Telling Our Story

To really break through the clutter and claims of other schools, we needed a bolder brand identity that would make the world sit up and take notice, proclaiming loud and clear that we are second to none.

From the Spring 2012 edition of Vanderbilt Business

“All we have to do is tell our story!”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that sentiment. In this case, Smoke Wallin, MBA’93, spoke up at a meeting of the Alumni Board in late 2010 as part of a discussion on how the school could move up in the rankings and attract the best applicants. But telling our story meant more than just having our faculty’s work cited in The Wall Street Journal or on Marketplace. To really break through the clutter and claims of other schools, we needed a bolder brand identity that would make the world sit up and take notice, proclaiming loud and clear that we are second to none.

For years, Vanderbilt’s business school has been talked about as a “hidden gem,” a “best-kept secret,” a place that “you’ve got to experience to understand.” Those aren’t entirely bad qualities, and for a long time those attributes helped distinguish us from other top-ranked schools.

However, with an aggressive new strategic plan in place, which includes pushing into the top-20 B-schools amid ever-greater competition for talent, we could no longer afford to be a hidden gem or best-kept secret. Telling our story had become—and remains—a competitive imperative. Below are just a few of the key steps in our yearlong journey.

Step 1

Find a creative partner

In the same way consumer brands tap into renowned advertising agencies to sharpen their edges (and boost sales), we too set out in early 2011 to find a firm to help raise the school’s profile. With the support of an internal advisory board, we screened more than a dozen agencies from across the country, including ones that had worked with other top B-schools. We plowed through a mountain of amazing—and some not so amazing—work, finally narrowing the field to three firms. Each of these finalists presented their capabilities, including a broad array of creative approaches they’d used to help other clients achieve their goals. But in the end we selected an agency in Columbus, Ohio, called Ologie. A highly creative branding agency with about 50 employees, it has a client base that ranges from nonprofits and academic institutions, such as the Cleveland Clinic and Purdue University, to private companies like NetJets and the Food Network. Their creative team blended bold designs with smart, mission-driven content. It was a perfect match for our intimate, collaborative, and yet academically rigorous personality.

Step 2

Prioritize our audiences and objectives

Everyone agreed that we needed to tell our story, and tell it boldly. But who needed to hear it? Obviously prospective students are a core audience. As is the wider Owen community, including faculty, current students and alumni. We also wanted to reach peer schools, which hold sway in the rankings and whose institutions serve as feeders for top student and research talent. But the one constituency that, with Ologie’s help, we learned could really spark a virtuous cycle was corporate recruiters—those who hire our students as interns and graduates. By broadening and deepening our relationships with employers, we’d see a short-term payoff in higher starting salaries and greater job placements. In addition, we hoped to leverage a growing alumni base within select companies to help boost our national profile for the long term and further strengthen the school’s network.

Step 3

Discover ourselves

Now that we knew who should hear our story, the next question was just as important: What story do we want to tell? Each of us can rattle off five or six great things about Vanderbilt’s business school, but honing that message in a way that’s unique, credible and resonant with the people we’re trying to reach is a daunting task. So Ologie started by talking with dozens of stakeholders—faculty, staff, students of all programs and ages, as well as employers. Everyone agreed that “culture” was our single biggest strength. But here’s the rub: No two people described the culture in the same way. What’s more, employers don’t immediately see how our culture benefits their organizations. Ologie worked through this problem and identified a vocabulary for talking about our culture in a way that all audiences would find compelling and beneficial.

Step 4

Create … then listen, listen, listen

Rather than go straight to designing a new series of ads, Ologie first drafted a manifesto—a galvanizing public declaration that explained in clear, energetic terms why this school is special. (Incidentally Apple’s “Think Different” campaign started with a manifesto.)

The agency then brought these ideas to life with a series of mock-ups of advertisements, sample pages from an MBA viewbook, online ads and layouts of all the other materials we use on a day-to-day basis to promote the school. Our job was to take those items back to our audiences and understand what worked, what didn’t and why.

As expected, there were elements that resonated with everyone, such as, “We’re the B-school built for the persistent. The genuine.” There were some that split opinions: Students rallied around “Rewrite the Rules,” for example, but alumni disliked it. And there were other things that were simply best left on the cutting room floor.

Step 5

A breakthrough!

Using this feedback we spent much of the summer refining (and refining some more) the points that proved most salient among all the people we surveyed. Finally we began to see the outlines emerge of what we believe is a profound and truly unique brand narrative for the school.

Step 6

Tell the world

The time had come to begin incorporating these new design and content elements into our marketing materials. The first step involved developing a positioning brochure that homed in on our manifesto in a creative manner. We also worked with Ologie to create an 83-page booklet using stats, facts, quotes, people and places to tell all that’s worth knowing about Vanderbilt’s MBA program. Over a six-week period, we sent these two items to more than 6,000 prospective students as well as 1,000 B-school deans, MBA and Executive MBA program directors. The results? It’s too early to tell, but, if it’s any indication, Jim Bradford got a call from another dean telling him that he liked the book so much that he was going to copy it.

Starting in 2012, we began dialing back our involvement with Ologie. We’re now turning to an extended Nashville-based team of copywriters and designers to help translate Ologie’s new ideas and fresh look into our websites and future marketing materials. Next up is an ad for both print and larger displays, such as at airports.

As you watch these materials take shape, I think you’ll find that they are truly different than anything we’ve done before. And yet, they capture our spirit perfectly—just as we had hoped.