Episode 54: Importance of Brand & Student Experience from a Vice Chancellor of Marketing – Renea Morris

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Shiro Hatori
Okay, hello, everyone. Welcome to the higher ed demand gen podcast hosted by concept 3d. My name is Shiro and I will be your host today. And today, I’m very, very excited to cover the topic around the importance of the brand and value proposition as well as improving the student experience in higher ed. And for that, we have a really, really interesting guest today. And I’m really introduced, I’m really excited to introduce her today. Her name is Renee Morris. She is the Vice Chancellor for marketing and communications at the University of Denver, which we will also be saying, Do you quite often in this conversation, and so welcome to the podcast, Rene

Renea Morris
Nero. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here today, and I’m excited about this topic. I really think that the heart of what we do in higher ed is about the experiences that our students have.

Shiro Hatori
Love to hear. And I love to start this conversation out asking all our guests, what do you love about higher? Ed?

Renea Morris
I love that question. I will say that for me, what I love about higher ed is that I really do believe it keeps you young, when you’re able to walk on campus and see young people knowing that the difference that you’re making, when ever I make a decision about information that’s going to go to them a campaign that is going to target students how it’s going to change their lives, bumping into students rather than going into a you know, an elevator and a corporate tower. That beats any any experience I think that you can have. And I love the fact that you know, I’ve been in higher ed for about 12 years, and I’ve gotten younger every year.

Shiro Hatori
I love that answer. I it’s interesting because right before we started this recording, we just talked about how different this answer can be for each person. Right? And this is a new one. I’ve never heard this one. But no, I it totally makes sense. You’re with people who are, you know, young, they have a lot of ideas, and they’re inspirational. And so love, love, love that answer. I know I said love 100 times, so refrain from it from here on out? Well, great. Well, let’s jump in. I know in our previous conversation, we talked a lot about a lot of things, right. But one thing that really resonated with me and my understanding of what you’re doing is you’re really trying to drive the importance of brand and that value proposition at DCU. Can you go into a little more detail about what that means?

Renea Morris
Yeah, so I guess I’ll start by just telling you what I feel about brand and value proposition itself, just when we think about what that means. You know, when you think about a brand, it’s something that’s intangible, you can’t really put your hand on it. But you know, it’s there. It’s foundational. It’s something that is pervasive and persistent within the organization. And I really do believe that, you know, in addition to it being something that helps you identify and feel some affinity towards, it’s about choice. And then that gets into the value proposition, because the value proposition answers that question, why why do I make this choice? What’s the benefit? What’s in it for me? Why should I choose your organization over someone else’s? And that is the question that we’re really trying to answer every day at the University of Denver, when we think about the experience, not only that we present, but that we actually deliver on when students come to campus.

Shiro Hatori
Hazing and and when you talk about what University of Denver stands for, what are some of those key pillars?

Renea Morris
Yeah, so one of the things that actually drew me to the University of Denver, and what I have found to be sort of part of its DNA, if you will, is this notion that we’re not just providing an environment for learning for the sake of learning. We’re not just having, you know, students come so that they can have a career. Really, it’s about having a life of purpose. It’s about how you serve, the greater good. And what was exciting to me about d u, when I came is when I looked at the vision statement and the vision is for the university to be one that is committed to the public good. And I think it says a lot about the individuals that come to the university and a lot about why they stay

Shiro Hatori
after here and You know, in our previous conversation, you mentioned that, you know, this brand and value proposition was kind of a newer concept for the University of Denver. And, you know, for those who don’t know, I’m also located here in Colorado, near Denver. And so I know, de us brand very well, I know, it’s, you know, it’s a lot, it has a lot of impact. I have a lot of friends and colleagues who have went there and done their graduate studies there as well. So I know that it’s, it’s working right. And so it’s good to hear that. And, you know, how have you heard the story about them shifting into this more brand narrative over the last few years? What’s the impact been like, for you?

Renea Morris
Yeah, so I joined the EU about four years ago. And one of the things that we discovered, or I discovered when I came here, is, first of all, about 70% of our undergraduate students come from outside of Colorado, which is pretty unique. I think when you think about institutions, as a whole, you know, I worked at institutions where you know, you would you would work within the state and maybe contiguous states, but not necessarily having to look at the entire country, you know, as your target, if you will. And so one of the things that was really important for me, when I started thinking about the strategy for de us brand, and how we would focus and where we would find the things that would resonate with those individuals that we’re trying to attract, is really looking at the history of the organization, what it actually stands for, where it actually sits within the country, you know, we have this wonderful backdrop with the Rocky Mountains that we’re able to see every day. And I think we sort of take it for granted. But I realize, do you was Denver as a destination, you know, people want to come from other places to visit Denver. And so really looking at that as, as one of the drawers, and one of the pieces that really make a difference. For d’you it was the place it’s who we are and where we sit within the country.

Shiro Hatori
That’s amazing. And I think this kind of goes into our next topic very nicely here is, so you’re able to make this observation observation that Denver is the destination. And it’s this connecting point between some of the East and the West. And you know, the numbers show that right? It’s 70% of students are coming from out of state, how do you take all these learnings and provide strategic direction to your team, right, which is at the executive and the director level? And communicate so that it’s supported throughout the rest of the university?

Renea Morris
Yeah, so one of the things that I didn’t mention when you asked me the question, what I like about higher ed, but another thing that I like about higher ed, is that the way that we do things are much more consensus based than any other organization I’ve worked in. And so one of the ways that we really work hard when we’re working on the strategy, and we’re looking to see how it will resonate with our various audiences, we’re really look at all of the angles within the organization. So what’s the point of view from a faculty member that wants to attract a student, you know, to their program or or to their class? What is the standpoint, from Student Affairs who wants to focus not only on the academics, but on that extra curricular activities and that that student experience outside of the classroom? Those are the things that really helped bring the strategy along, and make it much more robust so that we’re not just looking at one aspect when we’re trying to hone in on what’s the best way to approach it, but from all angles, and that has really served as well. I know that a lot of times, you know, people may say, well, things move a little bit slower in higher ed or, you know, decisions are made very, very differently than they are in other places. But I think that there’s some things to learn from higher ed and the way that they do things that other industries could actually benefit from.

Shiro Hatori
I liked this, I liked this take because usually people don’t object with it, right? They say like, well, that’s just a negative of the higher ed industry as a whole. But you’re looking at it as a positive in that something’s actually moved too fast. And it doesn’t allow for the time to analyze or make more decisions with credit, critical analysis and with more thinking

Renea Morris
to is, when you make a decision, and you really want it to be true and authentic, you also want to have people that have buy in and have skin in the game, you want them to be a part of it. I don’t want to be at a place where I’m being talked to, or down to or talked at, I want there to be an opportunity for dialogue, I want to show up, I want to share my voice I want to be heard. And you get that in higher ed and ways that you don’t get that in northern organizations.

Shiro Hatori
Gotcha. Thank you. Thanks for sharing that. And I think when, based on our last conversation, one of the really cool things that I didn’t actually know about with University of Denver, is your focus on improving the student experience, right, and tying that back to the brand values and that creating that 4d experience. And I know you’re, as a school and institution, you’re really investing more in the student experience along the lines of health, wellness. But this one really caught out to me, which is the addition of the mountain campus, which I didn’t know about, and I did a little more research after our call. But can you tell us a little bit more about what this mountain experience in mountain campuses?

Renea Morris
Yeah, I’m really, really excited about this, because I see it as an opportunity for us to really affect students in all aspects, not just from an intellectual growth, but really promoting well being exploring character. These are sort of the tenants of the four D experience, which really is a holistic view of the students journey throughout their time at d u. And it two years ago, we purchased with the help of a very generous alum, a mountain campus that’s just outside of our campus, it’s about two hours away. So it’s easy to get to. And it’s amazing because it’s we were very deliberate in the type of experience that we wanted to promote, and for students to value. So it is not a ski resort, it is not a retreat in the sense that, you know, you’re going to feel as if you’re going on a you know, expensive vacation, it is in the wilderness. It’s it’s but up against the Roosevelt National Forest. It’s, it’s out there. And it’s amazing, because one of the things that we want to be able to do, and we started this last year is that every incoming student would have an experience at the mountain campus over a long weekend, spending two days up there, two nights and three days, and we call it the first ascent experience. And it’s really amazing. You you think about it from the standpoint of students that some who’ve never had the experience of being outdoors and climbing a rock or being on a high ropes course, or just having quiet time to think and meditate. Get on the lake. It’s amazing. I’ve been to the campus a few times. And the thing that strikes me the most about it is you can hear the leaves rustling through the trees. It’s Wyatt.

Shiro Hatori
I love that. And and you know, that’s from a business perspective, taking it one step, taking it one step back is what does this mean for the University of Denver having something like this? For that first year experience? And beyond? I understand that students have an opportunity to return after the first year as well. But yes, it really mean, you know, at the business level for for University of Denver.

Renea Morris
Yeah. So one of the things that, you know, all institutions of higher ed and want to be able to do is to provide their students with the opportunity for them to develop and grow and get to be who they are going to be, you know, learn about themselves, and really start that journey. And I think that the mountain campus offers the, like an amazing opportunity for that first step for students to just start exploring themselves, seeing what they can do, learning things about themselves that they didn’t know before. I think it’s so To jump starts and even accelerates that process that students will go through throughout their entire career at DCU.

Shiro Hatori
That’s fantastic. And are there also opportunities for thinking more from the first year? A student perspective? Is there an opportunity for them to mingle with other students in their class, you know, meet and connect with other folks to build community and belonging, as well.

Renea Morris
Yeah, and you know, high school and college are very, very different. And that first year is so, so critical, I think, for students to start to feel immediately that they are welcome. And that they can find a place where they belong. And what the Kennedy mountain campus experience does, is it enables students that may not have that natural tendency to reach out to someone to be in an environment where they are working in living and playing alongside someone that they might not necessarily had had the opportunity to do if they were just headed to class, you know. So we’ve seen that happened as well, whether it’s around the campfire, or it is on a hike, or just some other experience. And most of the time, students that make really good connections that first year, these are things that lasts throughout not only their entire career, but throughout their entire lives, you know, you can probably think yourself about people that you’ve met, that had an impact on your life when you were in college that you still have contact with today. And I think that’s what what college is all about as well.

Shiro Hatori
Of that, and, you know, kind of bouncing off of what you just said, Do you think that you know, as institutions might be rethinking their first year experience and the programs and the experiences they’re offering for students, that in turn helps maybe with enrollment or retention as well?

Renea Morris
Yeah, you know, back to the whole idea of the first year being so critical, you know, because there are so many changes, and that first year retention is important. So I think that a lot of institutions put a lot of value on that first year experience, and not just, you know, in the classroom or with the professors, but outside the classroom as well, because students really want to be in a place where they’re feeling like they’re valued, and they’re heard and that they belong. And I think that the first year experience, I believe, first impressions are lasting impressions. And that first year experience is that first impression that students will have that will last them, you know, for the rest of their time at that institution.

Shiro Hatori
Definitely, completely agree. Yeah, I echo similar feelings and thoughts about my experience at a university to that that first year in the first month, quite frankly, made a huge impact on whether I liked or did not like the brand. And the school as well. Yeah, that’s right. It’s awesome. And, you know, we’re kind of on the topic around first year orientation. And I know that a University of Denver, your commencement day is this coming weekend? So it’s a little later but you know, what’s, what’s next for someone in your role? Right. Like, I usually talk to maybe director level or manager level and some I’m curious to learn more and maybe provide some insight for the audience as well. Like, what’s next on the agenda after commencement day, up until move in day? Like, what’s what’s your summer like? Right?

Renea Morris
Oh, so there’s a funny thing when I moved into higher ed, someone told me that, hey, you know, things slow down in the summer? Well, perhaps at some places it does for some people, not for administrators, and definitely not for marketers because what we’re doing this summer, is we’re preparing for the recruitment of the next class. So I’m already have my sights on 2024 Shiro before we even get through, you know, commencement with the current class. So what we’ll be doing is partnering real closely with our enrollment management teams to devise the strategies and put together the materials that we’ll use in the campaigns that will impact next year’s enrollment. It is a cycle that continues and so we don’t really have downtime in the summer. It’s it’s a very busy time for us.

Shiro Hatori
Definitely, and When you say partnering with enrollment marketing? No, what are what are some of the ways you start the conversations? Do you identify? As an example? Do you identify certain demographics you want to go after? Or do you reflect back on campaigns from the previous year to see what worked? And where you can expand? Like, how do you go about that process? With someone in in your seniority?

Renea Morris
Yeah. So it’s actually both. We actually look at what we accomplished in the previous year, we see if there are any gaps. Are there anything that we want to do, that we didn’t accomplish this time? And how can we make things better? You know, what can we do that will actually get us better results? For example, one of the things that we did is we actually expanded the number of markets that we’re going to be going into with our campaign. And so it’ll be really interesting for us to look at in the next month or so. How did how did the campaign resonate in these three new markets? And so that will help us with the strategy moving forward? And then we also look at, you know, we’ve had two years with the same markets, you know, where are things really starting to resonate? And where can we start to double down or no have even, you know, better strategy for those that are doing really well. So we do all of that when we start to look at developing the strategy for the next year, because it helps to inform what needs to change moving forward? Or leave the same, you know?

Shiro Hatori
Right, right. But lots of planning this summer, I understand it. And yes, at university Denver, I understand the student bodies, actually, unlike a lot of other universities, where it’s close to 50% graduate students, right. And Mike,

Renea Morris
actually, it’s number, a little bit more than 50%. grad students. Yeah. And I think that that is extremely unique, because you know, we’re not a grad school or an undergrad school, we’re both. And so what that the opportunity there is, for us to not just focus on one or the other, we have to focus on both with regards to how we’re marketing the university. And so we also spend a lot of time working with our head of research, because a lot of the students that come for grad programs are looking for opportunities for research, they’re looking for professors in a particular discipline. So one of the things that we try to do there is to highlight the opportunities that students do have for research, even at the undergraduate level, you’d be surprised, you know, how many students really enjoy and want and are looking for that kind of experience?

Shiro Hatori
No theory, and how do you like, you’re more responsible for the undergrad? Team, right? I can’t, I can’t I don’t

Renea Morris
know. So usually what happens in universities, the undergraduate recruitment is much more centralized, right? Because you’re only working with one department, you’re trying to take that class for graduate enrollment, because it is done at the school, the college, you know, the academic level, is not always as centralized. And so while I wouldn’t say that, I’m responsible more for undergrad and grad, I will say that it’s a different approach. And working with the grad team that teens than it is an undergraduate

Shiro Hatori
focus. And I understand some of your responsibilities do include social media. And so do you have some parts of you know, your social media strategies? That’s actually meant for the audience, which is to get more graduate students, as well? Or is that separated as well?

Renea Morris
Yeah. So as I mentioned, you know, we work with our head of research, and one of the things that we do as well is we have a couple of campaigns, one that’s focused on student research, and that’s a social media campaign. Another campaign that we have that does have a social media component to it is really focusing in on our academic peers. So we’re reaching out to other presidents and chancellors, other vice, other Provost and other heads of admissions, so we have campaigns that are no have a front that we’re really trying to move, move the needle, raise the reputation. And we’re the it’s always a multi channel approach. So it’s not just one thing. It is direct mail it is reaching out with newsletters, it is social media, it’s paid, you know, digital campaign. There’s a lot of tools in the toolbox now that you can use to reach audiences, which is exciting to me.

Shiro Hatori
And I’ll end with this last question around this hot take you took last time, which I love, which is around the fact that digital marketing or digital media is much easier. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you meant there? Yeah. So

Renea Morris
I’m so glad that you allow me to do that. Because if you just quoted me there, I’d have, you know, my my counterparts, calling me saying What are you talking about. But the reason why I use the word easy, is because what I really do believe is, you know, in the 21st century, we have the ability to target in ways that we just tried to do that, you know, 20 years ago, we were just taking a stab in the dark, and hoping that our messages would resonate, we weren’t able to really do, the kind of targeted marketing approaches that we can do now with digital marketing now is it isn’t easy, not. In that sense of the word, it’s not easy, because you really do have to identify who you’re trying to meet, you’ve got to hone in on what that content is that they need to have, you’ve got to work on the look and the feel, and to make sure it’s going to resonate with them aesthetically, as well. But the thing about it is, you have the ability to pivot quickly, you can change things up, you can test quicker and get more information sooner than we’ve ever been able to do. So I think that for someone who’s been in this business for a really long time, it’s not easier, but it is a little bit more informed is a little bit more able to give us insights that we’ve never had before. And I love that.

Shiro Hatori
Yeah, I think you mentioned this before, but it doesn’t mean just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s going to be better. You have to do those things that you just pointed out in order to make it better. But the ability to pivot fast understand audience, target audiences, analyze quicker all these things are that you can move much faster. So yeah, I think one thing is you just have to be on top of it. Right? And then you can utilize and take advantage of what’s more accessible in the 21st century. That’s exactly right. And maybe 20 years ago, where you’re maybe running, like billboard ads, where you It’s you don’t know the return on investment very quickly. No, no. Gotcha. Yeah. Well, Rene, thank you so much. For all your insight, I was wondering where our audience could connect with you to learn more about what you’re up to maybe what to use up to as well.

Renea Morris
Yeah, so um, thanks for that question. And I am on LinkedIn. And I love to connect with people. And the other thing that I do is I write a blog for the University of Denver. And so you can reach out to me via that blog, just to kind of see what do you is up to as well. And then let’s connect on LinkedIn.

Shiro Hatori
Sounds great. You heard it. That’s Renee Morris. And thanks so much for audience for tuning in today. We have another great episode lined up for you next week as well. And so thanks for tuning in. Thanks, Renee for joining.

Renea Morris
Thanks for having me.

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