CMO50 2021 #19: Carolyn Bendall

  • Name Carolyn Bendall
  • Title Chief marketing officer
  • Company Swinburne University of Technology
  • Commenced role March 2020
  • Reporting Line Deputy vice-chancellor
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 92 staff, 6 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Education
  • 2017 ranking 14
  • Related

    Brand Post

    It’s been a momentous 18 months for Carolyn Bendall, starting in a new CMO role in a completely new sector, while locked down and working completely remote for almost the entire time.

    “This required a very carefully thought through plan to build industry acumen quickly, establish trusted relationships, connect and engage with my people, qualitatively assess the current marketing function and develop a robust strategy for growth in the first 90 days,” she comments.

    And one of the highlights? Developing and launching Swintopia in 2020, the gamified, virtual open day platform, in response to the unfolding pandemic.

    “It’s an enduring, award-winning, brand asset for Swinburne that is currently being written up as an academic case study for other universities to use around the world,” she says.

    Innovative marketing

    The Swinburne marketing chief knows the value of excellent customer data and marketing analytics work in tandem to inform the marketing plan and then prioritise the work. “Demand for marketing activity will always exceed capacity, so it’s important the marketing teams are equipped with the right data and analytics to be able to prioritise their work around what adds the highest value for both the customer and the organisation,” says Bendall.

    At the end of 2020, Swinburne University concluded its third and last year of a multi- million-dollar Digital Experience Platform (DXP) project. Bendall’s role coming into the university was to oversee the project conclusion on time and on budget, as well as lead the transition of its new capability from project to an ongoing digital and data-driven marketing operation.

    “This resulted in the design of a new marketing operating model, which I designed around a Marketing Centre of Expertise supporting cross-functional customer journey squads, channel management recruitment teams and the wider university,” she explains.

    The new marketing operating model has introduced new capabilities and skills across the team including agile ways of working, CX and UX design, customer insight and analytics and customer proposition development.

    “I have elected to take a ‘grow-your-own capability’ approach rather than buy in new skills and resources to any great extent. This drives staff engagement and retention, brings partners even closer as I lean on them to help my team upskill and is far more cost efficient.”

    The DXP project saw Adobe Experience Manager underpin the Swinburne website content management, as well as other tools from the Adobe Marketing Suite including Campaign, Target and Analytics. “The result is a very powerful capability to personalise and deliver effective journeys across our key prospect and current student segments,” Bendall says.

    Business smarts

    Over the last 12 months, Swinburne has refreshed its strategy, entitled ‘Horizon 25’, under leadership of new vice-chancellor, Professor Pascale Quester. A fundamental element has been developing a brand framework for the Swinburne masterbrand.  

    “This is designed to align all parts of the university on the things that matter when it comes to making brand choice and ensuring that we stand distinctively as a 21st century university at the cutting edge of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship,” Bendall says.

    Bendall’s role in shaping the strategic agenda included identifying the absence of masterbrand strategy, which resulted in disparate positioning across the sub-brands and declining brand health overall. She engaged the executive group and designed the process to articulate a robust Swinburne brand framework, developing empirically validated brand choice driver models to inform its customer value proposition, points of distinction and primary proof points.

    She successfully obtained +25 per cent increase in brand budget to develop and launch the new brand positioning and address the comparative underinvestment in media.

    “A challenging ask given the current financial headwinds in the higher ed sector that could only be achieved by demonstrating the role this investment plays as a strategic business driver,” she says.

    Bendall engaged across the university to ensure alignment around the new brand strategy and led key product proposition development activity to deliver on the promise ‘creating the next gen now’. Her role also entailed launching a market-leading ‘work integrated learning guarantee’ by partnering with industry to ensure every student has real-world experience through placement, internship or industry-linked projects to drive brand choice.

    Bendall also played a primary role on the global organising committee for the World’s Top 50 Innovators 2022 event, coming to Melbourne for the first time out of London next year. And not least was development of a new look and feel, inspired by technology companies, to position Swinburne at the cutting edge of what is happening right now.

    Data-driven approach

    Swinburne marketing has a commitment to being data-driven and technology-led as a cornerstone of its brand belief, ‘People and Technology for a better world’.

    Each year, the Year 12 cohort represents one of the most important customer journeys to be managed, and the university has ambitious targets to hit in 2022, including +30 per cent growth in VTAC top three preferences year-on-year.

    “Meaningful customer data is therefore our lifeblood in order to leverage the Adobe marketing platform and execute the personalised, engaging journeys that will deliver this result,” says Bendall.  

    In addition to the Swintopia platform, the other data-generation pillar for the university is the Swinburne Early Entry Program. “First developed under my guidance in 2020, the 2021 Early Entry Program was built in response to Covid’s impact on the 2020 Year 12 cohort. It was informed by the Year 12s themselves and the insights they gave us into the exceedingly challenging year they were having, with many of them feeling that their ATAR was likely to be impacted by the disruption to their study and elevated levels of stress and anxiety,” Bendall explains.

    The 2021 Early Entry Program offered Year 12s an ATAR-free alternative entry pathway to Swinburne University. They still needed to pass Year 12, achieve at least 20 for English and provide both a recommendation from their school and their own student statement. But they didn’t have to stress the final exams and ATAR result.

    “This initiative received exceedingly positive and widespread media coverage and is a great demonstration of a brand committed to be relevant and responsive to its customers. With over 1800 applicants, it also provided the marketing team with an incredibly rich data set of prospects to nurture through the rest of the year,” she says.

    The result has been a triple bottom-line impact: Growth in brand equity, student consideration and eventual enrolments in 2021 and meaningful, positive community impact. Given its success, the 2022 Early Entry Program launched in July 2021.

    “Even better, more than 500 other Early Entry Program applicants still came to Swinburne via the traditional pathway having achieved the ATAR requirement and listing Swinburne as their first preference,” Bendall adds.

    Customer-led thinking

    Under Bendall’s leadership, the Swinburne marketing function has been reshaped, moving from a functional service provider focused primarily on fulfilling the demands of internal stakeholders to strategic growth driver centred around the customer experience.

    “The key to driving this change was the crafting of the Swinburne Marketing Mission. A one-page model that provides clarity of mission, a structured layout of the primary levers we have to shape better customer experiences and deliver on the mission at each stage, and a dynamic guide to our primary jobs to be done, updated each half,” she says.

    This has enabled the team to galvanise around the customer experience at each stage, then work to continuously improve experiences that drive brand awareness and consideration, customer acquisition, retention and advocacy, and to prioritise our work around the things that deliver value and commercial impact.  

    A key one of these is the annual Open Day. Yet in 2020 and again in 2021, the closest these prospects could get to campus was one of the many near-identical university websites they’d already read top to bottom, Bendall points out.

    Swinburne’s responses was Swintopia, an open world adventure designed to give prospective students the inside scoop on life and study at the university. This immersive, gamified experience allows prospects to visit the Hawthorn campus, learn about courses, interact with key staff and ambassadors and collect key information via the use of a virtual tote bag.

    “This activation also capitalised on our interconnected Adobe marketing capabilities, allowing us to track and measure our prospects’ engagement in the virtual open day experience, segment key audiences based on their interactions and provide personalised and ongoing communication across our digital channels to facilitate conversion,” Bendall says.

    Swintopia has now become an enduring brand asset that can be continuously upgraded to include new experiences and audiences - including international prospects, reinforcing Swinburne’s reputation as a leader in innovation and technology.

    “My role included championing the development of Swintopia from the outset, bringing in the ecosystem of partners we needed to build and promote such an ambitious program [eight in total], and laying out the strategic rationale for the investment and disruptive approach to ensure buy-in across the university,” Bendall add.

    Despite the challenges of 2020, limited budget and a highly competitive category, Swintopia delivered the most successful Open Day campaign in the university’s history. “Not only did Swinburne successfully engage its target audience, but we managed to deliver an immersive and relevant brand experience – an innovative and tech-rich experience at every turn,” she says.

    Commercial acumen

    Having a growth mindset – always learning, intensely curious, open to feedback and not afraid to show vulnerability, and hugely optimistic about the potential for change and growth – encapsulates Bendall's approach.

    “This has stood me in good stead as business strategy and proven tactics were effectively thrown out the window across the university sector,” she says. “Over the last 12 months, I evolved the marketing function to be a strategic business driver for Swinburne – across both the B2C and B2B segments – and demonstrated to the university’s executive group the role a strategic marketing function can play in driving growth through a precise focus on the drivers of brand choice and data-driven execution of engaging customer journeys across the core customer segments.”

    A fundamental part of this has been developing the new brand platform and brand positioning. Under the promise of ‘next gen_now’ Swinburne is establishing itself as a 21st-century university at the cutting edge of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. The platform provides a basis for the marketing team, inclusive of product marketing managers, customer journey managers, and the brand team, to be consistently delivering ‘upgrades' to the market.

    “This allows us to demonstrate our leadership in innovation, our tech-rich capabilities and a distinctively creative brand character,” she says.

    “One small example of how we are bringing this new brand platform approach to life is through the introduction of a range of limited edition high-end, on-trend merchandise and a pop-up concept store on campus for students and staff. Tapping into the emotional brand choice driver of pride, the next gen_now merch and _now store, which will also showcase and sell Swinburne graduate products, is an upgrade that will help bring the current student and staff community together as we return to campus for Semester 2, 2022.”

    People and capability

    Through its innovative partnership with Deloitte Digital, Swinburne is planning to build people capability and achieve its organisational outcomes in areas including professional development of the Swinburne marketing team, growing its capability in areas such as agile ways of working, technical Adobe capabilities, CX and UX, data and privacy and creative design.

    The partnership also includes work-integrated learning opportunities through professional placements and internships for Swinburne students across a number of disciplines. This helps Swinburne deliver on one its core brand promises of real industry experience.

    Guest lecturing thought leadership and joint research and production collaborations are all part of the mix. “This is an example of how I have looked to inspire people and build team capability. There are many others, as leading and inspiring my people is one of my core drivers,” Bendall says.

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