Eastern Kentucky University is at a turning point – within a national conversation and on a local level.
Universities across the country are facing drastically declining enrollment as adults choose employment over education. Student debt has fostered a national crisis that is making it even more difficult for people to finish school much less enroll in it.
Meanwhile, Eastern Kentucky University’s story is largely left untold within the region. A regional university with liberal arts and pre-professional education offerings, this school has a lot to be proud of. But a gap in vision, communication, and energy tore the campus apart.
After the 2013 recruitment of their inspiring president, Michael T. Benson, we were hired to uncover the shared values and competitive brand opportunities to set a strategic foundation for unifying branding.
The Eastern community encompasses diverse groups, each group with its own unique set of perspectives. Faculty, staff, students, alumni, and residents of Richmond, Kentucky and Madison County are all key members of this community. Their voices must be heard. Their points-of-view are critical.
In order to provide a wide opportunity to those groups, we opened up an online survey. We received 1,599 responses, each response informing our conclusions by aiming our analysis of Eastern’s value. The questions we asked ranged from demographic to perceptual, from statistic to emotional.
We combined this methodology with in-person conversations, where we uncovered stirring personal anecdotes that drove our strategy. We interviewed five groups of students, including online students, veterans, honors, first generation, and regional campus students in satellite Eastern locations. These conversations shined a light on the unique experiences at Eastern. Eastern’s veteran program is one of the best in the country; their student population is 32% first generation; their online program is a vital resource for students who work full-time; their honors program develops exceptional students; and their satellite campuses are a touchstone in their work.
We also sat down with the alumni board, attended alumni weekend events, and sat in on an alumni foundation board meeting to learn more about the history of pride at Eastern.
Our interactions with faculty comprised five faculty focus groups and sitting in on a provost meeting, a faculty senate meeting, and a department chairs meeting.
And our conversations with staff included sitting in on several staff-wide meetings and individual department meetings.
To learn more about Eastern, we looked at its history. Conversations with the Archives department, in combination with several texts on the subject, yielded compelling conclusions about the traditions on-campus. We learned what was iconic about the Eastern experience over time, what values remained over its century of growth.
We also had the privilege of digging into Eastern’s photo and video archive, where we uncovered some incredible stuff.
Additionally, we took a deep look at competitive landscape. Universities both within the region and with a similar size around the country. This research yielded a full overview of branding trends and clichés that any branding initiative must keep in mind for differentiation.
How can we include a large range of people so that they can contribute meaningfully and feel like a part of the process? We created a regularly updated page that we publicized through in-person and online interactions with the Eastern community.
We also worked directly with the university’s communications department to convene a branding advisory task force composed of a diverse cross-section of Eastern community members. These varied viewpoints were critical in the development of our strategic recommendations.
And finally, we engaged the Eastern community where they live – in the center of campus. We built a public installation to gauge community aspirations and values, erecting a chalkboard in a heavily trafficked area. Working with students, we monitored this board for responses and maintenance.
At the end of the engagement, we delivered a comprehensive document reviewing our process and the strategic conclusions uncovered. These conclusions included shared values, widespread perceptions, existing brand equity, and differentiating themes. The result was a strategic foundation for branding communications and design. And a completely immersive experience.