Rebranding a Research Institute: 6 Steps to Success

problem-solvedWhether you’re a research institute seeking new grants or a university trying to recruit students, the messages you send to your stakeholders can make you – or break you.

If you spend time pushing out news releases and filling your website with content without thinking about how the pieces connect to tell a cohesive story, you’re missing a huge opportunity to build your reputation.

I encountered this situation when I joined Georgia Tech in 2005. At the time, I was the first Director of Communication at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Every employee had his/her own understanding of the organization and research sponsors received different – often conflicting – messages.

I wondered how a complex organization, like a research institute, could reinvent itself. How could it move from being ‘all things to all people’ to offering the ‘right things to the right people’? How could strategic communication and marketing techniques be used to boost impact? How could we help people understand what we did, and why we did it?

Those questions led to a project focused on developing new messaging that would 1) clearly convey the value of the research that was being done for government as well as industry; 2) articulate what the organization did and how it was different from its competitors; and 3) resonate with existing and new customers in a way that would support growth for years to come.

The 6-step process we followed can be effectively applied to any organization:

  1. Find out what you know & what you don’t know: We began with a series of one-on-one meetings and formal focus group sessions to determine what our own employees thought differentiated the organization from its competitors.
  2. Study the competition: We performed an industry analysis to understand the messages and claims being made by competing organizations. We then ranked their messages against our key attributes, to identify potential differentiators.
  3. Ask the right people the right questions: We conducted a quantitative survey among current/prospective customers, current employees, and leadership and other colleagues. The objective was to determine the key factors that drive people to partner with a research organization.
  4. GTRI's Problem. Solved. messaging platform and key differentiators - as presented in the 2008 Annual Report.

    GTRI’s Problem. Solved. messaging platform and key differentiators – as presented in the 2008 Annual Report.

    Pull it all together: We built an initial positioning platform, which defined our target audiences and identified what factors influenced their ‘purchasing’ decisions. It highlighted the unique opportunities we had to position the organization as a leader in key markets. It also outlined the compelling benefits the organization provided to its stakeholders, and those that separated it from its competition.

  5. Test-drive your messaging: Using the research-based positioning platform, several high-level creative concepts were developed to show how it could be put to use. The concepts were tested with employees and current customers. Our chosen concept of “Problem Solvers” conveyed the very essence of what the organization had been doing since 1934, and it was emphasized through the tagline “Problem. Solved.”
  6. Educate your team: The new messaging was quickly rolled into each of the organization’s communication vehicles. There was also an aggressive effort made to educate skeptical employees. While they were cautiously optimistic about the new messaging, they began to embrace it after being presented with the research used in its development. (Hint: scientists and engineers are more likely support your communications efforts if you base your assertions on research. In this case, the market research made the rebranding project a scientific endeavor – not just a creative one.)

 …So, did it work?

It’s often difficult to draw a direct connection between communication activities and business growth, but in this case, the positive business results were dramatic. The management team said that the improved communication and marketing activities were the spark that powered the growth.

  • In 2005 GTRI’s annual total research awards were $135.4M.
  • In 2013 GTRI’s annual total research awards were $305M.
  • This represented a $169.6M increase in annual research awards.
  • In 2005 the total number of GTRI employees was 1,276.
  • In 2013 GTRI had 1,765 employees.
  • This represented an increase of 489 employees.

The project won a number of awards from the Technology Association of Georgia, the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators.

Georgia Tech President G. P. "Bud" Peterson speaking at GTRI's 75th Anniversary Technology Symposium - 2009. (Georgia Tech Photo)

Georgia Tech President G. P. “Bud” Peterson speaking at GTRI’s 75th Anniversary Technology Symposium – 2009. (Georgia Tech Photo)

This post was originally published July 20th, 2014.  

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