Jason Cook

Season 6 - Episode 603

January 20, 2023

Jason Cook
Jason Cook

In the past year, Baylor has been named one of the nation’s 10 most trusted universities, was recognized among the country’s elite universities for teaching and research and has earned honors for excellence in numerous areas. There’s plenty of exciting news to share at Baylor and Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications, talks about the momentum at Baylor, branding the Big 12 and more on this Baylor Connections.

Transcript

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 today we are visiting with Jason Cook. Jason Cook serves as Baylor's vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer. There are a lot of fun communications outreaches throughout Baylor. There's a lot going on at Baylor that we're going to get to talk about over the next 20 minutes or so. So, Jason, thanks so much for your time today. I appreciate the chance to visit with you.

Jason Cook:

You bet, Derek. Thanks for the opportunity. And you know, it's kind of interesting, the spring semester is it's just crazy, frankly. And, you know, people always ask, well, what's different between fall and spring? Will fall tends to be all about the weekends and in football and things of that nature. Well, spring is everything all the time. So we're really excited to get the spring semester started and and look forward the next couple of months with our students here on campus.

Derek Smith:

Well, and this week is the first week of our students being back on campus. And there's a lot of fun things everywhere. You look a lot a lot of life coming back to campus as we dove back in and we're still early enough in the new semester. Jason And really 2023 in general that I feel like it didn't feel too far afield to ask to ask this. Looking at last year, what were some of your favorite moments and maybe particularly the ones that you feel like are going to have an impact on what's coming ahead, what you're excited about?

Jason Cook:

Yeah, that's a really good question, Derek. And gosh, trying to distill exactly what we'll have to kind of think about. You know, a couple of you look at the physical kind of things and the, you know, the progress that's being made on the Hurt Welcome Center, for example, which will open up at beginning of the fall semester. You know, the start of the fall short pavilion. And, you know, to think about how fast that's gone from groundbreaking to now we're building that the girders support the roof structure things of that nature. You look at, you know, our students are now competing for national awards. You know, these awards that are, you know, compete with Harvard and Stanford and Michigan, you know, the great schools around the country. Baylor is right there as part of it. Yeah. What what's been going on with athletics? The hiring of Brett Yormark as the new Big 12 commissioner, as that brand continues to evolve and you know, the new the four new schools coming in and really embracing them as part of it. And then I think finally know we Baylor achieved our one status received that recognition of December of 2021. We really didn't get to celebrate it much because it was right before the Christmas holidays. But to come back at this time a year ago, to celebrate that with our faculty and the entire university community, and then really celebrate our one status throughout the entire year, I think that that's probably the signature event or happening that I will remember for 2022.

Derek Smith:

And we're seeing a lot of the fruits of that recognition and a lot of ways, some of which will we'll talk about here, some of which are somewhat related to it. And, you know, as we talk about recognition, Baylor has found itself on some really impressive lists in recent months. Elite company talked about our one being a surprise right before Christmas. We got some nice surprises in the in the last year as you look at most trusted universities top core curriculum, U.S. news recognition and teaching and research. So we dove into some of these individually. I'm curious, how difficult is it for an institution to really rise on these lists? What does it take? What would you compare it to? What it takes to rise on list and find yourself changing the company or seen in?

Jason Cook:

Yeah. Derek It's a really good question. And before I before I answer that directly, I will say that, you know, institutionally, you know, we don't chase rankings. We really don't. I mean, we don't do things here at Baylor University just to rise up in the rankings. Are we firmly believe that if we do the right things, we remain student centered and in and grow from around that core that that rise will occur naturally. People will recognize the many good things that are happening here at Baylor as a Christian research university. So I think that that's a good prepper is just take that off the table first. But when you look at changes in rankings, particularly U.S. News, for example, and that's the one that probably most everyone's most familiar with the changes there really occurred, glacially, to be honest with you, because, yes, we are investing and growing and working with students, but all the other institutions are doing the same types of things as well. So that kind of change is, is glacial. But I think what it takes is a consistent, sustained effort and that's when you'll really start seeing some change there. So right now where Baylor is, we're kind of in a cluster of schools. And the difference is, you know, a five point difference and a ten point difference between the schools is really razor thin, what you're talking about. So we're talking like point differences as part of that. So I don't want people to get you to look at, hey, our ranking was here this year. They're next year, things of that nature and think that something is wrong per say. It's just that you have for this specific moment in time, this is where we are. And again that differential between the cohort of schools that we're in. We're very similar. And so but we're looking for continue to look for big ideas, do things different, focus on the things that matter. For example, like student retention, student graduation rates. We think that if we can really focus on that, we have a detailed strategic enrollment management plan that we're implementing now that's going to have a significant impact for us on the ranking. So end of the day, rankings are not everything. They're very important because we know people look at them change occurs glacially, but they often are a reflection of quality at an institution like Baylor.

Derek Smith:

So by focusing on doing things, doing the things that we do well, even better. On doubling down on what's important. People are starting to maybe see the company we keep in a different the company we keep as elevated. Is that fair to say?

Jason Cook:

Yeah, I think it is there again in just the idea that bear that Baylor has reached our one status all of a sudden we're in a different zipcode for say in terms of comparator sets for institutions being in our one university that causes a different type of faculty to consider coming to Baylor, it also opens the door for even more incredibly talented students to come look at Baylor. So those kind of things matter in academia. We know that matter in sports for sure. We like to look at rankings in sports, but the rankings matter in academia as well. And it really is important for us as we recruit talent that we compete for, for research grants and then it's not bad for Baylor. Fans have something to cheer about as well.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Jason Cook, vice president for Marketing and Communications and one of those recognitions came last fall from Morning Consult. Baylor was named one of the top ten most trusted universities in the nation. Two questions for you with that. So where does that ranking come from? And then and then to you, what does it mean to be most trusted?

Jason Cook:

Shortly after the most trusted information came out, those rankings came out. I had a dean who emailed me and said, Jason, is this is this a real ranking as part of it? Because, you know, there's a lot of rankings out there that are simply just clickbait on websites and things of that nature. But the most trusted is a real ranking. It was done by morning consult, which is a national research firm that does a lot of survey and polling work on behalf of national news outlets, media outlets, but also for some of the biggest brands in the country, both higher ed and corporations as well. So they have a series called Most Trusted In Every month. They look at a key industry area and in do a most trusted brand survey related to that, we didn't know that it was coming out. It was a complete surprise for us. Morning Consult does some research for us on a on a regular basis, but we had no idea that this was coming out and it was surprising. It really was. And I think it really talks to the differentiation that Baylor has, you know, as a Christian research university with a mission that is very unique in the marketplace. Yeah, you and I have talked about before on Baylor Connections, how we like to stand out in the sea of sameness. And I think that people are really taking notice of what's happening here at Baylor University, that we are serious about our mission. We are serious about shining a light on God's kingdom and what's happening on our campus. And we're serious about helping the world solve some of these great challenges that we're dealing with as well. So most trusted is real, but it's also sort of that we're extremely proud of that. I told President Livingstone as a we've only got a year for sure that we talk about where one of the most trusted universities in the country, we better talk about it all the time. So thanks for asking that question.

Derek Smith:

Absolutely. Well, you know, when you look at the list that Baylor is a part of on that Johns Hopkins, Duke, Notre Dame, Cornell, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, that is pretty elite company. And it's fun to see Baylor listed among those universities. Now, I'm curious, what's your sense of people's perceptions, whether in or out of the Baylor family? Is there a surprise? Is there a sense that Baylor's an outlier or what do you sense from people when they see Baylor on a list like that?

Jason Cook:

Yeah, you know, it's interesting that, you know, it's kind of like when you're a little kid in in grade school, the teacher gives you a list of things and says, which one of these don't belong, you know, as part of that. And yeah, we had some people who responded that way. Obviously with the in the world of social media that we live in. But, you know, I think more than anything else, it caused people to stop and say and look at Baylor, what's going on at Baylor University right now? What are they doing? How are they different? What what's the impact that they're making? Where are they going from a directional standpoint? And I think that it was a great way to shine a spotlight on everything that's happening here and, you know, to be listed in the same breath as just, you know, elite universities around the country, particularly when you put that in the context of where we were in 2015 and 2016. You know, Derek, that was only six years ago. And, you know, at that time we may have been one of the most distrusted universities in the country in a short time frame to flip that narrative, for us to be one of the four Baylor, be one of the most trusted universities in the country is nothing short of miraculous and something that that the entire Baylor family should be proud of.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Jason Cook, vice president for Marketing and Communications and Chief Marketing Officer today on Baylor Connections and Jason, most trusted is one exciting list. Baylor's a part of another U.S. News ranking list of the top 25 schools for both undergraduate teaching and undergraduate research. Two separate lists. And Baylor is one of only eight institutions on both the others being at Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Duke, Elon and Michigan and President Livingstone. A few episodes back really did a great job talking about Baylor doubling down on that and how our focus on our mission leads to ranking like that. I'm curious from your standpoint, as from the marketing side of things, what are some of the opportunities and what are some of the fun ways that we try to capture and communicate really this drumbeat of acknowledgment that Baylor is receiving? And who are some of the key audiences in that?

Jason Cook:

Well, I think that, you know, there's this mindset of people who may not understand what university research is all about. But, you know, I've worked at a public university and now at a private university. And in talking to or your colleagues around the country, you know, they people tend to think that good research and good undergraduate teaching are mutually exclusive. You know, that they don't either. You're good at one or good at the other. They don't intersect. You can't do both. And I think that that we are proving that you're that's not the case. I mean, Baylor is your historical reputation has been on that transformational undergraduate experience and excellent teaching that happens in the in the classroom. But now we're at the point where we're growing our research enterprise to be just as good as where we are from a teaching perspective. So I think that it's a great proof point that you can be good at both. Not all institutions are, but I think that that that's a very significant commitment that we're making, that we want to be good at teaching and good at research. I think that what it's really done is if you pair it with some other research that we've done with prospective students, particularly students who are interested and in the medical fields, interested in engineering, interested in the hard sciences, they are looking for opportunities to conduct research as an undergraduate and they are wanting and looking for those experiences. That's what the research of our prospective students is telling us. So now we're in a situation where we could provide those opportunities to them. So we're looking at very creative ways to help introduce that and working with our external agency partner to try to create this. There's a dichotomy that exists that research is happening in the most surprising ways, in the most surprising people in environments. And we're looking forward to putting that campaign together and rolling it out sometime this fall. So we're trying to have a lot of fun in doing research may seem a little boring, but we're going to make it fun for short.

Derek Smith:

That people can be keeping their eyes out in the in the months ahead, online and in magazines and different places here as we visit with Jason Cook here. And so, Jason, let's shift gears a little bit and talk about the Baylor family communication priorities in 2023. What are some things that you're excited about when you think about the Baylor family and engaging them specifically?

Jason Cook:

Well, the Baylor family is one, you know, to let them know that there's a lot to be proud of. And, you know, one of the challenges that that we have is we really are our national brand. If you look and, you know, obviously, Texas is home to us about, you know, half of our students are coming from the state of Texas. But, you know, number two on that list is California. Number three on that list is Colorado. We've got huge recruitment pipelines for the Pacific Northwest. And from Minnesota and from the Chicago area and things of that nature. So our alumni base continues to be spread out. So we're continually looking for ways to keep them connected to the institution and to let them know what's going on about with Baylor. And I think that that's one of the great things about college athletics, because what it does is it gives us a point, particularly when you look at football in the fall, gives us an opportunity for alumni to come back to the institution to homecoming, for example, but even football games in the fall to feel connected to the institution and also give us an opportunity to explain everything that's going on here. You know, it's quite is quite interesting that, you know, we do alumni research and people tend to think of their institutions as not changing from when they walked across the stage and receive that diploma and when, in fact, you know, institutions change very rapidly, universities change. But people tend to have that lens from their university experience in that Baylor never changes from when they walked across the stage. So I think that that's one of the neat things that how can we say this is the same Baylor that existed when you graduated, we have the same mission that we're committed to, the same values that you experienced there. However, you know, we're continuing to take that mission very seriously and grow it at a national scale. So that's one of the great things that, you know, that we have such a great story to tell. And how do we let our alumni become brand ambassadors for us?

Derek Smith:

Well, another example of ways people can engage with the university is the Dr. Pepper, our tour. And so we're also the Dr. Pepper to our tour. Go in. And what's that look like?

Jason Cook:

Well, we'll tell you that this is the 70th anniversary of Dr. Pepper Hour. And in next week, we have the Dr. Pepper Museum here on campus helping us with the weekly Dr. Pepper Hours. It's something we're really excited about, but this was something that we launched about a year and a half ago where we actually take this beloved tradition that exists at Baylor. I had no idea about Dr. Pepper Hour until I started working at Baylor in 2016, in December and how do we take this really cool tradition? Like what other place? We'll give you free ice cream every week for your entire university career. That's what we do here at Baylor to take that great tradition and take it to high schools. And so we started around the state and we've been focusing on Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, the major metropolitan areas. Last fall or last spring, we went to Colorado, the Denver area. But this spring, we are actually going to take it really far on the road. We're going to make a stop in there in Arizona, the Phenix area, and then go out to both Northern California and Southern California to take the Dr. Pepper hour on the road. It's a great opportunity to go to high schools, share Dr. Pepper, float with prospective students, and then tell them a little bit about Baylor. So so it's quite amazing to get stories of people who see the doctor, the bright Baylor Gold, Dr. Pepper, our truck to a trailer at a gas station or at a buggies or something like that. How excited people get about it. But it's really having an impact in creating new ways to tell the story.

Derek Smith:

Visiting where for Jason Cook and Jason, as we head in the final few minutes of the show, I want to finish by asking a couple of questions about the Big 12. Commissioner Brett Yormark has actually talked a lot about the Big 12 brand since coming in an area certainly right up your alley. We've got new schools in. And, you know, I'm curious, as conferences become less about the region that they're in, where what opportunities for branding are there for a conference that differentiates create it beyond those regional ties?

Jason Cook:

Yeah, I'm really excited about the work that Commissioner Yormark is already doing. And you know, he's a brand guy at the end of the day and you know, he's worked at a college level work with NASCAR, helped create the Brooklyn Nets brand and the Barclays Center in New York in really creating that as the new home for college basketball in New York City. And, you know, to some, some degree, we're kindred spirits. And how do you work to stand out in that sea of sameness? And I think that what you're seeing the Big 12 doing is saying, look, we don't need to market ourselves like the SCC or like the Big Ten or we don't have to be like the PAC 12 or the ICC. Let's be who we are. Let's differentiate ourselves among those five power five conferences, and let's be very aggressive in what we're doing. And I think that you see that we've got a presence in eastern, central and mountain time zones. The commissioner has been very upfront that he would like to see us in the Western time zones. So but right now, you could go from the mountains of Utah all the way down to the beaches of central Florida in the next year in the Big 12 is going to have a presence. And I think that what you're seeing already, it's going to be very different. It's going to be very young, it's going to be very innovative. And frankly, that's what the Big 12 was since its inception. And I think that he's trying to capture a lot of that establishment, the Big 12, in the early 1990s, and reinvigorate the brand with some different types of brand expressions, bringing in this idea of culture and music and talent. That's really what athletics is all about these days. And so I'm excited about what he's bringing to the table is that he's a brilliant mind himself, but he's also brought some incredible talent to the Irving offices. And, well, we'll look and see what's ahead for sure yet.

Derek Smith:

Jason, you talked about becoming younger and hipper. And I mean this in the best of ways. He succeeded in making me someone who was in high school. The Big 12 was formed feeling pretty old when they started talking about some of the brands that I had to look up and then realizing, Oh, kids these days love some of these brands and I'm out of the loop, but that's probably a good thing.

Jason Cook:

Well, I will admit to you as well, I'm not familiar with some of these brands, but thank goodness we have Googled to find out. And, you know, sometimes it's a it's a sobering realization where you sit back and say, okay, I'm not the target audience here. This is not for me. And that is critically important. So trying to be sometimes you can't be all things to all people and really have to target what you're trying to do. And it's not only about recruiting prospective student athletes to our Big 12 member institutions, it's also about creating bigger TV audiences from ages 18 to 34. That's a demographic that the TV networks are incredibly interested in. And if we can grow that demo in terms of who's watching Big 12 football, Big 12 basketball, that's all going to help the conference out in the long term.

Derek Smith:

Is there a sense that we're not just competing against the SCC game on another network or the Big Ten game on another channel, but I don't know. Is it almost all the entertainment options that are out there for for young people that we're elbowing in on? In some ways it is.

Jason Cook:

And if you look at you're competing with social media in brands and activities and things of that nature. And if you just look at how our students today watch or experience sports, I mean, it really is through the lens of the phone. And so, for example, you know, my son, youngest son is a sophomore here at Baylor. He is a huge basketball fan. But to get him to sit down in front of a television and watch a two hour basketball game, that is for Intel. It's not that doesn't make him not a good fan or anything. It just he experiences sports in a different manner. And if you ask students or young people why they go to games, it's not necessarily because they love basketball or they love football. It's really also about the social experience around that. So sports are it's important about the competition, but it's also that they create gathering voices. They create social opportunities for people to come together. Yeah, we talked about earlier in the in connections about what it does for alumni coming back to campus. Our students are experiencing that as well. We just have to think a little bit differently in how people are consuming. Media is much more different than you and I do.

Derek Smith:

Well, we're going to look forward to seeing that play out in the weeks and months ahead as the Big 12 brand continues to grow and expand. And Jason, I know we're running out of time here, so and ask, is we wind down kind of bringing it back to the opposite end of the beginning of the show. We're looking ahead to 2023 here, early January or mid January now. But what a lot of the year still to come. What are some things that you're most excited to see going forward? Things that people can anticipate?

Jason Cook:

Well, to bring it back to those tangible things that are happening here on our campus, September eight is going to be the grand opening for the Herd Welcome Center. We're really excited about, you know, this transformational facility that's sitting at the corner of university parks and I-35 and that gathering point for prospective students and alumni and even our current students. Gosh, that's going to be really exciting for us. I'm also excited about some of the work that that's been doing in response to the Commission on Historic Campus Representations Work that started back in 2020 this spring, early April, we're going to look at installing the statues of Reverend Gilbert and as Barbara Walker, the 2/1 black graduates of Baylor University, once all statues with them outside of Tidwell Bible building. We've commissioned really a world renowned artist, Ben Victor, who has a lot of work in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol to really memorialize and celebrate the significant impact that these two wonderful individuals had on our campus. So those are probably the two things that are really sticking out to me in terms of excitement for the next year.

Derek Smith:

Well, we'll look forward to seeing those and have to talk to you again in the months ahead as some of these things that come together, we get to see them on campus and other campus voices as well who have a great opportunity to speak into it. Well, Jason, thanks so much for your time today. Really appreciate it.

Jason Cook:

Thank. Very good afternoon.

Derek Smith:

You always get to talk with you, Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications and Chief Marketing Officer, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder you can hear this and other programs online Baylor dot edu slash connections you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.