By Emily Freehling
Deep research and inquiry are skills the University of Mary Washington imparts to its students. University leaders have turned these tools of discovery inward over the past two years, engaging thousands of individuals to define the University of Mary Washington experience.
Current and prospective students, alumni, staff, faculty, donors, and members of the wider Fredericksburg community participated in a research process aimed at telling a more inclusive and authentic story about the university.
“We couldn’t get it right if all of these individuals hadn’t been willing to participate,” said UMW President Troy Paino.
Paino knew when he arrived on campus in 2016 that UMW would need to refresh its branding – the messaging it uses to present itself to the wider world – to stand out in Virginia’s competitive higher education market.
Vice President for Advancement and University Relations Lisa Jamison Bowling ’89 said Paino’s involvement from the start set the stage for a process that had buy-in from students to the top leadership.
“He has invested incredible time and energy in making sure that this is not a banal marketing campaign,” she said. “An exceptional brand reflects an authentic experience. It’s the culture, it’s the environment, it’s who we are, not just a trite message on advertising and promotional materials.”
“When we did our market research, people who knew us had a positive impression,” Paino said. Research demonstrated that Mary Washington’s alumni satisfaction and pride are higher than national benchmarks, but he continued, “the biggest problem was, there were far too many people who didn’t know us.”
Director of University Marketing Malcolm Holmes said solving this problem is more critical than ever, as increasingly fragmented media and high-dollar marketing campaigns at universities large and small make it harder to reach aspiring first-year college students. And declining birthrates mean that demographic is shrinking.
“The reality is that schools must compete for students,” Holmes said, “and schools tend to claim to offer the same benefits and the same experiences regardless of what an individual student needs. When prospective students don’t know us, the brand will provide an insight about our values and whether UMW is a good fit.”
“We are not a one-size-fits-all school,” Bowling agreed. “Instead, we want to be a place where each person matters, where everyone is seen, heard, and recognized as uniquely individual and absolutely indispensable to our community.”
In a marketing landscape where students are turned off by overly polished sales pitches, Paino and the University Relations team knew it would be important to tell an authentic story that connected with people.
“We all agreed that it had to be inclusive, it had to be expansive,” Paino said. “Our research had to be both deep and wide. We wanted to hear from diverse voices on this.”
That research required finding the right branding firm to lead the process. The search started with more than 60 agencies, from boutique firms to multinationals, Holmes said. That list was narrowed to 10, seven of which came to campus to pitch for UMW’s business.
Paino said he was impressed with the winning firm – Atlanta-based Mindpower – from the moment they arrived in Fredericksburg.
“They came early to spend time in Fredericksburg, eating in the restaurants and striking up conversations and asking people in the city what they think about the university,” he said. “Being willing to take that extra time to get to know the culture here told me a lot about them and the care that they take.”
The partnership with Mindpower began with research. Through individual interviews, attendance at pre-COVID campus events, focus groups, and multiple rounds of rigorous market testing, every major stakeholder had an opportunity to participate.
“We purposely oversubscribed in the research so that anyone who wanted a voice in the process had an opportunity to participate,” Bowling said. “It is extraordinarily rare to have thousands join in this type of feedback process, but we believed it was crucial to identifying an authentic and unifying identity for all constituents.”
With the perspectives of more than 7,000 of its most invested community members guiding the effort, UMW and Mindpower developed a brand strategy and platform that will influence philosophical and tactical decisions across the university. This framework is also the basis for the creative expression of the brand, which members of the university community will start to see on campus and in school communications in the coming months.
In a discussion of the new brand at a February meeting of the Board of Visitors, board member Charles Reed Jr. ’11 said the concept perfectly expressed the reasons he chose to attend Mary Washington.
“It was always the small, close-knit community that I enjoyed about my experience,” he said. “It is all about the students, about their experience, about why they want to come and stay at Mary Washington.”
The branding process was delayed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paino said that delay could be a blessing in disguise, as new branding would have gotten lost amid the elections and pandemic. As the world emerges from the crisis, he thinks the new concept will hit home with a generation of students looking for some of the very things Mary Washington does best.
“This is a place where people can come make a difference, both as individuals and as a broader community. For generations people have attended and supported Mary Washington because they want to make an impact and use their talents in a way that truly matters,” he said.
“I think that is what all of us – especially the next generation – really want. While our brand will be timeless, it really resonates as we emerge from COVID. It’s Mary Washington’s moment to be bold.”
[Editor’s note: UMW will launch its new brand in the fall 2021 semester, when classes are expected to resume fully on campus. The fall/winter edition of this magazine, which should mail in November, will explore the brand, how it reflects Mary Washington’s past and future, and how it will aid potential students in finding their best fit in higher education. Until then, watch umw.edu for all university news.]