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How One Content Leader Launched a 150-Year Old Brand Into the Modern Era

When R. Ethan Braden took the helm as chief marketing and communications officer for Purdue University and Purdue Global, he had his work cut out for him.

“What I found in 2018 was a well-meaning but emaciated, antiquated, and dilapidated sort-of comms shop of 55 individuals that were often driven by the random and tactical marketing requests of the campus,” he explains.

Ethan’s first order of business? To build a world-class marketing organization to tell the Purdue story no longer as the driven but as the driver of the brand.

He took the helm of the 150-year-old iconic Purdue brand, which has graduated 27 astronauts (the most of any non-service academy, including Neil Armstrong). Throw in a pandemic, shifting notions about the value of a college education, and multiple target audiences, and things got complex.

Today, Purdue’s marketing team stands nearly 100 strong. They’ve elevated the $3 billion Purdue brand and its portfolio, which includes the flagship university and its Purdue University Online, three polytechnic high schools, Purdue Global for working adults, a new urban campus in Indianapolis, a research foundation, and an alumni association of 600,000.

And Purdue content reaches a bigger audience than it ever has. Under Ethan’s leadership, the team has become a content juggernaut, culminating with this year’s viral video, What Can You Imagine at Purdue?” (The spot amassed over 28 million views in eleven months on YouTube and was named a Content Marketing Project of the Year finalist.) It’s one of many reasons why Ethan was named Content Marketer of the Year for the 2023 Content Marketing Awards.

Take a look at Ethan’s content approach, how he gets his team into character to tell the emotional stories of Purdue, and how he helped double Purdue’s marketing investment in five years. You can hear part of the story in his own words in this brief video interview.

Instilling a campus-wide mission to enchant

Ethan loves the word “enchant” in defining his content philosophy, and it has nothing to do with princesses or mythical creatures. “The definition of enchant is ‘to rouse and attract an ecstatic admiration and demand for.’ And when we think about content and its distribution with our target audiences, that’s the goal – to rouse and attract their ecstatic admiration and demand for Purdue in whatever that means at that moment. Whether that’s to come to school here, buy season tickets, come to work for us, partner with us on research, etc.,” Ethan explains.

Staying ‘in character’ instead of ‘on brand’

When Ethan arrived, the marketing at Purdue was often focused on colors, logos, taglines, and fluff rather than deeply understanding its students’ and alumni’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors – the emotional resonance that even manifests itself in tattoos of the school’s logo, name, and boilermaker mascot.

That led Ethan to ask (and answer): “How are you turning up that pride, the nostalgia, the love, the impact this place has on humans?”

To stay in character, the team developed an enormous, centralized database of professional assets and tools available for colleges and departments to localize rather than creating something on their own or making individual requests for marketing.

“There is freedom within this framework, so you’ve got some latitude to tell your target audience what you stand for. But the tip of the spear is Purdue University, and we want people to say, ‘This feels synergistic. This all feels like it’s coming from the same place,’” Ethan says.

Cross-functional teams reach different audiences

Purdue marketing must reach prospective students, parents, adult learners, faculty, researchers, alumni, and others. To do that, Purdue’s marketing leaders broke the team into groups with deep expertise and empathy for their target audiences. “Our cross-functional teams are an X factor of great marketing and great storytelling,” he says.

For example, when creating content about an adult learner, the marketer isn’t the only one who needs to understand the target individual’s journey. The photographer, project manager, and writer also need to know. “The richness of the collective output of the cross-functional teams is so much greater,” Ethan says.

Marketing the marketing

Ethan is grateful that he received early buy-in from the university’s administration and Board to revamp Purdue’s approach to marketing and its central team. But he didn’t stop garnering more support and resources. “We do a fair amount of marketing the marketing to make sure that the organization understands what it has and appreciates it but also values it in a way that allows us to continue to do our jobs to the best of our abilities and expertise,” Ethan explains.

For example, marketing promoted its phenomenal YouTube growth on a channel that a year ago already garnered 2 million views, besting its five benchmark peer schools combined. In 2023, Purdue’s YouTube grew that performance to a whopping 55 million views.

“I want the organization to know that, and I want them to feel like there’s incredible competence here, so they have such confidence in the people that are telling Purdue’s story and the resources we are being afforded to do it,” Ethan says.

Ethan’s marketing of marketing has worked. Purdue’s marketing investment has doubled in the last five years, allowing him to increase the size, quality, and skillsets of the team. “I would take (our talent) to any Fortune 100 tomorrow and say we can do what they’re doing. We have incredible marketers now, largely alumni, who love this place, and that’s the secret sauce,” he says.

Beyond the nearly 100 people on the official marketing team, a campus community of about 300 other marketers and communicators collaborates and contributes, too. “When multiple people have their fingerprints on something, they’ll own it, implement it, and they’ll endorse it with their deans and department heads,” Ethan says.

A 75-person student group called The Boiler Ambassadors also acts like an agency for the university. The idea manifested during COVID-19 when they needed students to help disseminate the Protect Purdue campaign.

Looking ahead

Ethan and his marketing team at Purdue aren’t resting on their success. “As true Purdue innovators and instigators of progress, we’re leaning in to see what’s possible [with AI], and we’re willing to make some mistakes along the way,” he says.

But no matter how they get there, Ethan will stay true to his professional philosophy: “I want to build brands and teams that people love and trust. We’ve been able to do that here at Purdue over the last five years. That’s where we’re going to continue to head.”

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute