Interview with Kate Maine by Megan Youngblood

When the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents consolidated Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University, Kate Maine was charged with helping bring two completely different institutions together in culture and identity.

In just 18 months, a college focused on two-year programs, continuing education and access merged with a premier senior military college. And the University of North Georgia was born — resulting in five campuses across Georgia.

As UNG’s associate vice president of university relations, Kate wears many hats. She manages media relations, marketing, internal and external communications, website, publications, licensing, special events, and more. In 2014, she led UNG through a re-branding, and partnered with Zehno to create a brand platform and identity focused on the university’s leadership development mission.

Kate, who received the 2016 Award of Excellence for Communications and Marketing from the Georgia Education Advancement Council, talks about how defining a new brand was integral to UNG’s consolidation success and unified a regional multi-campus institution.

Where do you start when you’re dealing with two institutions that are so different — with entirely different missions and multiple locations?

We spent a lot of time building understanding and knowledge about each institution. This included a temporary joint website, where we posted updates about the consolidation process and answered questions. We also conducted campus-based town hall meetings and community presentations to help our community stakeholders understand what was happening.

What was your biggest challenge as a communicator?

There were a lot of unknowns about the process. While the University System of Georgia has consolidated several institutions since then, we were among the first groups of consolidations. Unlike corporate environments, where most of the details might be determined top down, the nature of higher education and accreditation issues required a more transparent and participative process.

However, the external time constraints imposed on the consolidation really compressed the process. We had to do it in 18 months.

To cope with that, we learned very early that we needed to imbed communications staff in a wide variety of the work groups addressing consolidation issues. This ensured that we were capturing concerns as they bubbled up through those work groups. And it meant that we were able to take advantage of communications opportunities at multiple levels.

How did you dispel internal perceptions such as fear surrounding loss of identity?

We needed to communicate frequently and to build relationships and trust. One of the first things we did was begin a very inclusive and comprehensive strategic planning process that highlighted distinct qualities and demographics of each campus.

In the end, the strategic plan included a goal of building institutional unity and identity. That’s not typically a strategic goal for most higher ed institutions, but for UNG, it was particularly important as part of our consolidation and was an impetus for our branding initiative.

What’s the secret for defining a brand when the institutions are so different?

Finding that common ground. Those elements that you can both share and celebrate. Focusing on your strengths and testing those attributes to be sure that they are relevant and authentic with your stakeholders.

We worked with Zehno to hold focus group sessions and to test personal reactions to our attributes. We also conducted a survey with current students and recent graduates to make sure that the attributes we were claiming were authentic and believable.

Which key differentiators did you decide to highlight in your new brand?

We started with our new mission statement and the university’s unique designation as a state leadership institution and our role as one of only six senior military colleges in the nation. Those identity elements were very important to the entire institution. But we needed to talk about all of our students, not just those involved in our military program.

The leadership theme provided that really broad umbrella to highlight how our students, faculty and staff excel both on campus and in our communities. It spoke to everybody across our university. 

How has your brand platform helped staff across the university communicate with your key audiences?

It’s provided some common terminology and identity for us. Both institutions had their own branding prior to the consolidation. We needed something new that everyone could rally around, something that would serve as a common identity. The brand platform has provided that framework.

It has been very exciting for us to see how well everyone has embraced it. When we launched the brand platform and began doing that work to build it, everyone was like, ‘Yes! We need something. We want to move forward.” They were hungry for it.

We actually keep Zehno’s brand vision out in our hallway in our main office as a visual reference and reminder of what we’re doing. We see it every day.

What’s been the biggest challenge implementing the new brand?

One of the things that we have really strived to do is build our photo bank to be sure that we have photographs — both for our own office to use and for units across the campus — that reflect the brand attributes and our new visual style. That’s taken some investment on our part.

Another challenge is writing the content and making sure that we are telling those student and faculty stories in a way that is really brand relevant and highlights those brand attributes. With a very limited staff, that’s easy to lose sight of sometimes. We need to stay on target.

Which ideas, from your partnership with Zehno, made the biggest difference?

Zehno brings to us that ability to step outside our normal work to see the bigger picture. Having folks at Zehno be that resource has encouraged me as the manager of this division to take a more strategic look at what we are doing. Very often with such a small staff it’s easy to get bogged down in the daily routine, and you’ve got to stay focused on the big picture. Zehno has really helped us do that.

How important has defining your brand been to the success of your consolidation?

It’s been integral to the success of our consolidation. We’ve actually been held up as a good example through our state organizations and through the University System of Georgia for consolidating really well, for building our new identity and for being successful.

Fortunately, we continue to experience high demand for our programs, and enrollment keeps growing. We feel like the branding has been essential to that success.

There have been several other consolidations since ours, and we frequently serve as a resource to them and their marketing communications staff as they begin that process and help answer questions. Each situation is unique and the schools are all a bit different. But the communications lessons persevere and are important for each of us.

Kate’s Communications Lessons for Unifying Institutions

  • Develop a joint website to share updates and engage internal and external constituents
  • Hold public town hall meetings across campuses
  • Be transparent and invite more stakeholders to the strategic planning process
  • Imbed communications staff in work groups across your united institution
  • Communicate frequently to build relationships and trust
  • Focus on brand attributes that both institutions share
  • Test your brand attributes with your stakeholders
  • Develop a brand platform with key messages that everyone can rally around
  • Build a photo bank that represents your visual style
  • Tell stories that are brand relevant and reinforce key messages
  • Stay focused on the big picture

5 Sources of Inspiration

  1. My cell phone “It’s attached to me almost at all times. I don’t know how I’d make it through the day. As the university’s spokesperson, I use it for email, as a camera, for so many different things.”
  2. Nigel the NighthawkThrough our consolidation process, we developed a new mascot for the institution—Nigel the Nighthawk. I have a prototype of a small stuffed Nighthawk on my desk.”
  3. Photograph with Colin Powell “I got to meet him several years ago. To me, he’s an inspiring leader.”
  4. Stack of newspapers “Because we have campuses in five different communities, I have the Fannin County Sentinel, Gainesville Times, Oconee Enterprise, Dahlonega Nugget, and Atlanta Journal Constitution on my desk. I skim them every day.”
  5. Morning News with Bill & Joel “My husband, Bill, works for a radio station. So that’s who I tune into first each day as I drive to work!”

Learn more

Read our white paper Life After Launch: Managing Your Brand to learn how to promote your institutional brand over the long run.