Articulating an engineering brand based on equity and excellence to reimagine what engineering can be.
Amidst the turmoil of COVID, I led a process of assessing the marketplace of engineering education in the United States, and charting a path for the University of Michigan College of Engineering brand. This research and perseverance led to the crafting of a nuanced and ambitious platform that could be considered surprising for an engineering school. Built on excellence and equity, “People-First Engineering” leverages the interdisciplinary opportunities, global outlook and values of the University of Michigan, positioning Michigan to reimagine what engineering can be, to close critical gaps and elevate all people.
THE MESSAGING & ROLLOUT
People-First Engineering is built on a nuanced and detailed framework for how engineering should be practiced and taught. Articulating this framework required care and attention to what our institution’s strengths are, where the field of engineering is headed and how society is changing. It bridges the gap between current constituents, such as faculty and alumni who are practicing engineering under the Michigan name, and future constituents, such as prospective students and faculty who are looking for an institution in alignment with their values.
Due to its complex nature, explaining the framework requires careful attention – word choice, tempo and framing for each audience is of critical importance to ensure understanding, adoption and buy-in. Identifying motivators within our community, and helping to lead change, took time and energy on the part of every single member of the communications and leadership groups, and involved multiple tactics. These included:
- Videos, websites, print and digital campaigns that provided multiple avenues to access the materials, and various levels of depth for various constituents depending on their familiarity.
- In-person and virtual presentations, discussions and brown bag lunches in a concerted “roadshow” effort to ensure every single member of the community had an opportunity to hear the strategy first-hand, answer questions and provide their feedback.
- Leadership messaging, articulation and adoption, achieved through emails, video, presentations and meeting segments with key constituents.
- A user-generated content campaign that provided opportunities for current community members to align with the strategy and show their affinity.
This “flagship” video included both scripted and interview-based content, and was cut into multiple shorter versions, to provide a backbone for our community’s understanding and awareness of the strategy.
THE MARKETING CAMPAIGNS
Rolling out a new brand involves multiple audiences and goals. We developed a robust and comprehensive multi-platform integrated strategy that involved paid, organic and earned components. We focused efforts separately on external and internal constituents, recognizing that those audiences required different approaches.
This included multiple KPIs. From a marketing perspective, they included increasing awareness and engagement of new positioning nationally, and ensuring awareness and adoption of new positioning internally. Through this work, we hoped to also positively impact business objectives, such as increasing recruitment of faculty and students who have affinity for the positioning, job opportunities or high-profile exits for our engineers, gifts or funding in response to the positioning and research projects or programming that align with new positioning. We also hoped to see a change in the marketplace as other institutions learned of and adopted our approach.
To launch the positioning, we developed two separate campaigns:
- Goal: Build an awareness and affinity among our internal constituents, socializing this new framework across our campus community and capturing user-generated content to shape long-term brand narratives.
- Strategy: Relies on integrated and consistent messaging and design, authentic storytelling and visual tools like thoughtful branded environments and affinity-building items, and continued user feedback.
- Tactics: Multi-platform campaign drove constituents to a landing page product, where they could share what people-first engineering meant to them. In return, they would be able to select of piece of branded merchandise to be picked up in-person at a later date. During pickup, we were able to engage with them personally again. We also selected numerous entries for inclusion in a community campaign, where we highlighted the voices of members of our students, faculty and staff to further increase awareness and adoption.
- Goal: Increase awareness and engagement among external audiences nationally, positioning Michigan Engineering as a leader amongst peer institutions.
- Strategy: Use examples of our research and people to showcase how our approach to engineering education and research is improving systems with the goal of benefiting the lives of all people: elevating the quality of life, equity and access.
- Tactics: Develop paid advertisements on multiple digital platforms that surprise people through the use of watercolor illustration that imagines the impact of engineering on the world. These advertisements drive people to a story-based web platform highlighting people-first exemplary work happening at Michigan Engineering.
THE VISUAL STYLE
As part of the branding process, we developed a new style and identity system based around a visual representation of the people-first engineering framework.
The Connector is a visual interpretation of Michigan Engineering’s unique approach to engineering. It is represented by two distinct entities that, when juxtaposed with one another, represent converging disciplines and closing gaps.
- The Angle: Represents the fundamentals of engineering and traditional ideas of scientific rigor and precision
- The Arc: Represents the organic and fluid nature of society and humanity
Like the framework itself, which requires three components, the visual style requires both parts of The Connector to work.
After developing the mark, we then applied a rigorous process of testing it in various scenarios. Our goal in the new identity system was to be as flexible as possible – to allow our rich variety of sub-brands and communications professionals the opportunity to utilize The Connector in a way that worked best for their unique community. To that aim, we created a Brand Book that outlined the multiple opportunities for The Connector, pairing it with colors, lines and as background elements or textures. We also developed a full suite of templates and libraries, accessible to the entire College community through the online Adobe Express platform.
Developing the strategy
We began with a review of the landscape and our place in it to determine who and where we are now, and where our opportunity may lie. This included:
- Internal interviews with people across the College and University and a review of our existing materials to see what we were saying about ourselves
- External interviews with those most responsible for our reputation – peer, corporate and industry leaders – and a review of our media share of voice and our competitors materials to see how others were speaking about both us and themselves or each other
Through that, we learned where our strengths lie. This led us to develop a potential strategic position for where the College was headed, and how we could both differentiate ourselves from our peers and help lead the field of engineering forward.
Testing the strategy
Once this strategy was developed, we tested it to make sure we were on the right track:
- Internally through workshops with leaders, and internal focus groups with faculty and students to ensure the positioning was authentic and representative of our community, but also aspirational to give us a marker for continual improvement
- Externally through a quantitative survey sent to peers and recruiters to ensure the positioning was relevant to where the field is headed, and where they already believed Michigan could lead
Internally, we found the messaging was effectively communicating our strengths, and that it is reflective of who we are now, but also who we aspire to be.
Externally, we found that engineering education is viewed as needing to evolve, and that Michigan as viewed as being in a position to lead it.