The call of the alma mater

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 09, 2018

Lasting bond: Alumni take pride in their alma mater, and think of it with happiness, gratitude and nostalgia – emotions any brand would die for.

Universities are brands, alumni are their best ambassadors

Thirty-two years ago, I graduated from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani. This is one of the country’s best academic institutions. What I learnt there, within the classrooms and on this beautiful campus, has powerfully and indelibly shaped my thinking and my career. Which is why I consider BITS Pilani the finest crucible of life.

Last month, I had the unique opportunity to return to my alma mater for two special reasons. First, my daughter was graduating from the same university, and I was delighted to attend her convocation. Second, I was proud and humbled to receive BITS Pilani’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, which was given to me, quite coincidentally, at the same event. The visit was high on nostalgia and happiness, particularly when I saw how well my beloved campus had developed over the past few decades.

Alumni as brand ambassadors

A very important development which struck me was BITS Pilani recently appointing a high-powered Dean for Alumni Affairs. The Vice Chancellor spoke of the need to powerfully mobilise alumni, and engage them on the university’s ambitious plans. Reflecting on these developments during my drive back from the campus, two important things struck me. First, a university is a brand. Second, alumni are amongst its most potent assets, and best brand ambassadors. On both fronts, I think Indian universities have a long way to go – they have significant work to do in building their own brands, and in mobilising their alumni.

The fundamental driver here is that alumni, in general, greatly love the universities they have graduated from. The emotive attachment to our alma mater is typically far stronger than our attachment to any other brand in our life. When we think of the college from which we graduated, we feel emotions of pride, happiness, gratitude and nostalgia. These are the sort of emotions that any brand, in any category, would die for. And these are also lifelong emotions, which do not diminish with age – indeed, as we become older, they tend to grow on us, and we speak about our universities even more fondly.

The need for marketing

Universities have a unique opportunity to leverage this lifelong brand loyalty and advocacy that their alumni demonstrate. This is important because so many alumni have a strong desire to give back to the universities which have nurtured them, if approached in the right manner, and for the right purpose. This is also important because the positive views of alumni can serve as powerful and favourable word-of-mouth advocacy for the university brand. Notable and famous alumni can serve as the face of the university brand, strengthening its appeal with every passing generation. Alumni can also serve as great recruiters of graduating students, and can help build useful links between academia and industry.

However, for all this to happen, universities have to actively engage with their alumni, much like how brands of cars and shampoos engage with their customers. This, in turn, requires universities to have strong alumni cells, with focused marketing capabilities. Now, given that marketing and academia are somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows, this is often difficult to achieve. Universities often speak from their lofty, long-term, intellectual pedestals, whereas marketing is seen in some of these hallowed quarters as driving crass, short-term commercial benefits.

But that is not true. Any brand, however lofty or prosaic its objectives may be, needs good and focused marketing, if it has to flourish and grow amongst its customer base. And academic institutions are no exception to this golden rule. Without appropriate marketing efforts, alumni are unlikely to know what progress their university is making, what new ambitions their campuses have developed, or, indeed, how they can contribute to its future.

Famous universities in the US have recognised this imperative many years ago, and have been leading a revolution in marketing themselves to their alumni, winning their hearts and minds. No wonder they have impressive alumni engagement, and, in the process, they have also raised many millions of dollars in funding. Consider these impressive statistics. More than twenty universities in the US, ranging from Stanford to John Hopkins, raised more than $300 million each in funding, during a single year, 2016. The “Inspire Innovation” campaign by Carnegie Mellon University helped connect with over 50,000 alumni, faculty and staff, tripling the number of volunteers, and raising over $1 billion in the process. The “Thanks to Berkeley” campaign saw participation by over 200,000 alumni of UC Berkeley, contributing enthusiastically to their extraordinary alma mater. How many Indian universities can lay claim to similar figures ?

How should universities engage?

Indian universities should, therefore, give serious thought to significantly enhancing their engagement with alumni. Here are a few thought starters they could consider.

To begin with, a strong alumni relations team is an essential starting point. This team should be passionate about the university, but, equally, it should comprise experts in marketing, relationship building and engagement. University alumni with marketing credentials can be excellent candidates for such roles, since they bring both passion for the institution and capability, at the same time. Some alumni may indeed be keen on assuming such roles, for time-bound stints if not permanently.

All good marketers have to identify key needs of their customers, which they can potentially cater to. In a similar vein, universities have to identify the key needs of their alumni, and decide how best to cater to them. These key needs may include helping alumni find jobs, or providing alumni tools to spread information or gain visibility for themselves, or creating exciting opportunities for alumni to return to campus from time to time. Many of these needs can then be addressed by creating the right offline and social media platforms.

The smart use of social media to engage alumni is perhaps the strongest lever that universities can use to fulfil many of the above needs, in today’s digital age. Creating vibrant alumni groups on Linked-In is a good starting point. Perhaps students can be encouraged to join these alumni groups even before they graduate, to help them network with alumni, and make the transition to being alumni themselves. Use of Facebook and Twitter, providing life-long university email addresses to alumni, as well as building private networks to share valuable content with alumni, can be other powerful options here.

Most importantly, universities need to think of themselves as brands, and alumni as brand ambassadors. They then have to work on multiple methods of retaining contact, and building brand advocacy amongst this very valuable audience.

Let me end by pointing out that BITS Pilani, my alma mater, uses a very interesting alumni engagement tool. Each year, on August 4, my fellow alumni and I celebrate BITSians Day. The day is celebrated with great gusto across the world, and it rejuvenates our lifelong love and passion for this wonderful university that has helped shape our lives.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of The Curious Marketer. Views are personal.

Published on August 10, 2017

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