How brand repositioning, Agile ways of working are helping Swinburne's CMO drive growth

Chief marketing officer details the new brand repositioning work plus how she's reframing the marketing function to be a strategic growth driver

Fresh brand positioning, adopting Agile ways of working and taking advantage of a multi-million-dollar investment into marketing technology are some of the ways Swinburne University’s CMO is finding opportunity in the midst of ongoing uncertainty facing the tertiary education sector.

Swinburne has just taken the wrappers of its fresh brand positioning, centred around the ‘next gen_now’ tagline and experience. The new brand proposition is a tip of the hat to Swinburne University’s technology heritage and credentials as well as its creative and innovative education focus.

Swinburne chief marketing officer, Carolyn Bendall, said the new approach will allow the team to better articulate and communicate Swinburne’s latest features, distinctive propositions, emphasis on industry partnerships and innovations around education and research.

Bendall told CMO the decision to rebrand wasn’t something she’d originally set out to do in her first year at the tertiary education institution. “But as things went on, it became clear this was the right way to approach it,” she said.

One of the obvious catalysts was the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Having taken up the CMO’s post just days before Australia went into lockdown, Bendall faced a sector that had seen revenue undermined by the loss of international students, whose ability to deliver its core product was compromised, and which was financially facing significant belt tightening.

“As a CMO, there were plenty of challenges, but I also thought and it proved to be an opportunity to have the latitude to look across the whole function, understand our brand health and bench strength,” Bendall said.

Aiming for distinctiveness

Initially, what Bendall had sought was a more coherent brand strategy across Swinburne’s unique partnership with Seek Australia around the Swinburne online brand.

“This led me to dig deeper and deeper into the brand health of Swinburne University itself, as well as how those two different brands were operating in market,” she explained. “It became clear we needed to work on getting a better Masterbrand architecture in place.”

One area of concern was the lack of familiarity with Swinburne’s brand differentiators. “It wasn’t such more core brand health or negative attributes, but just not seeing strong attribution to anything in particular in terms of what we stood for,” Bendall said.

“We had ‘technology’ in the name, and some people would point to that. But that can also work to your detriment because technology can be interpreted as narrow and scientific. Technology, however, is a very broad church – it’s about practical skills as well. It was clear we needed to do some work there.”

Carolyn BendallCredit: Swinburne University
Carolyn Bendall

With its brand agency of record contract coming up, Bendall conducted an open market tender process to find a partner that could build a core brand platform to endure in coming years and help cement Swinburne’s key points of distinction. Deloitte Digital came up trumps with the winning idea.

The first key proposition the new brand work sets out to highlight is Swinburne’s position as a leader in innovation and technology. The second is the extent of its industry partnerships. As part of the new brand platform, the university is now guaranteeing every undergraduate student gets real workplace experience.

“The third thing is we’re not just a higher ed university, we’re also vocational. We have a breadth of offering for people looking to develop new skills, change careers, do short courses or embark on professional development,” Bendall said. “That’s very rich territory to pull ourselves away with.”

Two other inputs guided Bendall’s approach as a CMO to the brand work. The first was taking the time to be scientifically driven.

“I did a big piece of work around brand choice modelling, and we have those models now in place for both under and post-graduate segments. That helped inform the key proof points,” she said.  

“The other input, and one CMOs has been having endless debate on over the last 12 months, is how to pitch for more money when you are in a COVID crisis. It’s not only at an institution level – this is a sector facing serious revenue challenges. That required me to build a robust and validated business case around where we were in terms of brand health, what we learnt about where we needed to be and what was important in choosing us as a brand, and then what I felt an increased investment was going to deliver the uni.”   

Visually, the brand work and campaign takes its cues from Swinburne’s in technology and innovation, with a new 3D logo lock-up and a fresh colour palette using white as dominant colour. This was inspired by the tech companies and ways they showcase product, Bendall said. There’s also a fresh typeface and imagery in use, and Swinburne is building its own sonic branding in partnership with Dan Golding, who leads the uni’s media and communications school.

The supporting brand campaign is rolling out across TV, out-of-home and radio as well as through a variety of below-the-line activities.

Bendall said now is the right time to build brand, firstly to engage 2021 year 12 students. “You want to get out to market as early as you can to start ongoing conversations with those prospective students and we aim to be more personalised with those,” she said.  

Helping Swinburne achieve this is its investment into the full Adobe marketing suite including Adobe Experience Manager, Campaign, Analytics and Target.

The brand work will also help Swinburne start to build longer-term pipeline for when international borders do reopen to international students.

“There are huge question marks on international students and opening Australian borders, but that pipeline is still quite long. That was another thing that needed to be addressed so we were positioned consistently. Some work I saw utilised globally was too different,” Bendall said. “We are one brand and offering. I wanted to get this in shape, right and into the market so we can start to drive international recognition, and in time, consideration, as it’ll be a win back strategy not just for Swinburne, but Australia.

“International students are going elsewhere – the US and UK didn’t shut their borders for university students. So it’s a big task ahead for Australia to win them back.”  

Building the case for a strategic CMO

For Bendall, the unique market situation facing Australian universities right now has helped provide her as a CMO with the permission to shake up marketing.

“I have reflected on whether I would as have successfully built the case for more investment if we did not have a crisis on our doorstep,” she commented. “We have to do something to try and ensure that we can continue and drive more preference and attract more students domestically and internationally.”  

What’s more, Bendall said the fact she came from a different sector has enabled her to position the CMO role and wider marketing function as a strategic growth driver, not as the communication and design department. “All along, I’ve been very intentional in striving to do that,” she said.  

“When you do a brand strategy, it’s not just marketing comms, it’s about your propositions and product design. What’s been wonderful to see is as we’ve landed this platform of next gen_now, we’ve had take-up back through academics. My product marketing people are running proposition design workshops back with the academics to uncover what is the next gen or upgrade element we need to look at per degree, such as arts or different format of delivery. It’s trying to make sure we deliver on the promise and revisiting the product design.”

Wider brand buy-in across the institution has been another significant area of focus for Bendall. “One thing our brand choice driver research showed us is evoking that emotion of pride is really potent if you can do it for both students and staff particularly,” she said.  

“We are working hard to do this – we want to have that sense of pride. We are designing a new range of merchandise with a higher-end design and higher aesthetics. All of it is about engagement and having pride in this innovative university.”  

Finding new ways of working

Supporting Bendall in this quest to build the brand’s distinction proposition as well as marketing’s strategic role as a growth driver is both marketing technology and a shake-up of how the marketing function operates.  

Bendall joined Swinburne in the final year of a three-year implementation project of Adobe’s full marketing suite across the organisation, which wrapped up in October. As part of this project, the majority of so-called ‘digital marketers’ were sitting within specialist teams. With the project completed, Bendall could redesign the team to ensure digital skills pervaded the wider marketing function.

Read more: How Swinburne Uni’s CMO is orchestrating a digital marketing transformation

So she kicked off an Agile workforce design project, which rolled out from October through to April.

“We’re about six weeks in being fully up and running with our Agile model, with everyone in the function working to two-week sprints as we try to be consistent across the whole team,” Bendall said.

Having had first-hand experience of bringing Agile ways of working at scale into the ANZ business, Bendall said she borrowed heavily from that time and has established a core centre of expertise for more specialist skills; then created journey squads operating across acquisition and retention. Sales and recruitment also sit within the Swinburne marketing function and are part of this mix.

Given Swinburne’s IT department also operates in an Agile model, Bendall has also aligned marketing sprints where there are crossovers with the IT team. In all, about 15 different units are working in an Agile way.

“I don’t think you realise until you move to another organisation how much you have learnt from the former,” Bendall agreed. “It gives you an opportunity to reflect on the lessons and watch outs for things you wouldn’t do as well as what you would do.  

“A big learning and one thing I deliberately say all the time is that for each and every team is that Agile and the way you work in your group needs to work for you; you don’t work for the Agile process. You can be really formal and strict about it - and I’ve seen that in operation elsewhere – but you can end up with some teams quite lost in ticking all the boxes or having to do standups right now. You want the teams to own it themselves.

“You give them the skills and Gyro platform, different rituals and ceremonies, but then let it work out how it works best for you. Some things might be always-on for example, and don’t need an Agile approach.”

Measures of success

As to measuring the brand investment’s success, Bendall said the highest level focus is on brand metrics. “We have stepped up brand tracking to be several dips a year. That’s about awareness and consideration,” she said.

“Preference is interesting as we get it through brand tracking but also through year 12 end-of-year preferencing. I have a big, hard target on that one. Then the fourth element is attribution to certain measures and things we have called out that we want to be distinctive for and associated with.

“Then it’s through to student numbers, acquisition and retention. It is about making the most of the domestic market. No one has the solution for international yet.”

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