Hendrix looks to Dallas agency for rebranding efforts
Originally published: Nov. 13, 2014 in the Log Cabin Democrat | Link to article
When Hendrix College President Bill Tsutsui took his new position earlier this year, he talked of change – ways to shake up the core of the college’s foundation while staying true to its ideals of engaged learning.
Much of that change, or reevaluation of purpose, mission and scope, comes from a desire to remove some of the perceptions of Hendrix as “quirky” and not able to withstand the negatives of its location.
The college experienced a 5 percent decline in enrollment this year, a decline that Tsutsui called part of a growing competitive market within the liberal arts college setup. To combat increased pressure in the tight market, Hendrix hired The Richards Group of Dallas to find the right branding strategy as one part of the college’s growth plan.
To Tsutsui, one of Hendrix’s problems is its current lack of efficiency in breaking the “hidden gem” mentality and becoming a more prominent institution.
“One of the things that struck me from the start about Hendrix is, we’ve got so many great stories to tell and yet we aren’t doing the best possible job of getting those out.”
Tsutsui said the college needs to move past the notion that “selling itself” is in a way “cheapening” the institution.
“The most the important thing, I think, about being able to put yourself out there is to know who you are,” he said. “It’s all easy to say, ‘Boy, we know who we are,’ and the reality is that organizations don’t know who they are.”
That unknown is what led Tsutsui, the communications team and a select group of case study volunteers to work with the The Richards Group.
Tsutsui’s investment in the branding agency began during his time as dean of Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“Rather than just telling you what you should be, [the branding agency asks] the members of the institution to define what they should be,” Tsutsui said. “So it’s really an inside-out process that I find very enlightening.”
The Richards Group is widely recognized through campaigns for companies such as Chick-fil-A, Motel 6 and The Home Depot.
“If they can sell paint and chicken sandwiches, and sort of budget motel rooms, they can probably sell a liberal arts college, too,” Tsutsui said. “They did a great job for us at SMU, so when I came here I said we need them to help us out.”
David Hall, brand management principal at The Richards Group, said that the process of branding an educational institution is not that different from branding for other functions.
“I didn’t know a lot about Hendrix before,” he said. “As someone who knows enough about education to be dangerous, I’ve been very impressed with Hendrix. I’ve seen what students can get out of it and it seems like a wonderful place to be.”
The Richards Group has also worked on education branding projects with Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“A year from now, if you go back and look at all of our published materials, if you look at our website, if you look at the glossy brochures that go out to prospective students and you put that [spherical branding] next to it, you should be able to realize the impact,” Tsutsui said.
Tsutsui said two qualities are at the core of Hendrix – intellectual challenge and a sense of an accepting, diverse community.
“We have to be more clear about why what we’re doing is different,” he said.
Surveys of about 150 campus community figures and focus groups with about four to 10 people have been conducted throughout the process.
Courtney Corwin, special assistant to the president, said, “We started conversations last January, just in a conceptual way, and then we really hit the ground running in March... Then they [The Richards Group] came on site in April of last year with internal focus groups.
Those focus groups included students, faculty and staff. Corwin said the groups broadened later to include leadership roles and trustees, as well as alumni.
Surveys went out to young alumni, clergy, students who chose another college, current parents, current students and high school counselors.
Also part of the development of Hendrix’s new branding strategy was a spherical branding workshop this fall with a branding committee that consisted of faculty, staff, trustees and students.
“This is sort of Richards’ ‘secret sauce’,” Tsutsui said. “The spherical branding workshop [is] where you bring the folks from the institution together, you present the research that’s been discovered about the institution and then you come up with sort of the brand personality and character, which translates into about 25 words.”
Rob O’Connor, director of College communications at Hendrix, said the branding outcome is in a way comparable to a tombstone in the way that it presents a mission and overall impact in just a few short words.
“If Hendrix were a person that walked into a cocktail party, what would that person be like,” Tsutsui said.
He said the initial workshop, though not a complete wrap-up of the rebranding process, focused on keys issues where the college can improve.
“That ‘quirky’ word is something that often gets associated with this school and I think we are all for one reason or another dissatisfied with ‘quirky’ and yet we know that is something within us,” he said.
Keenly aware of the desire to always accommodate to what students want, Tsutsui said the college must also consider its top qualities.
“I’m really of the philosophy that, you know, we shouldn’t remake ourselves to cater to the whims of 18-year-olds,” he said. “We really need to tell people what we do best and find the 18-year-olds who can benefit the most from that.”
Another element of the discussion was the impact of a Hendrix education, which Tsutsui said included the admission process that analyzes academic standards and “qualities of mind and habits of thought.”
Although seemingly deep into the rebranding process already, he and Corwin added that the project is still in its beginning stages.
For Tsutsui, campus officials and students, a burden in boosting enrollment lies in the college’s location.
“One of the issues we still have to work out is Arkansas and how that fits in,” he said. “Although the word “Arkansas” is not the sphere, in many ways the values that are conveyed through those words seem to be Arkansas values.”
The Hendrix community gathered in the college’s Murphy Seminar Room in September to discuss the Hendrix Statement of Purpose, with the president speaking similarly about the challenge of the college being in Arkansas, asking for input from students, faculty and staff.
One of those Hendrix students, sophomore Brady Rowe, discouraged the notion that the college should distance itself from its Arkansas roots, while another, junior MiMi Spjut, had concerns about it being placed prominently in Hendrix’s promotional efforts.
“Just as Crystal Bridges [Museum of American Art in Bentonville] has revolutionized how people think about the state... people need to say, ‘Boy, you can have a world-class liberal arts college in the state of Arkansas,” Tsutsui said.
Tsutsui said he hopes that the recruitment tools geared toward high school students who are interested in the engaged style of learning that Hendrix offers will be more impactful as a result of the rebrand.
Spherical branding workshops are set to end by the end of December, with a focus on a new tagline and visual identity carrying over into the new year.