Breaking the Rules

By Chris Dawson

Breaking the rules to promote Cornell Engineering.

Quick: name as many of the top ten U.S. undergraduate engineering schools as you can.

It is a safe bet that you put Cornell Engineering on your list—maybe even fairly high up. If so, that would be understandable. Cornell’s undergraduate engineering program IS consistently ranked in the top ten. And if you are reading this magazine, you probably have a strong connection to Cornell.

However, the broader population is not as familiar with Cornell Engineering. In a survey conducted last fall by market research firm Harris Interactive, 3,026 adults were given the same task. Just three percent put Cornell on the list. But then, after learning that Cornell University has a College of Engineering, the same respondents were asked where Cornell Engineering ranks in the top twenty programs nationally. Remarkably, 77 percent put Cornell Engineering in the top ten and 31 percent put it in the top five.

Simply connecting the word “engineering” to the reputation of Cornell changes the outcome dramatically.

“This matters a lot,” says Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “The bottom line is, Cornell Engineering is missing out on some of the most promising young engineering students simply because they might not know about us and the amazing work we have been doing for years.”

File this datum point away for a moment.

Next, consider the 2011 competition launched by New York City’s former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to find a university or consortium to develop and operate an applied science and engineering campus in New York. The city received seven responses from a total of seventeen world-class institutions. The competition was fierce, but in the end, Cornell and its partner institution, Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, were selected to build a $2 billion, two-million-square-foot campus on Roosevelt Island.

Dean Collins has said that the competition for the Cornell NYC Tech campus was a real eye-opener for him. “We had an incredibly strong proposal and, honestly, it should not have been that close. Some of our competitors really benefitted from greater name recognition. Our failure to effectively manage our brand nearly cost us the competition,” says Collins. “This has been a real crash course for me in the importance of marketing.”

So, early in his tenure as dean, it became clear to Collins that Cornell Engineering had a problem. As problems go, it was not a terrible one to have: the college he was leading had world-class faculty, students, staff, and alumni working at the frontiers of their disciplines in fields as diverse as nanobiotechnology and satellite design, yet the broader public didn’t know much about it. “There is a humility here at Cornell Engineering that might be called humility to a fault,” says Collins. “I realized that we need to tell our story more effectively.”
To address this problem, Collins hired Dawn McWilliams to be the first director of Marketing and Communications. Before her arrival, the office had been Communications and Media Relations, which Collins changed in recognition of the need to more strongly promote the college. McWilliams came from the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester, where she had implemented a highly successful rebranding strategy. The college then undertook a yearlong, exhaustive study of itself. The lead strategist for this examination of Cornell Engineering was Claude Singer, of the brand identity consulting group Seigelvision. “My role was to talk to as many people as possible, to learn the engineering culture at Cornell, to seek out what is truly unique, and to craft a new story line and strategy,” says Singer. Seigelvision’s founder and CEO, Alan Seigel, graduated from Cornell’s Industrial Labor Relations School in 1960 and was also deeply involved in crafting this new strategy to help Cornell Engineering tell its story to the wider world.

To find out what characteristics are at the heart of Cornell Engineering, Singer and McWilliams convened groups of current students, faculty, staff, and alumni to pick their brains and hear about their experiences. They combed through written responses of students who were admitted to Cornell Engineering but chose to go somewhere else. They also spoke with companies that hire Cornell Engineering alumni to ask them what qualities they see in graduates of the school.

After all of the listening, Singer and his colleagues went back to the office, “to look for patterns and try to forge all of our data points into a meaningful profile of Cornell Engineering.” Many of the themes they identified showed promise. There was a lot of talk about both “innovation” and “collaboration.” But when Singer and his team looked at the messages of other highly regarded engineering programs, they saw that every one of them focused on these same two themes. “Both of these seemed so generic—any engineering school could say these things,” says Singer. “And in fact, they all were saying them. Cornell Engineering needed something that was unique and an authentic reflection of the program and its people.”

“Then we looked back through our notes and saw a comment from an alumna who had been at a group session in Boston,” recalls Singer. Her name is Renee Miller-Mizia ’81 MSE and she said that what she learned at Cornell Engineering was “how to break the rules.”
“Once this theme was identified, it was easy to go back and hear how true it was to the experience of so many Cornell Engineering alumni,” says McWilliams. “We found person after person who pushed boundaries, challenged conventions, and asked the questions nobody else was asking.”

Miller-Mizia, on the board of directors for the Cornell Engineering Alumni Association, says her years as an undergraduate at Cornell had an outsized influence on who she is today. “I would not be who I am but for the people here,” says Miller-Mizia. “Looking at myself as a freshman, I don’t know if even I would have bet on myself to make it.”

Miller-Mizia was the first in her extended family to go to college. “It was very hard, but with the help of (the late) Professor Jim Mayer I made it through. He took Ezra Cornell’s aspiration for Cornell—that it would be a place ‘where any person can find instruction in any study’—seriously.”  Miller-Mizia credits Mayer with helping her see that engineering can be a creative enterprise and that “if you are willing to think beyond the rules, you can make anything happen.”

Of course, using the words “break the rules” as the central theme of the new brand set off some alarms within the college and the larger university community. “Some people raised the question: Do we really want to be telling 18-year-olds to break the rules?” says McWilliams. “In the end, it was good to hear their concerns because they helped us sharpen our message. The more carefully we listened to our students and faculty and alumni, the greater focus we heard on the fact that Cornell Engineering alumni don’t just break the rules for the fun of it,” says McWilliams. “They break the rules to advance our understanding or to challenge conventional wisdom. It is always with the goal of making the world better.”

Once the theme of “breaking the rules” was chosen, the task became to gather stories of Cornell Engineering alumni who have done just that. “It’s not just some tag-line,” says Collins. “It’s really all about the stories. We have phenomenal stories of people coming together in unconventional ways and producing great, world-changing outcomes. Once we get beyond our traditional reticence, the stories that we hear are truly inspirational. The brand gives them permission to tell the world about their work. Cornell Engineering becomes part of the national conversation.”

The stories are told in writing and in short videos produced by videographer Jules Hamilton and his New York production company Vanguard, Ltd. With Cornell’s Integrated Web Services, McWilliams created a new brand website as a repository for the stories and videos. “The subjects of the stories, (and their departments or companies) can have access to them and use them to help us spread the word about Cornell Engineering,” says McWilliams.

Along with the focus on Cornell Engineering alumni who in some way break the rules to make great things happen, the college has also created a new visual identity for itself. New York firm Opto Design has been working closely with McWilliams and her team to create a look that they hope reflects the break-the-rules spirit of Cornell Engineering. The old look had the words “Cornell University College of Engineering” along with the university seal. The new logo shrinks that down to two words: Cornell Engineering. The main engineering website is getting a new look, as are the school and department sites. The publications of the college are starting to reflect the new visual identity, as are Cornell Engineering’s Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter pages.

In addition to Cornell websites and publications, McWilliams is counting on the roughly 45,000 living alumni of Cornell Engineering to help tell the story. She has created a brand ambassador kit that alumni can use to host a get-together in their town to share the stories and spread the word. “Our alumni are one of our most valuable resources,” says McWilliams. “What they do in their lives and their careers represents the truth behind our message.”

Collins and McWilliams are planning to continue the rebranding effort for several years. “This is not the same thing as an ad campaign that runs for a few months and then disappears,” says McWilliams. “This is a multi-year effort to really change the awareness and the perception of Cornell Engineering. This message will infuse everything we do.” 

For Collins, one the most important metrics for measuring the success of the rebranding effort will be admissions yield. “We have more than 12,000 students apply for 740 spots,” says Collins. “After we have offered admission to these amazing students, the real test is, do they choose to come here or do they go somewhere else?” Collins goes on to explain, “Even more basic than that, there are still really bright kids and families out there who just don’t know about Cornell Engineering. By focusing on our stories and being more assertive in getting them out there, we hope to reach those students and those families, too.”

Meetings and events have been held on campus over the past six months to solicit input from faculty and staff and to share the work that has been done thus far. Groups of engineering alumni have also had a hand in shaping the look and the message being created by McWilliams and her team. “Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so far,” says McWilliams.

Collins agrees, “I have met with the faculty of several of the engineering departments to talk about the brand and people are very excited about this. It’s as if they have been given permission to share their excitement about their work.”

As Collins discusses the rebranding effort, he grows more and more animated and it is clear he has learned the importance of managing the Cornell Engineering brand. “The genie is out of the bottle,” says Collins. “We are encouraging our faculty, students, alumni, and staff to tell the world about the incredible work Cornellians do. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, Cornell Engineering will never be the same.”