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American University WONK Brand Campaign

The Challenge:
AU’s quest for a distinctive brand began in 2008, when AU initiated a plan to strengthen the university’s academic and research reputation, while enhancing the quality and diversity of our student population. Research had shown that AU enjoys a unique position: a diverse international community of active citizens, hailing from 145 countries and all 50 states, who learn from expert and connected faculty and visiting leaders, and a prime location in the nation’s capital, one of the most robust laboratories for learning in the world. UCM’s challenge was to communicate this uniqueness with a message that would differentiate AU in a way that no other university could—or would.

The Solution:
UCM identified a single word that succinctly and uniquely expresses AU’s distinctive qualities: WONK. Describing experts, thought leaders, and Washington insiders, the word was a perfect match for the AU community—smart, passionate, focused, and engaged individuals who use their knowledge to effect meaningful change. The word was bold enough to capture attention and original enough to set AU apart.

UCM recognized the strategic benefit of conducting a soft launch to educate stakeholders about WONK. In the summer of 2010, UCM hosted luncheons and teas to gain support from thought leaders. We encouraged commencement speakers to use the term, and we deployed student ambassadors to advise on tactics and help seed the term. We ran Google and Facebook ads that landed on a page that defined “wonk,” among other social media strategies. As people recognized that WONK is KNOW spelled backward, and that being a wonk means to know something backward and forward, the bold nature of this unusual brand became easy to embrace.

Students who came to AU in the fall of 2010 were introduced to this new brand concept through creative promotions. The campaign was fully integrated in the campus visit experience and welcome center, as well as throughout the undergraduate recruitment process. As we widened the campaign to include alumni, AU’s new brand campaign received favorable coverage in the Washington Post and the Associated Press. We also directed advertising to the graduate market. Distinctive, eye-catching photos of different types of “wonks” appealed to diverse audiences and encouraged prospective students to imagine themselves filling the frame as an AU wonk.

AU completed its public rollout of the campaign in spring of 2011, timed to take advantage of the college visit season and Washington spring tourism. To reach a broader audience, UCM purchased “station domination” advertising at three Metro stations; boosted the WONK website to include challenges, profiles, and other multimedia offerings; and extended advertising to bus shelters along Wisconsin Avenue.

Now integrated into major campus events (Wonk of the Year), incorporated into environmental design (wrapped shuttle buses), leveraged for the benefit of major initiatives (We KNOW Success), and claiming AU’s distinct place in Washington through sponsorship of the Nationals, the campaign is in its fifth year and demonstrating real results.

From the blogosphere to the twittersphere, buzz about the campaign first filtered through the city. Reviews of the campaign in the media and industry awards rolled in, and people all over the country were talking about WONK. Website traffic, social media interactions, and survey results have confirmed that AU’s new brand campaign is having its intended effects. The university is now a stronger draw for prospective students and is engaging more alumni. Our bold approach inspired prospective students, partners, and higher education peers to take a new look at AU.


  • Yield rate for freshmen: up 8 points since 2010
  • Percent of freshmen for whom AU is first choice: up 11 percent since 2010 to 55.4 percent

Alumni Engagement

  • AU alumni engagement index (a measure of giving, participating, and volunteering) has more than doubled since 2010.


  • Media placements: up 98 percent over five years


  • Large majorities of every AU constituency believe the university’s reputation has improved since 2010.
  • Gains against DC competitors on survey measures of awareness, perceptions of quality, and differentiation
  • Rankings in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges: up 13 places, from #84 in 2010 to #71 in 2015