How Northwestern University Unified With a Data-Driven Rebrand

Sarah Steimer
AMA Higher Ed Symposium
Current average rating    
Key Takeaways

What: Northwestern University lacked a robust, unifying master brand, which led the school to partner with Ologie.

So what: Northwestern CMO Mary Baglivo laid the groundwork through research and review, then worked with Ologie to design a master brand for the school.

Now what: Marketers should ensure high levels of internal collaboration when working to unify a large, varied brand.

​Oct. 31, 2016

Marketing agency Ologie helped Northwestern University bring its schools, departments and students under a single master brand

Northwestern University worked with Columbus, Ohio-based Ologie, a branding, marketing and digital agency, to develop a singular story for the school. Marketing News spoke with Ologie's Bill Faust about the process before he and Northwestern CMO Mary Baglivo present details of their research and marketing efforts at the AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Dec. 4-7 in Orlando, Florida.

Q: The work that Ologie and others did to help Northwestern shift its branding sounds like a tremendous effort. Why did this the school need to rework its branding?

A: A lot of schools evolve their brand because they have admissions challenges: they either need to fill a class, get the top of their admissions funnel full with applications, they want a more diverse class or they want a higher-quality class. Other schools do it because they want to focus on alumni engagement and fundraising. For Northwestern, it was none of those, which is ironic. It was that the public perception of the institution lagged behind its actual rankings and its competitive posture.

You don’t want your brand to be a laggard when you have a value proposition that’s incredibly strong and competitive. Northwestern would be higher-ranked and seen as on-par with the MITs and the Stanfords, but when they did surveys—even to people in Chicago—the respondents were like, “Yeah, they’re great. They’re fine.” 

Don't miss Bill Faust and Mary Baglivo at the AMA’s Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Dec. 4-7 in Orlando, Florida. Reserve your spot today!

Q: How did Northwestern decide to confront this misperception?

A: (The marketing effort) was mostly to focus on aligning the brand image and story with the true reputation. If I had to boil it down to one idea, it would be to focus on reputation and making sure that people understood that Northwestern is an elite institution. The president realized they needed to do this and asked one of his board members to put a recommendation forward, and that board member was Mary Baglivo, who came out of the advertising industry. She said Northwestern should hire a CMO, and she eventually became that CMO.

Q: What were some of the initial steps Ologie and Northwestern needed to take before any changes could be made?

A: There were two big steps taken before we even showed up. The first step, and these are macro steps, was Mary [Baglivo] spending a year doing two things. One was going around campus to leadership, to deans, to people on the cabinet, board members, leaders in the organization and getting their opinions, finding out what they thought about the brand and the idea of branding in the institution. She was planting the seeds for this. She could have hired an agency on day two and pushed this down people’s throats, but she didn’t.

The second thing she did was hire SimpsonScarborough to do the research. They did a study to get at the true, ownable attributes and the benefits of those attributes that would form an umbrella value proposition for Northwestern. Those two steps were critical whatever we did after that was going to be based on data, not just warm and fuzzy feelings about a brand. We were hired in the fall of 2015.

Q: What sort of partnership did you have with Northwestern? Were they very receptive to the changes your company recommended?

A: It was unlike most of our other engagements because most other people we get hired by, they might have a marketing background but they didn’t come from [Baglivo’s] position of running a large agency group. Her fluency in marketing, her understanding of the conceptual versus the literal was invaluable. We probably couldn’t have done it the way we did it without her and her team because she hired a small centralized team, all of whom had marketing and advertising experience. 

Website Before & After

Q: Was there a challenge in dealing with the existing brand, as Northwestern is a pretty well-known school?

A: It is well-known, but some of the earlier challenges were that Northwestern has some sub-brands or some named schools like Kellogg and Medill that are actually better-known than Northwestern, nationally. So Northwestern is known in Chicago, and in the Big Ten [Conference], but it doesn’t hold the same national prominence that some of its peers do and some of its units, especially Kellogg.

The Northwestern umbrella brand, or master brand, was not really well-defined and not as strong as it could be. It had become fractured, too decentralized. That caused everybody to interpret the brand however they wanted. So Kellogg interpreted it this way and athletics interpreted it that way, and different groups just went off in different directions. There was no strong master brand, other than a shared color, a shared name, but even that was different. People would use the name differently, they’d use different typefaces, they’d use different messaging.

Q: Do you find that many schools have brand disconnect among departments, or even among how it connects to its potential, current and former students?

A: There were definitely differences in alumni engagement communications, in part because some of those organizations are separate 501(c)(3)s. The alumni association is at arm’s length from the university. It was also indicative of the fact that up until Mary [started], there was no central brand governance. Words like “brand governance” scare people because what they hear is “police” and they hear that someone is going to slap their hand. But she was very smart … she basically said, “I’m going to create something that I think you’re going to want.” When people saw it, they were willing to align themselves more with it and be less independent about their brand and more derivative of the master brand. To us, that’s a big success.

Q: What can other marketers take away from this effort — whether they’re in higher education or another industry?

A: The biggest thing that you can learn from this is the process wasn’t forced on people. [Baglivo] listened and she audited what everybody was doing, and she built bridges. Collaboration is critical. In a highly decentralized environment, whether it’s Northwestern or GE or any other large organization, there’re all sorts of pieces and parts, and people can’t build fiefdoms. I would say collaboration throughout the whole process is critical. It does slow it down, it can make it a little painful, but it definitely gets you a stronger result in the end.

Q: Ologie also just released research into the motivations behind Generation Z’s college decisions. The survey showed 45% of the respondents find the process of deciding where to go to college somewhat or very confusing. What does that mean for a school’s marketing efforts?

A: Higher ed has been a bit insulated from marketing. For a long time, marketing in higher ed has been, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, loathed by academia and other parts of it.

Now things are changing. There were a lot of efforts in higher ed marketing that were wrong or misfires. The finding that that many students are confused and find the process overwhelming shows that there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of schools telling their story.

The worst thing [colleges and universities] do in marketing is try to say too much. “We have all these majors, all these departments. We have the best food. We have the best campus. We’re ranked in all these different ways.” As opposed to saying, “There’s a lot we could tell you, but if you remember nothing else about our institution, it’s this.” It’s about having a clear positioning and having things flow from that.

I don’t think it’s the student’s fault. You have more savvy buyers than ever because they know how to use digital media, they know how to search, they know how to get the most out of a visit or a tour. When they go through that multi-channel experience, they can look at a lot of schools and go, “Wow, this is sort of all over the map.” And it is. But we see the schools that students feel better about are the ones that have a more coordinated story, image and message across all the marketing tactics and media.

Q: What else did you find insightful from this survey, and how should schools and marketers respond?

A: [Higher ed marketing] is an ungratifying process. Marketers need to stand back and look at it. It’s a wake-up call. A lot of schools have a lot of savvy marketers who are not supported or less supported than they should be. College administrators, presidents and boards think, “When things are going well, we can afford to throw a few dollars at marketing.” They should view it the way corporations view it: as a critical component of the institution. Your customer, your marketplace is saying, “You make it hard.” There will be disrupters who come in and make it easier, we’ve already seen some of that with online learning options and for-profit schools, but that’s just the beginning.

Important Links: Ologie Northwestern Case Study

Recommended For You:

2016 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education College President Uses Twitter to Grow University's Brand Higher Ed Marketing: Gamification is New Tool for Recruitment

2016 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education

College President Uses Twitter to Grow University's Brand

Higher Ed Marketing: Gamification is New Tool for Recruitment


 Sign Up for Marketing News Weekly

Get the best marketing thought leadership delivered directly to your inbox!

Author Bio:

Sarah Steimer
Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.
Add A Comment :

Become a Member
Access our innovative members-only resources and tools to further your marketing practice.