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Lessons learned from rebranding a community college that was a ‘best kept secret’

By 2030, the myFutureNC Commission’s goal is for 2 million 25- to 44-year-olds in North Carolina to receive a high-quality credential or college degree. As Gov. Roy Cooper said, “To keep North Carolina competitive, we must help more of our students get the skills and education needed for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Yet, college enrollment in the U.S. has declined for the eighth consecutive year according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Enrollment at public two-year colleges dropped 3.4% in spring 2019.

Despite college enrollment decreasing and unemployment rates remaining low, Blue Ridge Community College’s enrollment has been up for the last two consecutive semesters. To continue increasing enrollment, meeting workforce needs, and playing our part to help North Carolina with its postsecondary attainment goal, Blue Ridge launched a new brand, Education Elevated, in celebration of our 50th anniversary.

Thankfully, our rebranding efforts have been well-received to date. This article explains why Blue Ridge Community College decided to rebrand at this time and provides an insider’s look at how we did it.

Changing perceptions

We started our rebranding process knowing that the road to increasing enrollment may be a challenge in the current landscape. When I first arrived at Blue Ridge in 2017, our enrollment numbers, like many others across the country, were declining. What was out of sync for me, however, was that the college was such an incredible asset — highly qualified faculty, staff, and programs with unbelievable access to high-paying employers in the region — yet not as highly valued by our community.

Based on the findings from our brand perception surveys in 2018, Blue Ridge Community College’s lingering perceptions from the community included “Blue Ridge Tech” (only technical trade/vocational curriculum), a second-choice school, and an easy route for students. Interestingly, 89% of the same community survey respondents thought Blue Ridge was very important to our region. I considered this college to be one of the “best kept secrets in Western North Carolina” and decided it would be my job to make sure Blue Ridge and the value it brings to our region were the star of a story told far and wide.

In addition to our own brand perceptions, there were perception issues with some of our area’s leading industries. For instance, one of those industries, advanced manufacturing, needed a change in perception for students to better understand what modern manufacturing is in the 21st century — no longer the dark industrial spaces from decades past, but rather technologically advanced spaces that require advanced knowledge of mechatronics and mechanical engineering. Through our programs catering to this emerging sector, Blue Ridge would be able to help address those perceptions as well.

Becoming entrepreneurially nimble to meet workforce needs

As community college professionals, we understand that strategic partnerships with K-12 schools, economic development boards, and businesses are imperative to build a pipeline of skilled professionals who are prepared for success in the workforce.

While our marketing agency, Formation PR + Brand, started the rebranding process for the college, we went on a “listening tour” with our partners — hearing their industry needs — and responded by becoming entrepreneurially nimble and quickly evolving our programs and customized training opportunities. Not only were we adapting to the challenges and opportunities of our regional economy, but these in-demand programs like advanced manufacturing, brewing, early college, information technology, and nursing would provide our marketing team with substantive stories of how we are enriching students’ lives and meeting workforce needs.

In the communities that we serve — Henderson and Transylvania Counties — the advanced manufacturing, construction, transportation, and healthcare industries are thriving, and we anticipate continued growth in these sectors.

As an example, after learning of their expected industry growth and need for local employees with more advanced competencies, Blue Ridge Community College recently partnered with Henderson County Public Schools, Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, Elkamet, GF Linamar, Meritor, and WestRock to launch the Made in Henderson County Apprenticeship Program, a new advanced manufacturing workforce initiative. It is our hope that programs like these will help demonstrate that advanced manufacturing offers promising, well-paying career paths for students in our region.

Continuing to listen with a lengthy brand discovery process

Without a thorough discovery process, a new brand would not have the support needed to catch fire with our faculty, staff, current students, prospective students, parents, high school counselors, and employers.

For four months, Formation conducted brand research, which included primary and secondary research as well as digital marketing analysis. Primary research consisted of brand perception surveys to internal and external audiences, and we received more than 500 survey responses. Secondary research included messaging and marketing analysis of 10 higher education institutions as perceived from their websites. Lastly, digital marketing analysis consisted of a web and digital footprint audit and the identification of audience personas with whom the new brand would need to engage.

Taking more time on the front-end of the brand discovery process resulted in a shorter brand development and implementation timeline on the back-end. The valued feedback from our community, along with the secondary research, provided many thought starters and allowed us to develop well-informed brand concept, design, and tagline options quickly.

Building brand excitement with an “inside-first” approach

To ensure long-term branding success within our campus community, we created a Brand Council of select faculty, staff, and students across our three campuses. The Brand Council served as our sounding board for the initial brand concepts and our ambassadors for future brand implementation.

After presenting the initial brand concepts to our Brand Council and leadership team, Formation secured more than 180 brand design votes, primarily from prospective and current students, before I selected the final brand concept, design, and tagline.

An already planned all-day professional development workshop for faculty and staff was the ideal time to unveil the college’s new brand. We wanted to lead with an “inside-first” approach where employees understood and embraced our brand before external audiences.

Before the workshop, we sent brand FAQ emails to faculty and staff to generate excitement and answer questions as proactively as possible, then, during the workshop, we unveiled the brand in a presentation to more than 200 Blue Ridge faculty, staff, and trustees.

Aligning with the statewide system

In the midst of our rebranding efforts, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) was developing their statewide marketing campaign. Alignment with NCCCS was key because we wanted to ensure consistency of priorities and messages between the region and state.

NCCCS concurrently conducted a similar brand research process and emphasized a focus on rural communities and “elevate” messaging as part of their mandate. System President Peter Hans was also gracious to offer a quote in our brand announcement news release, stating that Education Elevated was in alignment with their statewide marketing efforts to highlight the life-changing opportunities available through community colleges.

Evolving our brand and programs

We learned that the initial elation from our brand unveiling was replaced with an instant transition to a strategic brand roll-out that continues to this day across our paid, earned, shared, and owned media channels. Because brands are not monolithic, we are reevaluating and refining our brand — as well as our job training, college transfer, and continuing education programs — to meet the growing and evolving needs of our students, our community, and our state.

Laura Leatherwood

Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., is the president of Blue Ridge Community College. Prior to Blue Ridge, she served for 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate degree in university and community college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.