society and culture and what’s happening outside of higher education as well,” Noah said.
The agency also shared his views that good rebranding “ensures you stay close to who you truly are,” so organizations can deliver on those promises credibly while also keeping an “eye toward the future.” The agency refers to that strategy as “the mirror
and the bridge. It should be reflective of who you are today, but it should also be a bridge for where you want to go,” said 160over90 strategy director Alexandra Wittchen.
Step one in the process was determining existing perceptions of IUP. That research included on-campus focus groups and an extensive survey of prospective students, their parents, current students, alumni, donors, and employees.
“Getting that foundation helps us know what people’s perceptions are today, what opportunities or challenges we’re working with, and how we can build on those,” said Brandon Shockley, the agency’s research director.
The findings showed that audiences recognized IUP as a good value and often associated it with a personalized education, a strong sense of community or belonging, and being representative of western Pennsylvania’s personality.
Some of its challenges centered on name and location, academic reputation, and overall lack of familiarity. “It’s tough for people to give you credit for academic quality when they’re not familiar with IUP and what it offers,” Shockley said.
The research also found perceptions of IUP overlapped considerably with those of Cal U, Slippery Rock, and West Chester. Wittchen called it the “sea of sameness,” a growing problem in higher education. “It’s getting more difficult to break through and
differentiate yourself in a market where people are all saying they do the same thing,” she said.
While the term “party school” did come up in the research, Shockley said that’s common, particularly for public schools. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing—it just needs to be addressed carefully. The other side of that coin is having good community or
having school spirit,” he said.
In interviews, audiences reinforced the association with western Pennsylvania culture and its hardworking spirit—“that sense of rolling up your sleeves, digging in, and being willing to get your hands dirty,” Wittchen said. “That was something we felt
to be really true of IUP as we spoke to more people.”
They also heard about IUP’s strength in guiding students, cultivating potential, and fostering leadership. Wittchen shared this quote from the interviews: “I love IUP, because someone took the time to care about me.”
“What we heard time and again,” Wittchen said, “was that IUP is a large school with the resources of some of the powerhouses in the state, paired with this real devotion and attention to the student experience.”
Themes of IUP’s new brand strategy are built around that feedback. In look, feel, and message, those themes are now at the center of all IUP communications, including stories in this edition of the magazine:
A professor who connected with students and helped them grow as she advised and lived alongside them last spring
A pole vaulter who gave college a second try and left a lasting legacy at IUP
A student trained in preventing sexual assault who went on to lead an integrated antiviolence effort on campus
An IUP researcher who gives students an experience of a lifetime identifying new species in the cloud forests of Honduras
Visually, the brand is characterized by simple, straightforward presentations that pay tribute to IUP traditions—prominently featuring the school colors of crimson and gray and often including subtle references to the Oak Grove, Noah said.
The strategy also uses the strong association with western Pennsylvania culture to the university’s advantage, helping to address longstanding confusion over the Indiana, Pennsylvania, name and location.
But the biggest change with the new strategy is perhaps in the storytelling, addressing the problem Driscoll identified as far back as his 2013 inauguration: “Our future and our reputation depend on our doing just a little shameless bragging,” he said
in his inaugural address.
Provost Timothy Moerland, IUP’s chief academic officer, agrees with the need for better communication. The branding agency suggested IUP could distinguish itself from its peers by improving middle-of-the-pack perceptions of its academics, innovation,
and research—areas Moerland counts among the university’s strongest.
In fiscal year 2017–18, IUP researchers received more than $12 million from external agencies in support of their work. That was more than $5 million higher than any other State System school and capped a three-year average that surpassed the other schools
by $2.7 million.
Within the last three years, IUP has added such innovative programs as Environmental Engineering, Professional Teamwork and Leadership, and Public Health. Moerland also cited faculty members’ national recognition
for their scholarly work and the numerous positions they hold on editorial boards for academic journals.
What stands out the most, he said, is professors’ dedication to students and their willingness to involve even undergraduates in their research, scholarship, and creative endeavors.
“It’s something I’ve not seen anywhere else,” said Moerland, who came to IUP from Kent State in 2013. “Having the chops in scholarship and putting students in the sidecar as you make that drive with your goggles on is something really unique. That is
IUP’s place in the sun.”
Noah wants to make sure those messages are heard.
“We look at something like research and say, ‘Yes, this is us. We do that already,’” he said. “But the perceptions showed that those stories aren’t coming through.”
Noah believes being more selective in the stories IUP shares and shaping those stories around themes of the branding strategy will help those messages resonate. Key to that, he said, is emotionally engaging the audience.
“So if it’s a story about student success, we want you to connect with that student, almost go on that journey with the student,” he said. “We want you to understand the transformation this student went through at IUP and see how something we did here
helped the student move forward in life.”
To assess the impact of the new strategy, the university will measure social media engagement, website activity, and the volume of applications, campus visits, and other interactions with prospective students, in addition to alumni and donor activity.
But just as important, Noah said, are soft measures, such as what people are thinking, feeling, and saying about the new messaging.
“Is there more of a buzz factor? Do people have a greater sense of pride?” he said. “You almost want someone to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know IUP was like that.’ You want those kind of aha moments.”
Driscoll believes the rebrand is what IUP needs to rise above the other noise, attract more great students from different backgrounds, and make the university stronger.
“Since I’m an IUP believer, I think the real question is not, ‘What will this do for IUP?’ but, ‘What will this do for the world?’” he said. “The more students who are convinced to come here and who have that great IUP experience and walk out ready to
hit the ground running as great leaders and doers will have an amplified effect on the world. Their lives will be better, but also it will be better for all of us that they came to IUP, because they heard about us as a result of this work.”