Imagine Calvin College as a person. What words would you use to describe that person?


That handful of adjectives and dozens more appeared on long white sheets of paper tacked to the walls of a basement room in Hiemenga Hall. Dubbed “The Brand Cave,” it was the venue last fall for 18 workshops in which 340 members of the Calvin community described their experience of Calvin College, the person.

They were led by Scott Ochander and Tyler Borders, co-founders of Dartlet, Inc., a “reputation strategy” firm hired to retool the college's image—its “brand”—to reach new audiences. “Because we as human beings relate to other human beings, the most effective way to help people who don't know a place well come to know it, is to describe it as a human persona,” said Ochander.

Who better to describe a place-persona than all those who have lived with it, believe Ochander and Borders. So, working closely with Calvin's communications and marketing team, they issued an open invitation to staff, faculty, students, cabinet members and alumni to participate in their workshops. For those who couldn't come to campus, they offered a workshop online. They then distilled the responses of the 1,290 online and in-person participants into a profile of the “compelling character” that is Calvin. That character, in the Dartlet approach, fits into one of nine social archetypes. It's the character's particular combination of traits that make it a “singular personality” within a general archetype. 

Innovator, Guide, Challenger

So who is Calvin College?

Dartlet's final report summed up workshop participants' input this way: Calvin College is first of all a “discerning and intelligent Discoverer.”  A “major accent” within that personality is the “empowering and distinctive Innovator.” Two “minor accents” are the “dedicated and caring Guide” and the “established Challenger.” 

“Impressive to us was the consistency that emerged across all the mixed groups of people as they described the college,” said Russ Bloem, Calvin's vice president for enrollment management. “It was organic and very reassuring that yes, this is who we are.”

It's Calvin the Discoverer/Innovator that the college wants to spotlight for prospective students.

“We're not changing who Calvin is at its core or its behavior,” continued Bloem. “We're being transparent about what makes us distinctive, and I think that is going to serve us really well.”

Calvin last went through a branding exercise in 2001, when it adopted the tagline “Minds in the Making.”

“Brands have a shelf life,” according to director of marketing and client services Jeanne Nienhuis. Not only was it time to refresh Calvin's brand, she said. It had also become apparent that the college needs “to help broader communities understand what Calvin reliably delivers.”

A loyalty shift

In the 14 years since the last rebranding, the populations that have traditionally kept the college's enrollment robust have shifted. The number of Christian Reformed and Christian school students has fallen considerably. Not only are Calvin's traditional constituencies shrinking, but the way in which they choose colleges is changing.

“Instead of an institutional loyalty, today's students show more of a relational loyalty,” said Tim Ellens, director of communications and brand steward at Calvin. “They're not looking for common ground with our history or theology. They want a school that lines up with their values and one that will partner with other organizations to get things done.”

That loyalty shift means that the smaller number of students in Calvin's traditional CRC/Christian school constituencies are “applying far and wide,” Bloem said. “It means we have to be much more effective with our communication to bring in that group, rather than waiting for the traditional pipeline to deliver us students.”

Further, it means that Calvin has to cast its net wider to bring in more students from outside its traditional populations. These “emerging populations” have been on the radar of the enrollment division for a number of years, according to Bloem and Nienhuis. In fact, for the first time in the college's history more than half of this year's incoming class attended public high schools.

But among students in public schools, it's difficult to locate those who would find Calvin a good fit. 

“So we have to spend more (on marketing) to have the chance to attract more students,” said Ellens. “We also have to talk more clearly and descriptively about who we are, without using a lot of insider language—like 'agents of renewal,' which sings to our soul, but which Dartlet's research found sounded domineering, even militaristic to those not as familiar with Calvin.”

Or like “calling,” a word that to Nienhuis “is part of the warp and woof of this institution.” She remembers using that word freely while meeting with a prospective student and his family. “Finally the young man said, 'I don't know what this word “calling” means.' To him, it was like I was talking in riddles.”

Notably, the new branding language doesn't include a tagline to replace “Minds in the Making.”

“Rather than taglines, we emphasize themes and storylines,” Ochander said.

Based on workshop responses, Dartlet created five storylines it recommends the college use “to create a consistent messaging platform infused with Calvin's personality.” For example, storyline 1 is: “Calvin College is on a determined quest for truth and knowledge.” Storyline 3: “Calvin is about uniting the heart and mind to engage the world.”

Standing out from ‘the pack’

“This approach to branding is more nuanced,” said Bloem. “It gives us a mechanism for telling the broad range of stories about who Calvin is, while at the same time emphasizing what makes us distinctive.”

Emphasizing what makes the college distinctive has become imperative in today's marketplace.

“Higher education is increasingly competitive,” noted Calvin's president, Michael Le Roy, “and Calvin must be clear about its quality and distinctiveness. All Christian colleges and universities claim a commitment to Jesus Christ, academic excellence, and try to do so in the context of a nurturing environment. This is also true for Calvin, but how do we stand out from 'the pack'?”

Dartlet's research found that while the caring, nurturing Guide is a true element of Calvin's personality—and one it has often promoted to prospective students—it is not the trait that stands out most strongly. Its “most authentic and prominent” trait is also the one that, according to Dartlet, makes it distinctive among its peers.

“As a Christian college that is a Discoverer and an Innovator, Calvin may stand alone,” said Ochander. “I think that many Christian people will be attracted to that.”

Nienhuis agrees. “There are many families for whom faith is very important, but they don't think they can get a good education at a faith-based school; they think they have to go to a flagship school or a big state school. This brand helps us change that idea.”

Bloem, Nienhuis and Ellens all point out that Calvin won't stop talking about its caring community. But it will be louder and clearer about its distinctive community of discovery and innovation. And clarity, all three agree, will lead to better recruitment and retention.

In time. Reshaping all the ways the college tells its story won't happen quickly. The new language will have to percolate to everyone in the Calvin community.

“The strategic planning process of two years ago, then the prioritization, and now the rebranding—all these things have helped us see that this is a tuition-driven institution, and we can all help it move forward,” said Nienhuis. “It's not just for enrollment to do. We're all on the front lines.”

To those worried that the new brand morphs a beloved alma mater into someone unrecognizable, President Le Roy responds, “This new brand brings to the surface what’s been at the core of Calvin’s identity for a very long time. We are explorers—we ask hard questions, we take on local and global issues and we innovate as we seek solutions to the issues of the day. Our refreshed brand gives us a platform to tell our story and lean into it more fully. It’s a story that advances the mission of Calvin College. It's both faithful to our ancestors and inspiring to our heirs.”

Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids, Mich.