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To tell a better story: Calvin’s branding efforts up against negative internal culture

March 12, 2023


Image courtesy Tim Ellens

Calvin’s “Go Beyond” campaign launched last month.

A brand by definition is an abstract idea created by tangible elements. When Calvin rebranded as a university in 2019, the most obvious change was the tangible one: 82 signs around campus on which the word “college” had to be replaced with “university.” But the underlying need for a new, clearer story about Calvin’s identity went much deeper.

Due to a variety of factors — some unique to Calvin and others not — Calvin has had to reckon with its image and brand in renewed ways in recent years. Now, with a new president who has stated his commitment to better storytelling and with Calvin’s first-ever Vice President of Marketing and Communications set to begin her tenure next month, the university is aiming to paint a brighter picture for external audiences with a new marketing campaign and to highlight better news internally in order to, as Director of Communications and Brand Steward Tim Ellens put it, “revive” the internal culture.

Put simply, a brand is the image people have of an organization. “This image, or perception, is stamped (or branded) into their minds based on their various touchpoints with the organization,” Ellens told Chimes. Touchpoints include social media accounts, news stories, websites, snail mail, events, billboards, personal interactions and employee perspectives.

Branding helps universities differentiate themselves from their competitors and build a strong reputation and credibility, according to Ellens. Consistency in messaging helps to reinforce the university’s identity and make it easier for stakeholders to understand what the university stands for. A strong brand, Ellens told Chimes, is key to recruitment and fundraising.

In need of a story

As undergraduate enrollment declines — driven by the higher education industry becoming more competitive and by Calvin’s traditional market of Christian Reformed Church (CRC) students shrinking — Calvin has had to be more intentional about branding and marketing.

Families learning about Calvin for the first time tend to be impressed with the university’s academics and its campus community.

According to Adel Abadeer, professor of economics and global development studies, renewed branding efforts tend to happen either in response to positive growth or to negative pressures. In Calvin’s case, he feels it is the latter. “We are stuck so we need to do something,” he said.

Communications, marketing and admissions staff work together closely to develop strategy, according to Vice President for Enrollment Strategy Lauren Jensen. Admissions’ communication strategy has made Calvin’s Christian academic excellence the centerpoint of messaging.

According to Jensen, families learning about Calvin for the first time tend to be impressed with the university’s academics and its campus community. Calvin aims to take advantage of this strength through a new advertising campaign launched last month. 

Centered on the theme “go beyond,” the campaign includes 21 billboards throughout West Michigan, as well as a plethora of digital advertising that emphasizes academic rigor and opportunities to dig deep and excel. 

The billboards and advertising suggest a few examples of these opportunities, according to Ellens, but the campaign’s success in some ways goes back to internal messaging. Ellens told Chimes he is “hoping our campus community will offer their own stories about how Calvin ‘goes beyond.’”

Some aspects of Calvin’s identity are simply a challenging story to tell. Calvin’s complex political position is a case in point. Reese Schwaderer, a current junior, visited campus multiple times before enrolling. However, she feels that her visits did not capture the range of views on fraught topics such as gender, sexuality and race. 

Marketing Calvin’s “messy middle” political position honestly is “kind of like walking a tightrope,” Ellens said. “There’s definitely advantages to being on one side or the other, but it’s not who we are. First, we need to be authentic to who we are and find those who value this position. They tend to be students who appreciate the nuances and are willing and or desire to think deeper.”

Internal and external challenges

Calvin’s reputation, both internally and externally, has been rocked by tensions and negative press in the last few years. The university’s split with the Center for Social Research and parting of ways with social work professor Joseph Kuilema brought negative attention to the university. Then the decision of the general meeting of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (Calvin’s denominational affiliate) to elevate its stance against LGBTQ+ relationships to confessional status added scrutiny. Stories in national news outlets and word-of-mouth interpretations of the decision’s possible impact on Calvin spread quickly.

If that news cycle did damage Calvin’s reputation, however, it’s hard to document.

Most prospective students are primarily concerned about academics, faith community and fitting in, according to Vice President of Enrollment Strategy Lauren Jensen. When they have misconceptions, they are typically about how expensive Calvin is or how diverse the student population is, Jensen said.

However, this year’s undergraduate freshman class is the smallest recorded in Calvin’s online census data, with children of alumni making up a smaller percentage of the class than is typical.

Internally, the impact of negative news is easier to track. Several years of cuts and changes have raised anxiety about job security, dented morale and increased tensions between faculty and staff and administrators, as demonstrated by a Best Christian Workplaces Institute (BCWI) survey in spring 2022. Each of these factors has affected how faculty and staff talk about the university they work for.

The internet as megaphone

While digital advertising and the internet “exponentially amplif[y] a brand’s reach,” Ellens said, “It also becomes harder to control and has a lot more liability.”

These differences have changed how Calvin markets itself, and what the constraints and needs are for doing so. For Ellens, communications’ and marketing’s relationship with Chimes is one example of the effect that brand amplification due to the internet can have on a university’s strategy.

“[Chimes] used to be an internal student newspaper. It is now an international media source that other media pay attention to. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that,” Ellens said. “It makes our job harder. We have to look at Chimes like any other media outlet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s an accountability component to the relationship that goes both ways.”

This changed dynamic isn’t unique to Calvin and Chimes; colleges and universities across the country are grappling with tensions between independent student journalism and marketing.

Administrators are aware of this tension. In an interview with Chimes last semester, Boer described the “negativity” of the Calvin community’s self-talk as “self-fulfilling” and attributed that negativity to attention being drawn to the wrong aspects of what’s going on at the university.

When major news events happen — positive or negative — communications, marketing and admissions are poised to respond.

“Let’s better tell our own story,” Boer said. “And let’s not wash our laundry outside.”

While publications like Spark and Calvin News are meant to support Calvin’s marketing efforts, Chimes’ mission is to report the news and opinions of the Calvin community while fostering dialogue, promoting accountability and providing practical learning experiences. Chimes gives students the opportunity to learn journalistic excellence and to exercise journalistic freedom in a campus setting, according to its mission statement. This mission sometimes entails reporting stories that bring attention to negative news — that is, dirty laundry.

As a result, there is often pressure on Chimes to promote good news while minimizing coverage of issues that reflect poorly on the university. To that end, administrators have also discouraged some employees from offering comments to Chimes that could reflect poorly on the university.

Managing the unexpected

When major news events happen — positive or negative — communications, marketing and admissions are poised to respond through a combination of communication strategies. Often, these include producing videos, emails and FAQs, as well as talking points for staff to use. According to Jensen, communication plans for prospective students are mostly developed in advance, but the admissions team is prepared to respond to new developments throughout the year. 

“You can do a certain amount of planning and anticipation around issues. For those things, we can develop talking points or holding statements in advance. In that sense, we seek to understand how we are perceived from all angles, identify blind spots and review how other organizations have endured something similar,” Ellens said.

But sometimes unexpected situations arise. When things happen that there is no time to plan for, Ellens said communications and marketing falls back on set response principles. 

These principles include containing the news cycle and avoiding contributing to a negative story’s growth; protecting the institution’s reputation, brand and market position; reframing controversial or divisive issues around common ground and pivoting to positive messages; practicing message discipline to avoid making the situation worse; and, with rare exception, prioritizing an individual’s right to privacy over the sharing of detailed information about issues impacting the university.

Telling a better story

Telling a better story about Calvin has been a theme of President Wiebe Boer’s presidency thus far. 

If we don’t have raving fans among our staff, faculty and students, our marketing messages will lack coherence among those we are trying to attract.

To that end, La’Leatha Spillers, chief advancement officer for YWCA West Central Michigan, was named Calvin’s first vice president for marketing and communications last week and will begin her tenure April 10.

“Communication and marketing’s work has been primarily externally focused, but resources are needed to be dedicated to internal communications and culture formation. I’m anticipating that this is something our new vice president of marketing and communications will help address,” Ellens said.

Boer told Chimes in August 2022 that the addition of this position to the president’s cabinet was key to meeting Calvin’s enrollment goals. The position will help guide the telling of “the broader story of all the things that Calvin is doing in a much more strategic way,” Boer said.

Boer also told Chimes that he hoped to see a shift in internal narratives about the university — that is, the way that current students and faculty talk about Calvin.

“If you don’t have the appropriate culture, your strategy has less chance of being successful,” Ellens said. “By the same token, if we don’t have raving fans among our staff, faculty and students, our marketing messages will lack coherence among those we are trying to attract.”

The problem is not not having good news to amplify, according to Ellens and Boer, but rather what gets amplified. In recent years, poor morale and lack of trust have become the dominant internal narratives.

Calvin’s internal culture “needs a revival,” according to Ellens. “I believe President Boer grasped that reality immediately and has worked tirelessly to find and promote the good things that are going on at Calvin — because there is a wealth of good things going on,” Ellens said. “Our social media and storytelling have been ramped up. Marketing messages say one thing, but stories prove the messages are true and authentic. It’s tell and show.”

While carefully shaping the story of Calvin internally and externally is intended to help boost enrollment, support fundraising efforts and improve school spirit and morale, administrative pressure to tell a positive story has sometimes come across as restrictive for some employees.

According to Abadeer and other faculty members Chimes spoke with, some faculty still feel voiceless or fear negative responses from administrators if they express dissent. They are afraid of being next in line for cuts, not receiving grants and time releases or losing out on leadership opportunities, Abadeer told Chimes. “You act strategically because you are afraid of punishment,” he said.

The BCWI survey confirmed that these concerns are not unique to a couple of professors. 

But administrators are also under pressure. “They are subject to immense pressure from contributors, donors, the church, external demographics,” Abadeer said.

Negotiating these various pressures is an ongoing process.

“Maintaining consistency in messaging and brand identity is always an ongoing challenge,” Ellens said. “As we grow deeper into a university structure, we must be more intentional about our identity systems, templates and resources.”

Chimes’ Katie Rosendale contributed to this piece.

This story has been updated to reflect that this year’s class is the smallest since online day 10 reporting began, not in history.

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  • C

    ChaseOct 2, 2023 at 10:14 pm

    A Calvin U football article came up on my feed so I went down a rabbit hole to see how my former school was doing (I withdrew after 2 years at Calvin College). The title of this article peaked my interest because it highlighted one of the reasons I left. My biggest take away from this is that Calvin’s culture has only declined since I left. I felt like I was in a “war” as a student but I couldn’t pick a side to fight on. There is so much hatred (much of it disguised as “diversity of thought” or even lack of) on campus. Calvin is simply lost in who they are and what they stand for and it’s being torn apart from the inside. You cannot change or be concerned about others perception of you until you figure yourself out and become comfortable and proud of it. A house divided cannot stand. Calvin is worried about the wrong things. Saddens me that a school I was once proud to say I attended eventually made me so disappointed, led me to leave, and others are experiencing the same (even though justified). This validates my decision to leave. The end of Calvin may be closer than I think.

  • T

    Tom PrinsMar 13, 2023 at 9:53 am

    This paragraph “However, this year’s undergraduate freshman class is the smallest in Calvin’s history, with children of alumni making up a smaller percentage of the class than is typical.” needs qualifications such as those in the October article footnoted. Using “Calvin’s history” without qualification makes this entire sentence false. There were smaller classes in the 20s, 30s,40s. There were early classes with no (zero) children of alumni.