With thousands of higher education institutions in the United States, how does one set itself apart from the crowd? For Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., one answer lies in delivering a consistent—and unified—message about its brand. “With thousands communicating on our behalf daily, no one can whistle a symphony alone,” says Ethan Braden, Purdue’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. “We must operate like an orchestra.”
Indeed, over the past three years, Braden and his colleagues have worked to bring the university’s 55,000 students, faculty, and staff into alignment about the school’s essence and unique selling points. Those attributes include an ambitious, decade-long tuition freeze that’s bucked the trend of ever higher college costs, and innovative initiatives such as Purdue’s Data Mine, which partners with Cummins, Sandia National Laboratories, and 50 other organizations to improve access and opportunities for students. “Evolving our brand was a component of building a first-class marketing engine that inspires and showcases our incredible product, stories, and people,” Braden says.
It’s this sustained commitment towards providing the most valuable education possible that helped Purdue earn a spot on Fast Company’s 2021 list of Brands That Matter. Braden is confident that initiatives like these will attract the next generation of students, faculty, and partnerships that will expand career, research, and economic development opportunities.
BUILDING A CAMPUS-WIDE CULTURE
Purdue’s brand refresh focused on three key questions: Who are we? What do we stand for? And why should people care? Throughout 2019, the university conducted intensive market research, studying students, families, alumni, faculty, and others to understand the attributes—from value and academic excellence to innovation and career opportunities—that truly mattered both to the Purdue community and society at large.
Those efforts paid dividends when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. “It gave us a playbook to continue to show the world who we are and the persistent innovation we stand for, even in the most uncertain of times,” Braden says. The university launched its Protect Purdue initiative in May 2020, aimed at keeping the campus safe from the pandemic while returning its students and faculty to classrooms in the fall. It included a broad communications campaign emphasizing the importance of social distancing and other healthy behaviors. It also involved creating a 200-student Protect Purdue ambassador program and a COVID-19 clinical response center for testing, isolation/quarantine, contact tracing, and vaccination. “We wanted to create a community-wide mindset and culture whereby all Boilermakers felt an obligation to protect each other and Purdue from COVID-19,” Braden says.
GIANT LEAPS, NOT GIANT DEBT
With tuition rising every year at most colleges and universities, Purdue is an anomaly in higher education. President Mitch Daniels’ commitment to keeping tuition at the academic year 2012-2013 level has allowed nearly 60% of its students to graduate debt-free.
Braden says Purdue’s effort to keep a lid on costs is a key part of its brand, signaling the university’s commitment to providing a world-class education, affordably and accessibly. The administration has accomplished that feat not by cutting the quality of its offerings, but by being strategic about how and where it spends money. “More students than ever are choosing to come to Purdue University.” Braden notes. “Having the largest freshman class and the largest enrollment ever this year and growing nearly 20% in the past five years, I think that speaks to the belief that our resources and our priorities are aimed at areas that matter.”