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University plans market, brand research

Southeast Missouri State University

By Ruth Campbell

With a view toward offering a more focused approach to attracting students, Southeast Missouri State University plans to hire a firm to conduct market research and brand analysis.

Last year, Penson Associates, a Palm Desert, Calif.-based research and consultation firm, was brought in as part of a strategic planning process to look at Southeast’s communications and marketing organization and practices.

“It was concluded that we should move forward with a branding analysis,” Jeff Harmon, executive director of University Communications and Marketing said in an email to the Southeast Missourian.

In the email, Harmon said plans are to conduct an in-depth analysis of the university’s brand — what makes Southeast special to its alumni, students and community — and what differentiates it from other institutions. The process is aimed at generating new ideas leading to “a new brand positioning statement, brand promise and messaging that will resonate with target audiences for years to come.” The target audience is prospective students in high school, their parents, adult learners, the university’s constituents, the community and region, he said.

Explaining some of the terms, Harmon said a brand is “the intangible sum of an entity’s attributes,” also referred to as the “perception that customers have regarding an entity. In our case, the entity is the university as a whole.”

A brand positioning statement says “who we are and how we want an audience to perceive Southeast compared to the competition,” he said. The brand promise, is “our commitment to deliver to students and our broader audience. The promise describes how our audience should feel when they interact with Southeast,” Harmon said.

The objective of the new message is to help Southeast “speak in a unified voice about where we are going,” he wrote.

“It’s not just about discovering our current brand, but positioning the university for the future and its goals,” Harmon added.

Proposals from firms were due Friday — Southeast received eight proposals — and Harmon said Southeast expects to have a company on campus conducting focus groups and “other forms of research” in April before summer break. The timeline for the new branding rollout has not been set.

“We want to allow some flexibility based on the proposals we receive,” Harmon said.

He added the cost of bringing in the consultant chosen also is not set as it will depend on the proposals received. Asked whether this process could have been done in house, Harmon said the staff and expertise is not available.

“The major piece of the project is the research we need conducted to clearly understand how the institution is perceived by our target audience,” Harmon said in the email. “We do not have the staff or expertise in-house to create and implement the focus groups, phone surveys and interviews, etc. The firm will analyze the results and make recommendations, as well. University communications and marketing will be involved in the creative process and the rollout.”

Asked about the effect on advertising, Harmon said the university’s message will be “much more consistent across all target audiences and channels.

“This is crucial in achieving maximum return on investment in all advertising efforts. The deliverables also include new logo concepts, a new style guide and editorial guidelines. We are not committed to changing our university logo, but this is a good opportunity to see some new ideas or fresh takes on our existing visual identity,” Harmon said in the email.

Higher education advertises in a variety of ways, Harmon said, such as buying lists for direct marketing, targeted social media ads and traditional methods. With web and social media, he said, “you can precisely target the correct audience and track return on investment very accurately. This allows us to be as efficient with our funds as possible,” he wrote.

University Communications and Marketing, which has 15 full-time staff and “some” part-time student workers, will manage the project and continue to operate “similarly once the brand rollout is complete,” he said.

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