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3 Steps to Perfecting Your Brand Strategy | Interview with Julia Yager

Smith College’s Vice President for College Relations and Communications discusses next-level brand strategy.

January 2021

By Sarah Vancini

As a seasoned CMO you’ve likely consulted Kotler’s Marketing Management textbook, AdWeek publications and American Marketing Association webinars. These resources are chock full of brand theories and implementation roadmaps. They are great for nailing marketing basics like customer profiling, conversion tracking and social media optimization.

But how about when you want to move beyond the basics? What resources can you consult as a seasoned marketing veteran? What books, webinars or podcasts teach you advanced brand strategy?

We sat down with marketing expert and Vice President for College Relations and Communications at Smith College, Julia Yager, to discuss how she thinks about next-level brand strategy. With a career spent leading marketing efforts for mission-driven organizations, she sees values as the essential component to building the relationships required for success. She offered insights into three concepts that have become the cornerstones of her approach to marketing.


1.- Consult Your Organization’s Values

Explore beyond your mission statement.

Yager’s experience has shown her that, while many marketing efforts aim to highlight features of products and services, disruptive campaigns that capture her attention are based on company values. As a professional marketer you’ve likely referenced your company’s mission statement to help build campaigns.

But Yager has found that this mere referencing is not enough.

Often, within a given industry, “mission statements” can be similar. For example, “to inspire, educate, and entertain” for the public radio sector and “educating Leaders to solve problems” for the higher-education sector, Yager notes. This is especially true in sectors where product differentiation is limited because of regulatory requirements.

Focusing on the “what” — surface-level attributes or product offerings — instead of the “why” can result in marketing campaigns that don’t do enough to differentiate one organization from another; more importantly, they don’t provide an emotional connection that can lead to the relationships you are trying to develop.

“We have all had the experience of meeting someone new at a gathering. Once an introduction is made, the next question is usually, “What do you do?” That question can create connection, though more often it is just an exchange of information,” says Yager.

“Campaigns based on product attributes are like that. They inform your customers about what you offer, but they don’t inspire the curiosity that might lead a customer to want to learn more, to develop an interest in what you offer, and to take action.”

As a senior marketing professional, you should dig deep into your values and explore how they differentiate your company and constituents from competitors. From there, you can choose the unique values, language, methods and mindsets of your firm. What makes your organization, community or product truly unique?

Yager suggests the best way to explore your unique values is by engaging with, speaking and listening to core customers, employees and thought leaders. For example, in her post at Smith, Yager has conversations with as many people connected to the college as possible.

“Many times,” she says, “these conversations help people articulate what is unique about an organization. You can keep asking why and have a dynamic conversation to get more detailed answers than could be gathered from a survey.”

In her first year at Smith, Yager has conducted listening sessions with her team, groups of students, faculty members, and members of the Board of Trustees to learn more about what is compelling and distinct about Smith. This information is being incorporated into Smith’s online activity and direct-mail efforts, and has resulted in increased engagement.

Not every company has the bandwidth nor expertise to have such value-driven conversations. If so, tools like ValuesFinder by Pluralytics can provide you with a detailed report on critical values quickly and efficiently.

Ultimately a deep-dive into values helps your audience understand why they should work with you and no one else.

It also impacts your business strategy, by helping sales teams and others define the kind of customers you want and don’t want to attract.


2.- Explore Marketing Techniques from Other Sectors

As a marketer you’ve likely consulted colleagues to help think through campaigns. It’s important to get this buy-in and feedback from fellow stakeholders.

Yager notes that good ideas about encouraging customer response or audience engagement can come from any industry. Talking with marketing leaders in different sectors can spark ideas that would otherwise not be imagined.

While each industry has developed its own processes for gathering customer feedback, evoking particular emotions and driving conversion, understanding those processes, then selectively integrating them into your own company, can inspire new approaches to marketing in your industry.

The largest barrier to cross-industry collaboration comes from marketers believing those in other industries cannot understand their audience. Many believe campaigns and messaging from other sectors would not work at their company. While specific tactics used in one sector may not work in another, other sectors can inspire new and different ways of thinking about a challenge.

Therefore, a helpful way to approach cross-industry collaboration is to filter ideas using your knowledge of your audience. With this filter you can selectively target and refine strategies from other industries and effectively apply them to your own.

In order to do this, you have to maintain a curious mindset that is not blocked by preconceived notions of audience-ignorance.

Yager states this cross-industry collaboration and insight has shaped her career. She has purposefully worked in various sectors including retail, durable goods, finance, public media and now, academia. Her ability to bring unique insights from one sector into another has been seen as an asset.

Yager is often drawn to the advertising of organizations quite different from her own, especially when they are values-based. New York Life’s “Love in Action,” and Abbott’s “Dignity Demands It” are examples she references when working with colleagues to bring Smith’s values forward in its communications. “Those ad campaigns have also reinforced the importance of building communications on values, which is encouraging when there is pressure to focus solely on product attributes.”


3.- Focus on the Most Important KPI: Your Relationships with End Users


“To me, marketing is part art and part science, and I find the art part more compelling and more effective if one’s goal is to build authentic relationships- which is what brand-building is all about.”


Since your first test in Intro to Marketing you’ve known the importance of KPIs: conversions, clicks, views, ROI etc. Because of this “KPI mindset” most marketing communication is focused on products and moving through sales funnels.

However, certain KPIs can prevent us from focusing on relationships with audiences, and the information we need to build those relationships. By focusing on qualitative data as well as our experience about what motivates customers to interact with us, we can continue to strengthen relationships.

Our audiences are accustomed to tailored experiences, from niche Netflix “watch next” suggestions to curated Spotify playlists. To develop effective campaigns it’s important to continuously monitor customer preferences in as close to real-time as possible. But how do we get this information?

To do so, expert marketers engage in a dynamic relationship with their audience. By viewing your brand campaigns and messaging as a dialogue with your constituents rather than a way to convert them, you allow for more authentic communication. A great example of this authentic dynamic relationship building is detailed in Pluralytic’s major social media instant messaging platform GenZ language roadmap.

Yager acknowledges that quantitative data about customer response is important, and just like others, her team tracks web-traffic, time on site, and open rates. But she also pays attention to more qualitative data and what she learns from engaging with her audience. “We focus on connecting to people we have relationships with, acknowledging our community and celebrating our shared purpose. By strengthening our relationships, we attract students, retain employees, and inspire alums and donors. That’s really our goal.”

She offers that an example of how Smith builds connections is a year-end video produced to recognize and celebrate the roles that members of its community play in making Smith, Smith.

“The goal of the year-end video was to make people feel valued and appreciated, and the number of positive responses we received from our community told us that we had achieved that goal.”

When asked if she surveyed recipients to assess their reactions, Yager said, “I can’t imagine anything less helpful than to conduct a survey which, granted, is KPI-friendly, to ask someone whether they felt valued. KPI-friendly tactics can so often be disingenuous. Especially these days when everyone is surveying everyone about everything.”



For companies looking to invest in a value-driven brand, it’s imperative to consult your organization’s values, explore marketing techniques from other thought leaders and focus on your relationship with the end user. But after taking this introspective deep dive how do you translate those insights into actionable marketing strategy?

There are a host of tools essential to helping you implement brand evaluations and marketing efforts. You’ll want to make sure your technological suite includes software, like Pluralytics, which monitors, benchmarks and optimizes your brand voice. Pluralytics scans your copy, from social media posts to email campaigns, to ensure your values are articulated clearly through consistent messaging. Various companies from large Fortune 100 entities to nonprofits like Lumina have turned to Pluralytics to craft impactful and effective promotional materials.


Bio: Ms. Yager is passionate about helping mission-driven organizations enrich the world. She drives innovation at Smith by integrating unique strategies not typically found in the higher-ed sector. These strategies she learned during her work in both B2B and B2C sectors at Public Radio International (PRI), a multi-billion dollar division of GE Capital, and McKinney and Silver Advertising.


About the author: Sarah Vancini is a writer and marketing thought leader who helps companies leverage neuroscience in their business processes. Ms. Vancini has an MBA from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business with a specialization in Health Sector Management and Entrepreneurship, and she is the co-author of five white papers including “Artificial Intelligence-Integrated Operating Rooms.” She is co-founder of Stories with Substance which creates marketing materials with a focus on product visualization to drive conversion.

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