Reinventing a university: 5 lessons learned

How Metropolitan State University of Denver reinvented itself during a time of change and uncertainty

University business has not exactly been “business as usual.” The world is healing. Student demographics are changing. And, universities are seeing new patterns in data, methods and approaches to provide higher education that’s relevant and “possible.”

While the academic landscape keeps evolving, universities are adapting and trying to reinvent themselves, more than ever. So how does a university reinvent itself during a time of change and uncertainty?

Lesson #1: Research and observe your reputation qualities over time.

The Strategy, Marketing and Communications team at MSU Denver already knew our institution stood out in the higher education field for its highly diverse student body and affordable tuition structure; but we also knew we had many assets flying below the radar that should be brought into the wider public consciousness. So in fall 2018, MSU Denver conducted a brand assessment to measure how the overall brand image and messaging effectiveness had changed since the previous audit.

Lesson #2: Evaluate that information.

The obvious came through in those results, but we wanted to highlight qualities that might be less obvious to students and the external community. Those attributes boiled down to three essential domains where MSU Denver is truly in a class by itself: opportunity, excellence and innovation. All three themes had been diluted in previous results. It was time to emphasize what was now clear, present and relevant—and to help audiences reimagine what they know about MSU Denver.

Catherine B. Lucas, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Catherine B. Lucas, Metropolitan State University of Denver

Lesson #3: Compare how others see your university vs. how you see your university.

Our team saw MSU Denver as diverse and affordable (more obvious); and others were seeing us as providing opportunity, excellence and innovation (less obvious). From these learnings, the audit and data were the foundation of our Reimagine Possible campaign, which launched in early 2019 and continues through 2020. The campaign had four primary objectives: to refresh the MSU Denver brand by telling our story and demonstrating “what’s possible” at MSU Denver; to build brand awareness of our academic programs and external/community/business partner cooperative opportunities; to differentiate MSU Denver from its competitors by increasing visibility and enhancing our reputation; and, overall, to generate interest in the university among stakeholders and target audiences.

Lesson #4: Reinvent for your students and community through branding and ongoing dialog.

We created the Reimagine Possible initiative—demonstrating “opportunity, excellence and innovation” in all internal and external outreach, including the following:
– Brand positioning: Developed Reimagine Possible messaging-platform language for the overall campaign, including a brand book and key words.
– An ad/media campaign: Created and executed a total-immersion campaign to “show” the brand through authentic storytelling and “tell” about the importance and results of effective brand-building.
– A brand certification program: Developed a training program for faculty, deans, department chairs and staff.
– Rolling brand launch with tie-ins with university special events: Scheduled program components to coincide with 1) the annual Welcome Back celebration in September 2019, and 2) the TEDx MSU Denver event, titled “Reimagining Possibilities.”
– Infusing the Reimagine Possible theme into MSU Denver’s 2025 Strategic Planning Process.

We realized that this global uncertainty presented MSU Denver with an opportunity to reach new potential students.

Lesson #5: Make sure your brand is adaptable—and then reinvent again!

In spring 2020, when COVID-19 pushed higher-ed institutions into online classrooms and into economic uncertainty, we decided to revisit the audit and our goals. We concluded that our brand messages should remain the same, but the delivery would be more digital, and the stories more relevant.

We realized that this global uncertainty presented MSU Denver with an opportunity to reach new potential students: high school seniors who were now rethinking their out-of-state choices and taking a fresh look at MSU Denver as a local option, as well as college students who realized they were not returning to a campus social life.

In addition, wfocused on COVID-related “hero” professionals, such as nurses and other “essential” workers, in our campaign, sustaining our brand messages and integrating stories that were now more relevant than ever. The call to action was strong, clear and direct. And since this pivot, our digital readership and online visits have tripled.

Our reinvention

The Reimagine Possible campaign took advantage of practically every available medium (outdoor and digital), opportunity (relevant stories) and even a crisis (adaptability and flexibility). By combining the audit’s insights and intelligence with a wide-ranging internal and external brand awareness effort, MSU Denver reinvented itself in the increasingly competitive field of higher education—as an institution that exemplifies opportunity, excellence and innovation. And then, we reinvented again, responding to a new world and an unprecedented virtual campus with complexities and opportunities. While we “reimagine possible,” we continue to evolve the narrative around MSU Denver’s story and the future of higher education.

Cathy Lucas, the vice president of strategy and external affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver), spearheaded communications for the Reimagine Possible campaign.

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