The top mistake colleges make when branding a new building

Show me the detailed plans for a new college building and I’ll likely be able to show you a simple, yet expensive mistake you’re making that is at the heart and soul of your brand. The great news is the fix is relatively simple.

You need to be digging much deeper in to “the how” and “the why” of engaging your target audiences with your brand story, much earlier in the planning process.

The most common tactical example of this? Stop purchasing and installing video monitors before you truly understand how the content you’ll create will accomplish the bigger picture goal of your building.


First Things First

Every campus building has a story. Especially brand new ones. Talk to your students and they’ll likely rave about the accomplishments of their classmates and love of their professors. Your professors will rattle off stories about students who’ve blown them away. Advancement will wax poetic about the accomplishments of the people funding the building. Yet where and how will these stories live in your new 8-figure investment? More importantly, what is the goal of this building and how will you measure it’s success? This conversation belongs at the front-end of the planning, not after the building is built.

Oregon visitors center lobby

Whether it’s a visitors center, a career services building or a sports facility, you need to dig deeper on brand messaging (and we’re not talking about pretty wall graphics) much earlier in the process. The brand message and how it comes to life needs to happen in concert with the architectural planning phase. Trust us, when it is done out of order those magic “ah-ha” moments – how you’ll wow prospects in this location and make alums swell with pride in that location –  can lead to significant structural changes in the actual building itself.

Beware of the Shiny Rattle

The engagement allure of eye-popping interactive visual media, in particular, when done well, is undeniable. Yet, most people we talk to have green-lit purchasing these expensive shiny rattles without really thinking the decision all the way through.  Some purchase high-tech visual hardware thinking “we’re going to have all kinds of interactive media” when it’s unnecessary to achieve their goals. Others purchase video monitors as were sketched in their architectural plans and are sorely disappointed when they realize it can’t do what they need it to do after it is installed. As a result, we consistently see people blaming the medium for not delivering results when the fail was thinking through the message you wanted to have absorbed in the first place.

BU video wall

Consider one college’s building lobby boasting mid six-figures worth of curved monitors that have been dark for two years because “we couldn’t agree on what message we wanted to promote.” A prestigious business school created a seven-figure interactive donor wall that no one ever stops and uses. I could go on, but you get the idea.

It’s also more than just the right brand message for the building – it’s the right brand message at the right place at the exact right time within the building experience. Much like a beautiful symphony is the individual instruments collectively  in sync, a building’s effectiveness has harmony between its physical structure, flow and target audience engagement.  If you wait until the building is built, you limit your ability.

Let’s say your new visitors center building is built and you realize interactive table top kiosks are the best medium to bring to life your prospect engagement in the waiting area. Yet, you haven’t mapped out how to get power under that $200,000 customized, Kesir Travertine floor. Are you really going to get the ‘OK’ to rip it up to re-do the electric? Or how about the six-figure furniture in place that no longer makes sense because it’s now been mapped as an interactive area. All of these decisions need to move up in the timeline process. It will save you big time dollars and tons of unnecessary anxiety and approvals.

The Big Three Questions You Need To Answer Before Finalizing Your Building Plans

1. Who do you want to reach?

physics interactive wall

Start with defining your audience. Get detailed on this. If you’re in charge of upgrading your university’s visitors center experience, you might think your target market is prospective students and their parents. However, consider how you could use this space for alumni engagement or faculty recruiting.  Expanding the horizon of who will use the space will play a role in what types of capabilities and content you’ll need to engage them.

Break down the goals for each audience. Is it to build awareness, increase affinity for your school or entice a specific engagement or action? Chart this out by each audience.  The answers to this will feed both the messaging and the functionality of your video displays.

2. How will you measure the success of the building?

Alumni Letters in action at the B1G Experience

You’re in academia so I don’t need to tell you the thirst for data to support or refute claims is very high. When you agree to spend 30, 60 or 100+ million dollars of other people’s money, it helps to be aligned on how you’ll declare victory.  If it is a visitors center, perhaps you measure the impact of the experience influencing their decision to attend (and you’ll need to baseline the “before” with a survey).  If it is a science building, perhaps faculty recruiting and retention is the key. Honing in on how you’ll declare victory will drive every decision on the front end.

3. How, when and where do you want to deliver the appropriate messaging?

“The How”

One of our mantras is that every building has a story. Controlled spaces offer a unique ability to fully immerse your audience in your school or department’s brand story. Being intentional with your message and considering the right mix of narratives is important. We segment messages into one of four buckets; intellectual, emotional, institutional and ambient.  Interactive media displays  can hit multiple buckets. You can assist the ambiance by what it does in the resting state, it can be programmed with emotionally engaging messaging and encourage interaction.  It can be a medium to explain your brand story in a fun way. Be clear on how you want each audience to feel and how you’ll measure this set you on a path to knowing what message you want them to absorb.

“The When”

Expand your thinking beyond “one display means one type of message.” You likely have many audience types that may change throughout the day. Start thinking like a television programmer and ask yourself how to day-part the message to the audiences.  Using a university visitors center as an example, tours are usually on a set schedule. How much flexibility do you want to flip a switch and have the medium geared for a fundraising event? How could these displays be used for faculty recruitment that might happen at any point during the day? If it’s a multi-use space, how should you account for current students’ needs and wants?

Break down your different audiences and overlay their potential traffic flows by time of day. If nothing else, it is a great primer to get you to think about multiple uses for the same medium.

“The Where”

You’ve got clarity on your audiences, message, and multi-purpose needs, now it’s time to hone in on where you put it. Start by asking is this a pass-through space or a destination where you have a captive audience? Do you want it to be used with a guide or unaided? It sounds a bit obvious, but thinking through the user behavior and traffic flow for where you’ll put your video displays can make a big impact on your purchase. Good architects spend lots of time on space usage and design flow, but even they often miss the next level deep dive on brand messaging and all too often put sketches of monitors that imply “you’ll figure what to put on that monitor later.”  Engaging messaging impacts usage and design flow and therefore design.

Using the university visitors center example, it doesn’t make sense to go with high interactivity if the display is in a corridor between places on your tour. Conversely, if you have large groups that wait in a lobby for an information session and provide one screen, it may provide an inferior experience simply because not enough people can use it in the allotted waiting time.

Story over Sizzle

Don’t fool yourself into thinking the bells and whistles of high-tech video equipment  will create the wow – especially if your audience is made up of digital-native college prospects.  Audiences welcome the ability to opt-in deeper to your brand story and are driven by emotionally compelling, evocative stories that are relevant and well told. Stories that inspire and incite wonder by touching the heart, not ones that touch the brain.  Audiences will credit your university simply by being the conveyor of the engaging message leaving audiences with a much likelier takeaway of that all important “gut feeling” that your school “just feels right.”

About Jay Sharman

Jay Sharman is the CEO and founder of TeamWorks Media, a purpose-driven marketing company in Chicago’s West Loop. TeamWorks helps not-for-profit and higher education clients combine purpose and profit by creating innovative marketing strategies... More about Jay Sharman »

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