We've all heard the question echo across national media outlets: "Is college worth it?" This question has shifted the discourse about the value of higher education across our country. Higher education was once uniformly viewed as an opportunity to better one's life. But as we've moved from an industrialized nation to a highly advanced market economy — one with a wealth of online information and ever-advancing technology — the value proposition of higher education is increasingly questioned and sometimes doubted by the masses.
As marketers in the industry, we are responsible for addressing that skepticism. But how do we do so effectively without getting caught up in the politicization of higher education?
Media is Changing
Modern news media is changing. Outlets once fully staffed now have the same individuals acting as reporters, photographers, sound engineers, editors, copywriters, and digital content managers. The same demands are placed on the outlets but with fewer people. In smaller markets, the effects are profound. The reliance on shared content from influencers or outlets outside the market to populate TV newscasts, social media, and websites can amplify issues outside of geographic regions, causing ripple effects in local markets. It can also give a biased influencer a larger stage and audience, along with the credibility of being associated with a mainstream news outlet. The very survival of news outlets is determined by stories that dominate in impressions and engagement. And in recent years, these stories, often driven by controversy, divide communities and politicize education.
In Idaho, we have one of the largest wilderness areas in the lower 48 states, with 35 of 44 counties considered rural. Eighteen of these rural counties are considered remote, meaning they are populated with fewer than six people per square mile. While Boise has experienced tremendous growth over the last few decades, almost tripling in 40 years, many communities throughout our state have maintained their rural demographic.
Geography, like wilderness, mountains, or expansive land areas, impacts social mobility and a person's ability to physically connect with opportunities like higher education. While high school graduation rates in Idaho are near 92%, only 29% of our state's population have earned a bachelor's degree.
We could say that Idaho communities value K-12 education, not higher education. But K-12 is readily available to students and geographically close in proximity. However, due to our rural land mass, reaching higher education is physically more difficult, especially if prospective students want to continue living in their communities, cannot move closer to a four-year institution, or are unaware of online opportunities. Worse yet, they could be negatively influenced by a nationally unfavorable narrative about the value of higher education and the overall benefit of higher education for them and their family.
Building a New Blueprint
As marketers, we can help influence how people perceive higher education through brand strategy.
Until three years ago, Boise State's Office of Communications and Marketing (OCM) operated within a more traditional news office model with virtually no investment in paid media at the brand level. We let others shape our narrative without being out in the market to share the value of higher education through stories of our incredible students, faculty, and alums. With the shifting national landscape questioning the value of higher education, it was time to build a new brand strategy and tell our own story.
So, we got to work.
Our OCM built a new organizational structure more closely aligned with a brand-level marketing model that combines marketing, strategic communications, and media relations. This responsive model deeply connected strategy across disciplines and the brand to better serve our community and reach our audiences. With a decentralized enterprise, OCM leads the ever-present primary brand across all sub-brands, including academics, advancement, and athletics – we now have a branded house approach.
Staying True to Blue
We know that purpose-driven consumers choose products and brands based on how well they align with their values and that successful higher education brands build experiences and emotional connections for their audiences, so a data-driven approach to building our brand strategy was imperative.
With a new visionary president and financial investment from the university, we launched an RFP to find a full-service national agency with expertise in research, strategy, creative, digital, and media planning. Enter our partnership with SimpsonScarborough. Our initial scope of work included market research and discovery, the creation of a brand platform, creative assets, including a new national spot and paid media campaign, and strategy. As we worked with SimpsonScarborough on the creative for our campaign, we stayed true to our brand standards and our new brand platform.
This wasn't a re-brand — we are still blue and orange and have all of our same logos and typography — but rather a fresh take on how we express ourselves creatively.
With this campaign, we aimed to reach audiences across Idaho to build positive sentiment and affinity for Boise State by leveraging the national reputation and love for our blue turf. Its presence disrupted college athletics, and we wanted to connect this with our academic programs' innovative qualities and excellence. We call our unique mindset "Blue Turf Thinking."
From Strategy to Expression
As our market research and discovery phase wrapped up, we gleaned insights from our audiences that drove brand strategy and creative development. The brand platform became our compass and framework to guide our marketing and communications strategies across the enterprise, which we knew would resonate with our audiences because of our data-driven approach. It's not just a matter of telling people what they want to hear. It's an act of finding and sharing real stories of students, faculty, and alums that align with our audience's values so they might see shared commonalities and opportunities to connect with the university.
Storytelling is rooted in the human experience from the beginning of history, so for us, finding what we coined our 'brand heroes' was one of the most critical factors for building meaningful creative to connect to our audience. We sourced stories from our marketing professionals from across the enterprise. In the end, we highlighted four extraordinary students and one faculty member, all but one from Idaho, in hopes that viewers would see a piece of themselves in at least one of the heroes in our national spot: an NFL player from rural Idaho who tragically lost both of his parents at a young age, a triple-major who started college at the age of 13 and is now a Harvard doctoral student at 17, a NASA intern who transferred from a local community college, a D1 volleyball player who is a cancer survivor, and a nationally recognized engineering research faculty member who is also a navy veteran.
Each one eloquently represents what it means to be a Bronco through their unrelenting spirit, determination, resiliency, perseverance, and innovation. We leveraged the connection to our blue football turf with our Out of The Blue campaign, representing spaces and places across the university where excellence and innovation occur.
Surround Sound Audience Experience
Building the paid media strategy was as critical as engaging creative because we wanted to connect with our target audiences at the right place and time. With one of the lowest rates in the country of high school students going on to college, it’s more important than ever for Boise State to reach Idaho audiences with compelling messaging and share the value of higher education. Understanding how our audiences need to be communicated with is critical to our success in reaching and engaging them. The paid campaign included digital display advertising, social media, SEM, OTT, streaming audio, outdoor, and print.
The success of our campaign in the market is largely due to the research-driven approach that garnered insights from our audiences and drove brand and creative strategy. SimpsonScarborough's expertise in media planning provided high-level engagement from our target audiences throughout our campaign and resulted in increased lead generation, conversions, and positive sentiment in the marketplace.
The first phase of the paid campaign resulted in 40 million digital impressions, 1 million outdoor impressions, and 70,000 clicks to our landing page. While it was a brand-level campaign and didn't set enrollment targets, our efforts accounted for over 540 leads and nearly 80 applicants. Additionally, we saw an increase in positive sentiment through our social listening, especially among Idaho audiences. We have continued upward with another record-breaking year in research awards and philanthropy and an enrollment increase, which we promote in the market to share Boise State's value with our audiences.
Where We Are Headed
Capitalizing on the success of our brand-level work, we are now working on two key university priorities. First, we are enhancing our journey for prospective on-campus and online students with segmented experiences. No matter how our prospective students find us, their journey will now be aligned with the brand. Second, we are also on the heels of launching the most ambitious comprehensive campaign in university history. We extended our partnership with SimpsonScarborough, connecting them with our advancement team on creative development, strategy, and web presence, all with alignment to our brand work.
It's an exciting time to be at a university on the rise, and we hope to continue to build on this success in the future to strengthen the Boise State brand.
Our campaign is moving the needle and reaching Idahoans. In just one year, we went from having a minimal brand-level presence in the marketplace and letting outside sources control our narrative to building a compelling data-driven brand strategy and successfully engaging with and connecting to our target audiences. Our work directly and positively impacts our university community and our state. Our success is partly due to our partnership with SimpsonScarborough and commitment from the university, buy-in from marketers across the enterprise, dedication from the brand office, and, most importantly, a customized blueprint engineered specifically to reach our target audiences across Idaho.
Lauren Griswold is currently serving as the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for Boise State University. Lauren is an innovator and storyteller who has worked in higher education at the community college and university levels. She has expertise in building brand reputation, as well as leading and creating strategy and successfully scaling it across enterprises for local, national, and global organizations. Lauren holds a master’s in communications from Arizona State University.
You can catch Lauren, Jason Simon, and Sara Wallace presenting Boise's Brand Blueprint at this year's AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. For more about our work with Boise State, visit the case study on our website.