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Photo by Keila MacPherson

The way an institution develops an image and portrays itself to the outside world is an extremely important factor in the building of reputation. As such, Trent University has revisited the approach in which it markets itself as an educational institution. The “challenge the way you think” slogan represents this effort.

Arthur talked with Marilyn Burns, the executive director of the Marketing and Communications office.

Burns expressed that the “challenge the way you think” campaign is the end product of a long process of building upon Trent’s image. She explained that her office looked at the different factors that drive reputation, for instance: lecture quality, student life, research success, etc. Marketing and communications is one factor that can quickly drive a change in the way Trent depicts itself and where an impact can be made in a short time frame.

Internal consultations were conducted where, as Burns explains, they went out to the constituents of the institution: students, staff, faculty, etc. During these consultations named under the “Time to Shine” slogan, they asked questions in order to determine what is truly unique and special about Trent, so that they could understand from an internal perspective what is so fantastic about the university.

A couple of characteristics were highlighted in these consultation sessions. For instance, the people that participated took special emphasis in the small class size, the interaction with professors and the sense of community at Trent.

Burns described how marketing and communications took the information gathered from these consultations in order to let people know what Trent is about, how different it is, and what kind of education it offers.

As a result, the positioning statement that came from these consultations was encompassed in the idea of Trent as a collaborative learning institution, where learning is personal, purposeful, and transformative.

However, as Burns identifies, the challenge was to export this idea to advertisements, printed material, the website, and social media. They brought the idea to a local advertisement agency, and challenged them to come up with something that would be simpler to say and have an impact on various audiences, such as prospective students, current students, alumni, and donors.

Burns described that the agency came forward with the “challenge the way you think” line, and they decided it was satisfactory because it does reflect a lot of what Trent stands for.

In terms of influencing marketing strategies in order to build a reputation, Burns states that generally, “in reputation building advertisement, there is a lot of canned material; you can see a team of successful researchers in lab coats and you can pretty much take any university logo and make it any institution’s advertisement campaign.”

In contrast, Burns agrees that, “since we wanted to make an impact, we decided to go with something really different, we decided to try and gain a little attention by looking at how Trent is different.”

The “challenge the way you think” branding is graphically represented by a series of illustrations that are distributed around campus, printed material, social media, and the Trent website.

It is certainly beneficial to move away from canned material and establish a marketing campaign that is different and truly represents the ideals of Trent.

We can get into an epistemological discussion of what “challenging the way you think” actually entails. However, as a starting point for someone that is not familiar with Trent, it does attract attention and enables further research on the type of education offered.

The “challenge the way you think” strategy, from the perspective of a current student, is easily associated with Trent, as the education that is offered at the university is truly transformative and challenging.

On the other hand, from the outsider perspective of a prospective student, it could be harder to pinpoint exactly how studies at Trent are different compared to other universities. The challenge is not stating that we are a different university, but it is actually providing evidence and demonstrating to those prospective students that Trent truly offers the opportunity to challenge the way you think.

In the marketing battle between universities, we do have an advantage in that we offer an education based on values of social justice and global citizenship. The “challenge the way you think” campaign is attempting to bring out those characteristics and market them in order to showcase how different an education Trent offers.

But how does this strategy compare to other universities in Canada? As an example, the University of Toronto website reads: “boundless means redefining possibilities”, while McGill instead focuses on numbers, displaying ranking, research facilities and such in an effort of showcasing their size. Other examples include UBC: “a place of mind”; Dalhousie: “learn from the pros”; Queens: “we are people who want to learn, discover, think, and do”.

As you can see, it is common that they would play their forte, but their marketing campaigns are remarkably similar. They all attempt to draw students on the basis of being a place of knowledge, thinking and challenging oneself. This is not surprising, after all that is what universities are for.

However, as in many instances, the nuances are important. “A place of mind” is different from “challenge the way you think”, and in a way all these slogans or strategies are up for interpretation. As a result, Trent’s strategy might be just one more, and might not achieve the differentiation that it is looking for.

In order for the Marketing and Communications office to succeed in attracting students, they will have to convince prospective students that Trent is indeed a different university, and showcase how truly a challenging experience it is.

What do you think? Is this an appropriate and effective branding strategy that reflects Trent’s identity?