Season 4 - Episode 434
A new semester is here at Baylor University and with it comes opportunities to connect students to Baylor’s caring community, share in longstanding traditions together and tell the Baylor story. In this Baylor Connections, Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer, shares how the University communicates with Baylor Family members and friends both on and off campus and highlights the strength of the Baylor brand.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in-depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Jason Cook. Jason serves as Vice President for Marketing and Communications, and Chief Marketing Officer at Baylor. And at the start of a new school year, always a lot going on throughout the Baylor family in the Baylor world here as we get ready for a new year and this year, no exception. So Jason, thanks for coming on and talking about it all with us today.
Jason Cook:You bet. Glad to be here, Derek. And yes, it's the start of a new semester because the traffic is horrendous right now. So we know the students are back for sure.
Derek Smith:It's a cheesy thing to say maybe, Jason, but never a dull moment I guess in higher education, and certainly as we start a new year plenty to talk about. And yet through it all, Baylor just keeps growing, keeps navigating and keeps on living out the mission it seems. We could talk about that over the next 20 minutes or so.
Jason Cook:I would love to and one of the great things about higher education as I always tell everybody we get a do-over. It doesn't matter what happened the previous semester, you get to start over. And that's one of the great things about working with youth and working in terms of the semesters and things of that nature. There's always something new and a new beginning. So the August time period is probably one of the most exciting as we welcome new freshmen to our campus. But also as we prepare for football, the fall sports season with soccer and volleyball. It's just a really exciting time for Baylor, but also the Waco community as well.
Derek Smith:Jason, let's start with a broad question. I would imagine in the summer and I know we're still dealing with questions about COVID, but we hit a little bit of a benchmark in the summer. And I'm sure a lot of people were evaluating where they were financially or as a business how did we navigate the last 16 months? What's the state of things here? What about that? What's that look like for Baylor?
Jason Cook:You know, Derek, we've been very blessed. About 18 months ago, we made some significant financial decisions across the university. And what we were looking at is how do we prepare Baylor not only to survive the pandemic, but to thrive after COVID-19. And even though we're in the midst of the pandemic still, the university we always say is very strong and resilient. We are on a firm financial footing. And probably one of the best measures that you look at is just the demand for the Baylor education. Our freshmen class, incoming students, we're looking at about 4,200, which will be again, our largest freshmen class ever by a long shot. And I think that that speaks to who we are as an academic institution, our Christian mission obviously, but students want to come to Baylor and there's a strong validation of what we do and who we are.
Derek Smith:Safety has always been a part of that, provided a great campus community. It's looked a little different in the past year welcoming a big class to campus and also sort of the changing circumstances right now. What are some of the priorities for the Baylor family, for the student body in particular communication-wise or otherwise as they start a new year?
Jason Cook:Yeah, first and foremost, we looked at as we ended the spring semester how can we go into the fall and provide a full Baylor experience? And when we say full Baylor experience, we're looking at in-person classroom instruction. We're looking at student activities and meetings and traditions. And then also looking at a full capacity for athletics as well. So we started taking measures over the summer of how we can provide that safe environment. And we continue to be guided by what we say is a Swiss cheese model. It's not just about masks. It's not just about social distancing. It's not only about the vaccine. It's not only about personal hygiene and things of that nature. It's really how do these things come together like a block of Swiss cheese and how can we block as many holes as we can with a layered approach. Obviously as the numbers of COVID cases and hospitalizations here in McLennan County continue to rise, we've changed some of our plans and protocols. But that those commitments to a full Baylor experience has not changed. It's just how we might do that, how we might deliver it may be a little bit different. But we're asking our local community, our students, faculty, staff, parents to be flexible, be patient with us because we know when you have 19,000 students descending upon McLennan County it might be a little stress to the system for the first couple of weeks of the semester. But we're making moves to make sure we can get past any spike of COVID cases that we might see a very quickly, and we respond appropriately to them.
Derek Smith:You mentioned welcoming 19,000 people into to Waco and certainly a lot of visitors coming in from all over getting students moved in this week, and the students coming back. What does it look like? You've talked about this a little bit with President Livingstone, but what does it look like working with the community on this? Not just Baylor making decisions, but bringing in other people from the Greater Waco area?
Jason Cook:Yeah. You know, Derek, I've been here what? Almost five years now. And it didn't take me long to hear the phrase, the Baylor bubble. And yeah, it is true just that our campus in how it's situated in the local community you could say that it could be a bubble, but that's not the truth at all. We are really in a great partnership with the city of Waco, McLennan County because we know that our students, our faculty and staff, they're not on the Baylor campus 24 hours a day. They're in the local community, they're shopping, they're getting groceries, they're eating out, they're going to churches, they're having different activities in meetings and clubs, things of that nature. So you can't contain Baylor within the bubble. So we've got to approach everything that we do whether it's dealing with COVID, whether it's construction projects, partnerships, things of that nature. We really have to work in conjunction with the city and the county. And I would think that that relationship particularly as president Livingstone has come, has just only strengthened and a Baylor success is a Waco success. And then Waco's success is Baylor's as well. You can't separate the two.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Jason Cook. And Jason, as we start the new year, are there priorities for the students that you'll be communicating that people will be seeing? And what are some of the ways you try to reach out in particular to students who get their information a lot of different ways these days?
Jason Cook:Wow, our poor students are probably being inundated with messages just drinking out of a fire hose. And the start of the semester, there's always so much that needs to be communicated. And probably our goal right now is obviously take the proper COVID precautions foremost. But then with our students, we want to get students engaged as quickly as possible. That's where the research talks about student retention, things of that nature. Get students engaged. Get them connections with different people on campus and around the community. And you've got to get them connected by Labor Day. So that's where a lot of our focus is going to be is keeping them safe from a COVID standpoint. But then also how do we connect and get people engaged very quickly early on in the semester? Because that's the key to success.
Derek Smith:Talking with Jason Cook, Vice President for Marketing and Communications and Chief Marketing Officer at Baylor. And Jason, let's talk about some of the fun stuff of communicating the Baylor message and building the Baylor brand with people. Whether it's alumni, whether it's students on campus and just the population at large. You mentioned how Baylor has really handled things in terms of enrollment otherwise through the pandemic well. What are some of the strengths that when Baylor communicates that we want people to see, and what are some of the ways that we try to prioritize those and send those out there?
Jason Cook:You know, Derek, we do a lot of research to look at. It's not only what we think the brand is, but it's really if you look at what a brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room. So we do a lot of research trying to look at, "Okay, what resonates with people from a messaging standpoint? Why do they choose a Baylor? Why do they come here? Why do they give to Baylor?" Things of that nature. And really there's four components to the Baylor brand that we try to center around. First and foremost is our Christian mission. That's at the top of the charts particularly for our parents when they look at considering the college choice for their young adults. So the Christian mission, second is academic excellence. Making great strides not only for being a top 100 ranked institution, but our goal is to be an R1 research university. So our academic excellence is number two. Third is looking at our size. We're not the largest university. We're not the smallest university. It's kind of like the Three Bears. We're just right. And that's where students can come and get a big time college experience, but still be small where the professors know their name. Gosh, I'm quoting TV shows now with Cheers, everybody knows your name.
Derek Smith:That works. Maybe a first on our program. Yeah.
Jason Cook:But then the fourth one is looking at big time college athletics as a member of the Big 12 is very important to us. So you put all those ingredients together. That's the Baylor brand at the end of the day. And so that's where we try to communicate that's our distinctiveness and spotlight each of those four key areas in all that we do.
Derek Smith:Well, what do you enjoy personally in your role about maybe the challenge of communicating those things in a 30-second ad or a one page ad in a magazine and tried to say a lot in a little?
Jason Cook:Well, the interesting thing is that Baylor means different things to different people at the end of the day. And because we all have different experiences and how those build and come together. And I think our challenge that anyone working in higher education marketing is the faculty want to communicate one thing, the president wants to communicate and other, the alumni wants you to communicate something else. Admissions, one thing, the athletics another. And how do you put all that together? And we let our research drive it. We look at why are students choosing Baylor? And then we designed our messaging around that at the end of the day. So in the movies you hear about things ending up on the cutting room floor. That's the case. There's so many things we want to say about Baylor because we love the institution. We're proud about the institution, but you've got to distill it down not only in a 30-second TV commercial, for example, but even if it's a social media post. Because people's attention is so short these days when people are looking at things or scrolling through social media, what do we want to leave people with?
Derek Smith:You mentioned a TV commercial. Football will be starting off. We'll see the institutional spot for Baylor and rival colleges when we're watching games. You mentioned social media as well. What are some of the most high leverage areas to get the Baylor name and the Baylor message out maybe to people who this one area might be their only exposure to it?
Jason Cook:Well, we look at it at an approach for multiple mediums maximize messages. So there's not a silver bullet for us to reach an individual person, for example. It's how all of our marketing pieces come together, our strategies and tactics will work together to ultimately carry that Baylor message. Our team from a social media standpoint does extremely well, recognize across the country in what we do in terms of generating engagement with our key audiences. TV is not playing as much of a role as it used to in the past, but you mentioned our institutional commercial that will air on our football games as fall, basketball games as we move forward. That's a very critical piece, even though the TV audiences are declining or people don't watch as much in the past. That still sets the tone in the message for the entire year. So our TV spot this year really builds on our ongoing campaign Where Lights Shine Bright and that relates to back to Matthew 5:14-16. And Matthew 5:16 says, "Let your light shine before men so others could see your good works in your Father in heaven as well." So that's really the core of what we do. Now we may communicate that in different ways, in different means, but that's the root of the core message that we have as we move forward.
Derek Smith:Now, let me ask you this. Can I give us a little further sneak preview of that spot?
Jason Cook:Well, I can't give it away to you, Derek.
Derek Smith:Sure, that's true.
Jason Cook:The big reveal typically we do the Friday before that first football game.
Derek Smith:It's here in a couple weeks.
Jason Cook:Yes, exactly. But I will tell you this, two things related to it. You could do a little homework related to the spot and I'll give you a sneak peek in terms of the music. There is a new group out called Apollo LTD, Apollo LTD, and they have a song called Sunday Morning Feeling. And so if you go to YouTube and you can type in Sunday Morning Feeling, you can hear the song. And then the theme of the spot, and this will be the theme of all of our ads as it come out in the fall and the spring will be Let There Be Light, Let There Be Light. And we think that as we're still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are looking for hope. People are looking for excitement, some energy, and ultimately looking for a light. Is this going to end? And we think that this spot in all of our marketing assets around it are going to get people excited about who we are as an institution. We want them to come join us, but then also showcases Baylor as a light in the world.
Derek Smith:So Apollo LTD. Let There Be Light. People can do a little sleuth work and try to envision it here between now and then. That sounds good.
Jason Cook:Exactly. That's your sneak peek because you're not getting anything else.
Derek Smith:hat's great. And then it'll debut what? The Friday before Labor Day I believe for Baylor football so people can be keeping an eye out for that on Baylor social media as we visit with Jason Cook. And I know there's some very specific ways that Baylor reaches out to audiences or communicates specific aspects of what we're doing here at Baylor. Let's talk about a couple of them, first, admissions. Obviously you've talked about that throughout the program. There's a great partnership between MarComm and admissions. And I was wondering if you could sort of give us a little picture of what that looks like.
Jason Cook:One of the things that I hear quite a bit is people say, "Well does Baylor do any advertising?" I don't see Baylor's advertising as part of it. And I have to remind people that you may not see it because you're not the target audience related to that. And one of the things that social media and digital media have brought to the table is we're able to really pinpoint who we want to reach with our marketing efforts. So we work hand in hand with our admissions teams. They have those relationships on the ground with the high school counselors, the high school students. What we try to do from an institutional level is to create an environment to open up the doors and create some general interest in Baylor. So I always try to use a military analogy that we're kind of like the B-52s flying at 30,000 feet. And then our admissions staff is the Army and they come in and work hand to hand combat with potential students. But that's how we work together. And we put everything in that campaign Where Lights Shine Bright. If you might see that, again, that theme of light is the core in all that we do. But we have a lot of really fun and exciting tactics and strategies that we bring to the table. This fall we're going to launch a dedicated show about Baylor on Amazon Prime as part of the college tour. So we're excited about unveiling that in the weeks ahead. And we've got some other surprises in store as well.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Now let's talk about another area, research. You mentioned Baylor's pursuit of R1 research recognition. A lot of faculty doing a lot of great research and growing that pretty exponentially over the last three years. What are some of the things, what are some of the ways you want to communicate that growth to different audiences?
Jason Cook:Well, I think back when President Livingstone came in 2017 and the fall faculty meeting. She made the announcement that Baylor was going to become an R1 university and specifically being a Christian research university because she felt it needed to be a Christian institution at the table for higher education, the elite institutions. And a lot of people thought that we weren't going to be able to do it. And you look at over the past four-plus years, we've made significant progress in becoming an R1 institution. It's a quantitative measure that you look at, but what we look at, work on is the qualitative components. If you could reach the metrics to become an R1 institution, but if you don't present yourself as an R1 university, people wouldn't perceive you as that. So we work hand in hand with the academic community on how do we shape ourselves as an R1 institution? How do we talk about our distinctiveness as a Christian research university? And each fall we start a new campaign that's targeted with faculty, with the academic community that carries on throughout the academic year. And we've got five professors that we spotlight on an annual basis. We did the photo shoot recently and really excited about rolling out that part of the campaign. But really gets an opportunity to spotlight some unique research, but also an impact that, that our researchers are making on behalf of the Lord's kingdom.
Derek Smith:We had a couple of those professors on Connections and we'll have a couple more on this fall coming up so people can be listening for that as we continue to visit with Jason Cook. Jason, as we head into the final few minutes here, I want to shift gears because there's another element that's taking place in the news these days. Baylor family keeping their eye on talk of conference realignment. And I know you have a particularly a unique connection, if you will, to conference realignment. You served as a Vice President for Marketing and Communications from 2008 to 2013 at Texas A&M, which people remember that was a move to the SEC in the midst of all that. So I'm wondering as you talk to people, I'm sure you hear a lot of people say, "Well, what's going on or what do you believe? There's rumors everywhere." Do you have an approach that people should just as they hear this, as they think about it, as they read things about it, just an approach to sort of navigating this as a fan in a way that's useful over the next few months?
Jason Cook:Well, I will tell you what, conference realignment is great for a writers in media outlets in search of clicks. Because it's continuous news and speculation and excitement and interest about it. And particularly when it happens in the summertime when you don't have as much going on, but I would encourage people just to take deep breaths. And the news can change on an hour by hour basis. Don't get caught up in rumors and speculation because there's a lot of people, they float trial balloons. There's a lot of people throwing things up against the wall who have no idea what's going on. So we asked people to just be patient. And I think that where things are right now, you're not going to see any significant urgent developments that you may have seen a month or so ago, particularly as we head into football season as part of that. I think the Baylor family can be very, very confident in the strength of our institution. From an academic standpoint, we talked about our push to become R1, to have a seat at the table in higher education. But also just the overall success of our athletics program. We had the second most championships in the Big 12 as part of that. Coming off a national championship in men's basketball. A couple of years ago, women's basketball. Six straight acrobatics and tumbling championships. Post-season play across the board. So we have a lot to be proud of as an institution. And there's a lot of people across the country who realized that as well. But we have a very strong connection to the Big 12, it's part of our legacy as one of the founding members of the league. And obviously working with the eight remaining members of the conference is really important to us as we work at charting a future together.
Derek Smith:You work closely obviously with President Livingstone and with Mack Rhoades and everyone on the President's Council. I know they're engaged not only in leadership here at Baylor, but really within their professions. What do they bring kind of broadly to their industry, if you will, in the midst of all this?
Jason Cook:Well, Mack Rhoades is so great to work with, but he's got two big plaques recently on his wallet the past two years from different organizations. He's been named the AD of the year. And having worked at another institution where Mack was at another school as well, he's just very well-respected, very even-keeled. You don't see him in the headlines a lot. He likes to work behind the scenes and just highly effective and highly regarded within the industry. And then President Livingstone brings such a unique background as a former student-athlete as a women's basketball player at her time at Oklahoma State. And she has really assumed several leadership roles. She's the vice chair of the Big 12 Conference right now. She is on the board of governors for the NCAA right now. She was recently named to a special committee to re-look at the NCAA's Constitutional Convention, if you will. And help chart the path of the NCAA moving forward. So I think that the Baylor family could look at. We've got leaders who are very strong, who are recognized nationally, but also two leaders who dearly love Baylor and support our mission fully.
Derek Smith:That's great stuff. There's a takeaway where you said we can trust the leaders, trust the process, and don't necessarily let your emotions rise and fall with every tweet or news story that you see here-
Jason Cook:Well, I follow Twitter too. It can get exciting. It could get addictive as well, but just know that I always tell people that social media can be a fun house mirror at times. Don't believe everything that you read on social media unless it comes for Baylor, then you got to believe it.
Derek Smith:Then you know, absolutely. Visiting with Jason Cook and Jason final question just to kind of tie it all together. It is the start of a new year, everything beginning anew. What do you enjoy most about the rhythm of this time of year personally?
Jason Cook:Well, it's exciting. And the thing about the difference between fall and spring is the fall with football having people come to campus on the weekends and just seeing that sea of green and gold descend upon our campus, our community. It's just really exciting to see the Baylor family come together. And that's one of the things that college athletics does for you. It's a rallying point, but it gets such great reason for people to come back and we're able to celebrate everything that makes Baylor so special. And then for me from a personal level this year, I've got an incoming freshman. And so I'm really excited about living the Baylor experience alongside him in a different way than I had before.
Derek Smith:That's great. So you're a Baylor parent as well now for the parents out there listening.
Jason Cook:I have a Papa Bear T-shirt now, so I must be legit.
Derek Smith:Oh, that's exciting. Well, congratulations on that and thanks so much for joining us on the program today.
Jason Cook:Thanks, Derek.
Derek Smith:Jason Cook, Vice President for Marketing and Communications and Chief Marketing Officer, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.