In most cases, Kelly O’Keefe advises companies in desperate need of a corporate makeover to change everything but their names. It typically takes two years for a new name to gain the same level of recognition as the old one, notes the founder of the Richmond-based agency O’Keefe Brands. Therefore, switching names willy-nilly can be a dangerous proposition. That’s why it came as a shock when Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter — a school that has been listed as the top advertising program in the country — changed its name to Brandcenter in January.
“It was a tough decision that the board wrestled with for five years, but what we saw was more and more, the industry is about playing in a larger sphere than just ads,” says O’Keefe, who serves as the school’s executive education director. “At the end of the day, we decided it was time to bite the bullet and make that change. It’s caught on very quickly, and we really think it’s the right decision.”
The name switch is only part of the Brandcenter’s recent makeover. In January, the school also moved into new digs, a 27,000-square-foot former livery stable and warehouse redesigned by famed architect Clive Wilkinson. Last year, it added a new graduate program, the country’s first master’s degree in creative technology, as an alternative to a marketing-focused MBA.
The changes reflect VCU’s drive to keep up with changing ad industry trends, says O’Keefe. Ad agencies, for example, have become more collaborative, a trend that prompted the school to add a 200-person auditorium, conference rooms with collapsible walls and state-of-the-art audiovisual editing suites. Also, the school’s new emphasis on branding follows the industry’s focus on making a personal connection with consumers.
“Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the primary way to build a brand was to run a lot of advertising and hammer home things that we all know like ‘Plop Plop Fizz Fizz’ and ‘Good to the last drop,’” says O’Keefe. “Today consumers are far more cynical than they were before. It’s forced companies to look at more meaningful ways to connect with consumers, and those ways usually involve messages that aren’t advertising.”
Connecting with consumers
The Brandcenter is the first school in the country to offer degree programs focused on ways to connect with consumers that go beyond traditional print, broadcast and Web advertising. Exploring everything from how well the product works to how it looks on shelves, students in the school’s two brand-centric programs of study (creative brand management and creative technology) are equal parts ad execs and psychologists.
“You can buy anything from anywhere at any time in today’s marketplace, so to be relevant, it’s not just about a unique selling proposition. The experience has to be personal,” says Michael Mullen, creative director for the Richmond-based marketing firm Barber Martin, who has hired two Brandcenter graduates. “I’m not sure what the syllabi is in [a Brandcenter] education, but they seem to understand the emotional side of branding better than someone who doesn’t come from that background.”
The Brandcenter program has built a strong reputation locally, but how competitive will graduates be in the job market against people with better known credentials, such as an MBA? “I think it’s going to be harder to get our foot in the door because we don’t have the name of an MBA program behind us,” says Audyn O’Roarke, a student who will complete her creative brand management degree next May. “VCU is not as known in the world outside of agencies as a lot of MBA programs, but I think its reputation is really growing, and I think the work that we’re producing here speaks for itself.”
Brandcenter students in fact have done well against students from prestigious MBA programs in academic competitions. In 2006, students from the school claimed two of the top 10 spots in the Innovation Challenge, a business design and production competition that features representatives from more than 440 institutions worldwide. In the past two years, Brandcenter grads also have landed coveted positions at companies such as Nike, Logitech and Martha Stewart Living.
Nonetheless, there’s still an earnings discrepancy, says Mike Hughes, president of the Richmond-based Martin Agency, who is chairman of the Brandcenter’s board. “The plain truth is that these graduates aren’t getting paid as much as many of the MBA graduates are because there’s an awareness issue,” he says. “I think [Brandcenter grads] are going to skyrocket within these organizations, but right now, companies are getting these people at a bargain.”
Hughes is familiar with what Brandcenter grads can accomplish. Last year a young alum led the Martin Agency’s strategic efforts when the firm won a $580 million Wal-Mart account. Hughes says rectifying the pay problem involves more than convincing companies that a Brandcenter degree is as valuable as an MBA. Companies also must learn that they need to control the consumer experience as well as their advertising.
Dr. Walter E. Bundy, president of the Virginia Eye Institute, is one of the most recent branding converts. Last year, he hired Jane Broadbent, a creative brand management grad, to oversee the Eye Institute’s marketing campaign (which includes everything from brochures to company ID badges). Bundy says the organization needs more than advertising. “We want our patients to know that we’re always paying attention to details because in our specialty, detail is everything,” Bundy says. “For us, it’s essential to show that in everything, not only in your work and your marketing, but also in your environment.”
As organizations such as the Eye Institute begin to realize the value in a brand manager, Hughes says Brandcenter grads will have their pick of the country’s most lucrative marketing positions. “The Brandcenter seems perfectly poised to be at the right place at the right time. That’s why everyone’s calling it the University of What’s Next?”