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Telling Your Institutional Story: An Interview with Dave McFadden

By September 6, 2017 Q & A No Comments

This summer, Dave McFadden, President of Manchester University, presented at our Connect Higher Education Summit about how to effectively tell your institutional story to prospective students, alumni, board members and the local community. I sat down with him as he shared how he was able to help his institution develop its story in a way that felt authentic and garnered buy-in from key stakeholders.

You talk a lot about finding your brand lens and sharing your story through it, but how do you decide your brand lenses?

We find that many institutions attempt to differentiate themselves, without realizing they are saying what all the other institutions are saying. So we used a process that helped everyone understand the importance of differentiators and then how to use ours.

First, we had people use a message map. They wrote a descriptor they would use for their department or Manchester, and then they had to provide some proof points. How do we live out that differentiator? What are some specific examples? We compiled all of them and looked for the commonalities. Now, you might think those broader descriptors are what we use to tell our story, but that’s not what we do. We looked instead to the proof points, because it was there, in the specifics of how we do our work, that we were able to truly hone in on what made us unique. It’s these proof points that have the greatest connections with students.

Why focus on specificity?

To be effective, marketing needs to be relevant and specific. You need to know your audience and tell a story in which that audience can see themselves. One of the challenges of doing a message mapping process is to pick a combination of characteristics and then get really specific about how a student experiences them.

When developing these message maps, who should be involved in these conversations?

You need a lot of people involved, from administrators to faculty to students to alumni. Our VP for enrollment and marketing and an outside consultant led the process. We had focus groups and tested our ideas with a lot of people. The whole process took about 18 months, and we ended up with what we call a “brand cave,” a room covered with materials that were used to generate the maps. We have pictures, lists of words…anything you can think of to help us understand what we want to say about ourselves.

So with all the people involved in the process, how were you able to put egos aside and focus on outcomes?

The beauty of this is that everyone can find their place in the institutional message, because message mapping is both flexible but also specific. So I think that helped, that people felt like their voices were heard. The stories they tell are their own, about their students and their programs. One of the challenges is to avoid being overly generic. For example, lots of schools talk about being liberal arts institutions. We asked “how are the liberal arts expressed at Manchester?” We dug deeper to define what we meant by liberal arts and see if we couldn’t be more powerful in what we were saying.

How long does the branding process take? How often do you revisit these brand lenses?

We review the maps every year, but we don’t go through the whole process every year. Our “why,” our mission, doesn’t change. But our “how,” they ways in which we fulfill that mission and express ourselves, is always changing, and we want to make sure we’re being mindful about that. That’s why we review every year and update as needed to be sure we are authentically representing who we are.

Telling your story is important, but how else can message mapping make positive change for institutions?

It’s interesting, because once we began the process, we began to see all the different ways message mapping can be used beyond marketing. For example, the board has identified three primary needs where they can help. They call them the Big Three. We wanted to give people a way to see themselves in one or all of those three priorities, so we used message mapping to describe each priority and had employees name ways in which they can contribute – the proof points. When you connect what people do day to day with branding, you allow them to personalize the message, and everyone wants to feel heard. Message mapping can help with people feeling heard and that leads to action, which, ultimately, is what every institution needs.

Dave McFadden is the President at Manchester University. View his presentation and see what other sessions were shared at the Connect Higher Education Summit here. 

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: