Feature Article

Cutting Through
the Clutter

Advertising and marketing campaigns that stand out from the rest.
by Sharon Shinn


Information comes at all of us in an endless stream on every electronic device we own. How can business schools position their messages to catch the attention of students and other stakeholders who might be interested in their programs and services?

Three schools have recently found success in advertising media that range from the very traditional (the tea room) to the historically reliable (radio) to the cutting edge (viral video). Here, their representatives discuss what audiences they were targeting, what tactics they used, and how well their advertising campaigns worked.

Telling Stories

The Robert H. Smith
School of Business
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland, USA

Administrators at the Smith School wanted to devise a campaign that would raise its profile in its own backyard—the blockbuster markets of Washington, D.C., within eight miles of its campus, and Baltimore, Maryland, within 30. And they didn't just want to reach potential students; they also wanted to catch the attention of alumni, prospective corporate clients, and the general public.

To reach this broad mix of audiences, they chose the mass market vehicle of radio. Several 60-second spots were created to introduce listeners to Smith grads who had gone on to achieve impressive dreams. One, Deepa Janakariman, created a project to address poverty in Indonesia and the Philippines; he eventually secured an internship with Mercy-Corps in Jakarta. Another, Derek Shewmon, won a business plan competition sponsored by the school and had a chance to share his ideas with major players in the sports industry.

"The whole campaign consists of success stories about people who attended the Smith School of Business and used that experience to try to change an industry or change the world," says Ken White, executive director of marketing.

The goal wasn't to build attendance in a particular degree program, but to build awareness of the Smith School in general. "We weren't saying things like, 'Learn more about the Executive MBA program at this information session on this day and time." We took a broader approach."

For that reason, the school has supplemented the radio commercials with print and online ads, all of which direct interested parties to visit a dedicated website called the SmithEffect.com. There, they can take virtual campus tours, learn more about Smith School programs, find dates and deadlines for information sessions and applications, and generally start the admissions process. They can also find out more about the students whose stories made them want to visit the site in the first place.

In the future, the site might contain additional content, such as blogs from the featured students or podcasts and videos about additional graduates who aren't featured in radio ads. "There are a lot of ways we can make sure visitors learn more about the people, the school, and our culture," says White.

He notes that it can be a little tricky to choose the right grads to spotlight, a concern that remains in place as the school works on its additional ads. "We talk to the folks at our Centers of Excellence, which work closely with students," says White. "We ask our faculty, our academic directors, and our club leaders, 'Who has a great story to tell?' Once we collect a number of names, we sift through them to look for people who have good stories that can help us build a brand over the long run."

It's important to choose people who are liked by everyone and who can make the school community feel proud. "We have 50,000 alumni, and we're featuring a handful right now," White says. "We don't want to inadvertently offend the rest and say, 'You're not as important,' because they are. So it's a balancing act."

Despite the challenges, the radio campaign has been successful on a number of fronts. Internally, says White, it's enhanced morale. "The very day the campaign went on the air, I felt the excitement in the building, because people heard it on the way to work. They liked the commercial, and many of them knew the students being featured. It really helped build team spirit."

And even though the commercials were planned as institutional advertisements, they've boosted applications and inquiries into Smith programs. "After we ran ads for three weeks, we'd look at the number of inquiries and applications to see if there was a cause and effect," says White. "Did numbers increase? Did online traffic increase? The answer is yes. Although our primary goal was to improve our branding, the campaign is also helping us put people in seats."

White encourages other schools to consider radio advertising, but only if it seems to be the right medium for their purposes. "If their goal is to brand the school within a certain market, I'd say it's something to consider," he says. "I'd also recommend staying away from the kind of spot that says, 'We're ranked this highly' or 'We offer these kinds of programs.' Instead, consider what the audience wants to know and how you can deliver that in a compelling way."

Like print ads, he says, radio ads for business schools tend to sound alike. "If we look at 50 print ads for 50 business schools, most will either include pictures of columns or the multicultural shot," White says. "Across the board, all our advertising is so similar. And there are a lot of commercials on the radio. So a school has to find a way to cut through the clutter and connect with its audience. Simply saying, 'We have a highly ranked program' won't do it."

One lesson White learned from the SmithEffect campaign is that schools should at least consider all media when launching a promotion. "We're living in a world now where we just say 'online, online, online.' But maybe we can use other types of media to reach our goals."

Brewing Inspiration

To train students in information security, business schools can integrate a range of content into their core curricula. There is a vast amount of information online regarding information security, so that professors without extensive information technology skills can easily find what they need.

Graduate School of Business
University of Cape Town
South Africa


In a world of constant change, the only successful businesspeople will be agile thinkers who are focused on innovation. To promote the idea that those are the kinds of graduates it produces, the UCT Graduate School of Business worked with Saatchi & Saatchi Cape Town to create a marketing campaign that doubled as a philosophy. The resulting "Full Colour Thinking" platform has been used on the school's Web site, in a series of 3D murals, on an interactive post-it wall installation, and in directional signage.

The Full Colour Thinking theme was on full display in early 2011 when the school launched a campaign to highlight its executive education program through a promotion called "PossibiliTeas," also designed by Saatchi & Saatchi. The goal was to help executives see unexpected possibilities in the business world by creating an interactive tool that would open up their minds, says Sammy-Jane Thom, creative director at the agency. She adds, "Our idea came off the insight that inspiration often strikes when you take a break, like when you take a moment to make a cup of tea."

The agency created a tea chest full of nine varieties of teas specially made for the school by premier South African tea merchant Mingwei Tsai. School administrators hand out the chests when they meet with current and potential clients who might enroll large numbers of their managers in the school's executive education programs. Each tea is a tangible reminder that people sometimes need to take a break while they consider new ideas.

The chest, which holds five bags of each flavor, is full of "nudges" designed to get people thinking. A motivational verse appears on the inside of the lid, and each of the 45 tea bags is printed with its own inspirational "thought starter." For instance, the Most Stimulating English Breakfast Tea encourages tea drinkers to "Make time to imagine impossible things." Each tea bag includes steeping instructions and notes about the tea inside.

Two hundred full-sized tea chests were produced, as well as 200 smaller travel-sized tea boxes with nine tea bags each. Unlike many giveaways, the tea chest has longevity. "It sits on a person's desk as a constant reminder of GSB," says Thom.

It's also a high-end gift. "For this particular project, we commissioned one of the best tea merchants in South Africa to hand-blend and develop tea," says Thom. "The cost of the chest would have been considerably lower had we used a commercial tea supplier, but this would not have worked for the kind of custom product we were aiming to develop."

She adds, "When individuals run out of the tea, they are encouraged to call the school and ask for a refill, which will then offer an opportunity for ongoing dialogue."

The campaign, which is expected to be in place for about a year, has received media attention locally and internationally. "It has contributed favorably to the overall positioning of the school, along with a variety of other Full Colour Thinking initiatives," says Thom.

Those initiatives recently included "Curious Times," a short animated film that shows how curiosity grows with every new discovery. "The film is intended primarily as a mood setter for a meeting between the business team and potential corporate clients," says Thom. "Instead of a 'talking head' testimonial, we use the film to open the minds of potential clients to the thought of 'unlearning' and being curious." The film can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJAI897oH5U.

Like the teas, the delicately hued film reinforces the GSB's theme of Full Colour Thinking. Says Thom, "It presents the premise that questions change the world, not answers." To train students in information security, business schools can integrate a range of content into their core curricula. There is a vast amount of information online regarding information security, so that professors without extensive information technology skills can easily find what they need.

Spreading the Joy

Carlson School of Management
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, USA

In recent years, the Carlson School has sent out holiday greetings in the form of e-cards created in a Flash program, but administrators wanted to come up with something special for 2011. Brainstorming sessions in the communications department yielded the idea of creating a video that would feature a flash mob gathering at the school and performing Christmas music.

Steve Rudolph, the manager of school relations, approached the university's School of Music in February 2011 to ask for its participation in the video project. Administrators at both schools jumped at the chance to collaborate.

"The Carlson School is eager to connect with other parts of the university," says Johnny Thompson, director of strategic communications. "However, because of our physical location and because of our culture—which is often perceived as different from the rest of the campus—there's been a bit of a disconnect between us and the rest of the university. By working closely with the School of Music, we demonstrated our willingness to work with others. It turned out that the School of Music was also looking to connect with other schools, and this hugely successful collaboration may lead to future partnerships between us."

On November 7, students from the School of Music gathered in the atrium of the Carlson School and began joining a single musician as he played "Deck the Halls" on the saxophone. Eventually more than 300 students participated in the performance as other students, faculty, and even the school mascot looked on. The facility was brimming with people because the event had been timed to coincide with the end of several classes to ensure a large audience.

"While we did a pretty good job of keeping the event quiet beforehand, it's hard to keep anything involving that many people a total secret," notes Thompson.

The entire production was created in-house, with Rudolph acting as producer and Bryan Koop, the Carlson School's videographer/ photographer, shooting and editing the piece. The video, which can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH8FvERQHtM, was posted on December 1 and immediately started garnering attention. Within five days, it had almost 164,000 views. By the beginning of January, almost 2 million.

"It is far and away the most watched video for the Carlson School," says Thompson.

Thompson stresses that the video was created, not as a marketing tool, but as a holiday greeting that could be sent to alumni, benefactors, faculty, staff, and students—a greeting that subtly reinforced the school's brand essence. "We believe the video accurately reflected our brand, which emphasizes the words 'savvy, engaged, and authentic,'" he says. It also sparked pride in alumni who saw the video and called or emailed to say how pleased they were to be associated with the university.

And even though the video isn't about management education, it did serve to raise the school's profile. A significant number of people who watched the holiday video were intrigued enough to look for more information on Carlson. "We noticed marked increases to the viewing of most all of our other videos posted on YouTube," says Thompson. In fact, between December 1 and December 15, traffic to the Carlson School Web site was 19 times higher than average.

While it might be hard to quantify the benefits of those additional views, he says, "We believe that the more people are exposed to our brand, the more favorably we'll be regarded. The fact that the video went viral only served to extend our brand to a wider audience."

While there's no way to predict what will or won't go viral on the Internet, Thompson has some suggestions for other schools.

"Start early. Take risks. Go big. There is no possible way we could have achieved such success had we not started nearly a year ago and been willing to try something new, bold, and creative. By January, we'd already started to think about the 2012 holiday card, and our initial discussions are every bit as exciting as those of a year ago."







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