Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Why not change the world?™
As Vice President of the Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) board and chairman of its national Alumni Admissions Committee I was a key participant in the endeavor to rebrand Rensselaer. Today I want to share the case study of that effort.
Great Accomplishments, “No Man’s Land” Marketing Position
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, was the first degree-granting technological university in the English-speaking world. Rensselaer was established “for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life.” Since Rensselaer’s founding, its alumni have impacted the world in many significant ways:
• Inventing television
• Creating the microprocessor
• Managing the Apollo project that put the first man on the moon
• Founding Texas Instruments and creating the first pocket calculator
• Creating e-mail (including using the @ symbol)
• Inventing baking powder
• Inventing the Reach toothbrush
• Building the Brooklyn Bridge
• Building the Panama Canal
• Inventing the Ferris Wheel
Yet, for all its accomplishments, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rensselaer was not well positioned (to prospective students) compared to its world-renowned rival, MIT, or even to schools such as Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie-Mellon. Many state schools (Purdue, University of Illinois at Urbana, etc.) offered exceptionally strong technical programs at significantly lower costs than private universities such as Rensselaer.
Ivy League schools and other first-tier liberal arts universities were building their math, science and engineering programs. Most states had public universities that provided respectable engineering programs. This increasingly competitive landscape left Rensselaer in a positioning “no man’s land.”
Faced with a rigorous curriculum, a lack of national reputation and given the “work-hard” grind of an engineering school, student satisfaction and confidence in the school was not high. Rensselaer’s leadership was as concerned with improving existing student satisfaction as with attracting, new talented students.
Understanding Current Perceptions, Strengths, Weaknesses
In the early 1990s, Rensselaer commissioned a study to better understand how it was perceived by its key stakeholders. The study was driven by the Admissions office and the Rensselaer Alumni Association Admissions Committee. In 1998, the Institute embarked upon a full-fledged rebranding project. Drawing on both new and previous research, the project involved a wide range of stakeholders in the discovery and consensus-building process.
We worked with the school to conduct research to better understand the college selection process. We interviewed students—some of whom chose to attend Rensselaer and some of whom did not—and their parents. We explored the factors most important in the decision-making process and their perceptions of Rensselaer versus other schools. And we conducted focus groups with alumni and business people to better understand their impressions of the university.
Almost everyone who knew of Rensselaer perceived it to be a first-rate technical school. Many people put it in the same class as MIT. People with firsthand knowledge of the institution were genuinely impressed with the school and the caliber of its students, academics and its research. But there were drawbacks. Among them:
• The university’s location in Troy, NY, which lacked the appeal of, say, Boston or California.
• Not as well known or prestigious as MIT, lacking “name cachet.”
• Much more expensive than state engineering schools—before financial aid (After financial aid, it can be comparable or even less expensive.)
• Known to be a “boot camp.” It’s been said, “you don’t go there to have fun.”
• The curriculum was perceived to be too narrow compared to liberal arts schools.
• Lopsided male to female ratio (13 to 1 in the late 1970s, 3 to 1 today).
• A significant portion of Rensselaer’s students (mostly those who had used Rensselaer as a backup school to MIT and similar schools), felt inferior to students at their first choice schools.
• Further, those with no connection to the school had no impression of the school. Awareness was nil among the general U.S. population.
These were significant hurdles. And yet, looking at the school itself, there were also a number of very strong advantages:
• A rich history of alumni who’ve made major contributions to society
• A vital, engaged campus community
• A strong student leadership development program
• Innovations in entrepreneurship (one of the first and perhaps best known business incubators and a strong student entrepreneurship program)
• Award-winning innovations in educational techniques
• Thriving interdisciplinary research centers
• Certain programs ranked among the best available in the world
• An increasingly strong reputation throughout the world. (Interestingly, the university’s reputation was stronger in many other countries than it was in the Midwestern U.S.)
Finally, the university embarked on a significant long-term commitment to enhance the student experience, addressing everything from administrative procedures, counseling, and breadth of course offerings to quality of instruction, the male-to-female ratio, and campus aesthetics. Gauging from student surveys over time, the efforts were producing significant results.
Finding the “sweet spot” position for Rensselaer
The committees worked collaboratively to discover which of Rensselaer’s significant advantages met the requirements of its stakeholders in ways that differentiated it from its competitors. The result of this effort was a clear “sweet spot” in which Rensselaer could position itself:
• Rensselaer’s students have always been serious about their chosen fields of endeavor and their studies.
• Rensselaer’s faculty, students and alumni want to make a difference in the world.
• Rensselaer is and has been a leader in technological innovation.
• Rensselaer’s alumni, throughout the school’s history, have made major lasting contributions to society.
• Rensselaer was emerging as a leader in entrepreneurship, especially technological entrepreneurship.
From brand essence to creative tagline
From these key insights, came the choice of “technological creativity” as the brand essence of the school and the spirit of those associated with it throughout its 175-year history. To translate that brand essence into a creative foundation that could underpin the university’s marketing efforts, the tagline “why not change the world?™” was born.
Students more talented, financial support more robust, stakeholder confidence high
Today, Rensselaer is thriving. Its most recent freshman classes are the most qualified and talented in the last two decades. Each class seems to be more qualified than the prior class. As one measure, the Class of 2005 arrived on campus with average SAT scores of 1307, a leap of 25 points in one year. The class of 2008 arrived with an average SAT score of 1321. Twenty-six percent of the class are Rensselaer Medalists—top-ranked math and high school students in their high schools.
In early 2001, Rensselaer received a gift of $360 million—at the time the largest single gift ever made to a university. It just completed an $80 million Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Center to expand its research portfolio and is building a $142 million Electronic Media and Performing Arts Center to showcase its world-leading electronic arts program. The Institute recently announced a $1 billion capital campaign, the largest in its history.
And, the most important question: Are students satisfied with Rensselaer and its recently articulated branding? The answer seems to be a resounding yes.
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