Making America Proud: Branding Lessons from the U.S. Air Force Academy
By Robert Grupp
To gain a better understanding of the multifaceted Academy, Kimberly and her team hosted focus groups, conducted surveys and invited senior leaders to participate in a two-day branding summit. The purpose of the research was to find common threads and themes to define a shared purpose and unite people around a common mission and values. In order for the branding research and exercises to be successful, everyone had to be involved. Motivated people surrounding the brand are more likely to live the values and brand mission and propel the Academy forward.
Branding was not an easy task, Kimberly reports. Branding the Air Force Academy required buy-in from all departments, from athletics to admissions and everything in between. All communications both externally and internally had to incorporate the brand message and shared purpose.
From their research, Kimberly’s team confirmed that Air Force Academy brand attributes are emotional. Over years attending the Academy, students go through a significant and grueling transformation. To get through this difficult period, students must learn to lean on each other and push through the pain to accomplish their potential, much like an athlete overcoming challenges and adversity in the weight room. From here, the central brand theme emerged.
By focusing on the emotional connection and shared experience of the Academy and its stakeholders, Kimberly determined that that the more people who knew the USAFA story and brand values, the more opportunity the Academy would have to respond in times of crisis and tell their story.
With the brand message defined, the team set out to crisply define target audiences because, as Kimberly said, “For us, understanding our stakeholders is how we ensure we’re building strong relationships.” The problem was not everyone agreed on the audiences and stakeholders across departments. Traditionally, audience stakeholders included potential cadets, alumni, Congress, and Air Force headquarters. Students’ parents weren’t thought of as an audience to military members, but parents are a large part of the messaging strategies at other higher education institutions.
For many people, it was not intuitive to consider parents as a primary audience, but research suggests it is important that parents are made aware of issues like sexual assault and hazing as well as positive news. Military leaders are not accustomed to sharing news and updates with parents as that’s not military protocol.
One change was to think more intentionally about home football games. This was an opportunity to brand the games as occasions to tell the Academy’s exciting story, creating an attractive environment for people to attend. Prior to home games, the communication team decided to approach each game with brand themes to help determine content, invitees to the President’s Box, and special attendees. An example of this was the “space game” theme where 10 of the 42 USAFA astronauts attended and connected with each other, many of them meeting for the first time and bonding over the shared experience of the Academy, furthering that brand story.
When the cadet singing group, “In the Stairwell,” was featured on America’s Got Talent, the communications team took that moment in the spotlight to share stories of individual members and promote the personality and uniqueness of the Academy experience.
To connect with their stakeholders on a more regular basis, the team launched an Alexa app to share daily Academy updates and important moments in history, while providing cadets with hands-on marketing experiences.
Changes have occurred on campus too. The Academy has reinvested in a planetarium that’s been dormant for 15 years and turned it into a digital dome theater and STEM Center.
In order to appeal to potential cadets and their families, the team has invested in building a multi-million dollar immersive and themed visitor center built around the brand story and has also launched a virtual reality tour of the Academy.
Today, the Academy is more prepared to handle a crisis and respond in a way that allows the communication team to lead with the shared brand values and mission.
Says Kimberly, “With the right leadership, even the response to a crisis or terrible event can become part of your culture and climate or your brand identity.”
Kimberly Tebrugge spoke in April 2019 in a plenary session at the annual strategic communications summit in Washington, D.C. See the speakers featured at StratCommWorld 2020 on June 1-2 at the National Press Club. Visit www.stratcomm.world for details about this unique global event that identifies strategies to enhance engagement and share methods to improve communications in corporations, the military, government agencies and nonprofits.
ABOUT THE summit speaker
Kimberly Tebrugge is a global communications executive with proven leadership in organizations at Fortune 500 companies, at U.S. Air Force and military combatant command levels. She currently serves as Chief Communication Officer at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Spring, CO.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Grupp is Director of StratCommWorld, and Adjunct Instructor and Director of a Global Strategic Communication Master’s Degree Program in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.