You probably wouldn’t expect The University of Southern Mississippi to be accepting national awards among top marketers from American Express or Coca Cola, but in June, the university’s president, Dr. Martha Saunders, took home its second Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Silver Anvil Award, as well as several Silver Anvil Awards of Excellence.

While the daunting task of branding a University is a far cry from branding a small business, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a few things from the woman who increased Southern Miss’s national media coverage by over 800 percent, web traffic by 107 percent, the alumni association by more than a 1,000 members beyond its goals and freshmen enrollment by 14 percent. I hope you learn a few things too!

Q. Dr. Saunders, would you compare your role as the University’s President to that of an entrepreneur?  How and why did you decide to take on a branding campaign for the University?

A. The role of university presidents is changing.  Now more than ever it is important to have an entrepreneurial perspective.  I quickly realized that Southern Miss, like all universities, has to compete for resources, students, and funding and branding would play a role in helping people understand what makes us unique.  So began “The Southern Miss Story” branding campaign.
Branding is a powerful tool to engage, connect and communicate—the essentials of success.   It’s about creating value for stakeholders and clearly communicating what makes you different.  Although universities and corporations are very different in many ways, they both have to compete.   Branding is vital in helping a university do that.

Q.  Some entrepreneurs can find the branding process slightly overwhelming. Tell us how you begin and organize your branding process?

A. I began by listening.  With a fervent belief that people will work hardest when following their own hopes and dreams, I needed to hear from the “people who are the brand.”  I engaged the help of consultants who facilitated a Branding from the Core process and conducted dialogues with hundreds of stakeholders.  I attended every session.   We seized on our impending 2010 Centennial Anniversary as an opportunity to enrich the brand, reinforce relationships with key publics and celebrate a rich past while focusing on the future.  The results of this process helped us identify our core brand, Southern Miss:  Where Inspiration Meets Innovation and our personality, Creative.  Bold.  Determined.  We also identified our strategic vision to emerge as The Premier Research University of the Gulf South and four areas of strategic emphasis.

Q. How were you able to determine the appropriate goals and milestones for the length of the branding process? 

A. Branding is incorporated into our strategic plan, so it is on-going and tied to influencing our key audiences.  Remember that it is a process that never ends.  Each year as part of our strategic planning process we look at how our marketing communications plan will communicate internally and externally and how we will continue to build the assets of the premier research University of the Gulf South.

Q. What types of team members did you pull together to conceptualize and execute all the tactics associated with your branding process and why?

A. We used branding consultants, our internal and external stakeholders and our university communications team.  Our consultants worked collaboratively with us and provided important objective perspectives.

Q. How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your branding process?

A. We set specific objectives that, if met, would be good indicators of branding effectiveness.  In our case, that included the following:

• Creating awareness of the history and rich traditions of the university among target audience members as measured by pre-and post-surveys.
• Increasing national media coverage of the university.
• Increasing website traffic.
• Increasing membership in the alumni association.
• Generating donations for a Centennial scholarship.
• Increasing freshman enrollment.

Perhaps a more important measure is the extent to which your employees “talk the talk.”  Do they believe in the brand and is that belief reflected in their day to day conversations and behaviors?  In our case, I started hearing echoes of “creative – bold—determined” in everyday talk all across campus and took that as a good sign.

Q. What would you suggest doing if you feel as though the outlets you've chosen for branding are not working?

A. Don’t panic and don’t make any abrupt changes.   Branding is an on-going process.  We are constantly building and reinforcing perceptions.  Our marketing communications program is frequently evaluated and adjusted based on results.  If something’s not working we figure out why, then make the appropriate corrections.

Q. When you ran into obstacles while carrying out your campaigns/branding process? How did you overcome them?

A. Just as we were getting started on our campaign, the bottom fell out of the economy.   We used an impending financial crisis as a real test of the truth of our brand.  We cut back on some of our more expensive tactics and drilled down to those things that really mattered.  It was a test of our brand platform and we proved ourselves as truly creative, bold and determined.

Q. What are some of the rules of thumb you follow when executing a marketing/public relations campaign?

A. Engage your stakeholders.  Be authentic.  Tell a good story.  Stay the course.

Q.  How can you capitalize on branding achievements after the initial process is complete?

A. You always want to celebrate your successes with your team.  Recently, we applied for and won the Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America.  When we learned we were finalists, I made sure to invite some of the staff to the awards ceremony who had done so much of the thankless grunt work on the campaign.  It was a thrill for them to see the fruits of their labors recognized.

Q. What would be the one piece of advice you'd give to people that are trying to turn their brand around or are just starting out and trying to build brand equity?

A. Nine words:  Learn to listen.  Trust your instincts.  Trust your team. 
Start inside your organization by engaging your stakeholders to create an aspirational vision.  What do they dream about?  What spurs them to do good work?  Then work to align the walk and talk of the organization to that vision.  Ultimately, an organization’s brand is built by the degree to which the image  are aligned.  Strong brands focus on a combination of telling a great story and delivering on the promise.