Between 2018 and 2023, as the most senior international marcom practitioner in the organization where I worked, I was fortunate enough to lead a team of highly-talented communications specialists in steering our brand through a complex and challenging environment.
Below, I’ve provided some examples of my work, accompanied by some details on how it served the mission of the organization, plus some insights into the decisions I was regularly called upon to make.
… it might help to start with some background on where I worked.
My employer was China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), a graduate-only business school founded by the Chinese government and the EU with a mission to educate responsible leaders versed in ‘China Depth, Global Breadth.’
In my role with CEIBS, I was tasked with leading the school’s global branding efforts in service of its overall mission and strategy. In particular, my main objectives were to:
In addition to the above, my team worked closely with the school’s admissions staff to support student recruitment efforts.
In support of the above objectives, I led a team engaged in a range of activities, including:
CEIBS serves both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences. The school’s MBA and Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) programs, for example, are delivered in English, while other programs are delivered in Mandarin. My mandate was to target a non-Chinese audience.
The targeting bullseye below gives a broad overview of our external audience (Note: If you hadn’t previously heard of CEIBS, you probably don’t fit our target audience).
Media relations played a key part of our communications strategy at CEIBS. A favorable mention in an A-list media outlet, for example, might not only help us reach a much larger audience, but also establish us as a credible source of business expertise. Some examples:
MBAs with Chinese characteristics
In response to a request from The Economist magazine, I arranged a two-day campus visit for one of their journalists, during which she sat in on MBA classes, toured our facilities, met with students and admissions staff and interviewed the school’s dean.
A subsequent article, which appeared in both The Economist’s print and digital versions, featured very positive coverage of CEIBS. The magazine claims 5.1 million weekly readers.
Read the article here (subscription required).
Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon lead corporate charge to Beijing as ties with US fray
Thanks to our media monitoring efforts, I learned that a group of high-profile US executives were set to visit China to meet with local government and corporate leaders to address the challenges facing companies doing cross-border business.
At that time, we had on file a paper written by one of our faculty on the topic of how businesses could navigate current geopolitical tensions. Working together with my media relations specialist, we revised the paper (specifically to reference the upcoming meetings) and pitched it to our media contacts.
Although media outlets declined to publish the article (most were planning their own coverage), the Financial Times interviewed our faculty for the story they ran. This was probably the biggest story in China that week and we were part of the discussion in a newspaper that averages 22.4 million readers each month.
Read the FT’s article in full here (subscription required).
Most of the editorial content we published fell into one of three categories (each with its own purpose): thought leadership, student and alumni stories and news.
One of our main tasks was to showcase the school’s expertise on doing business in China. One way we did this was to publish summarized versions of faculty research papers, which we adapted to make more accessible and relevant to a broader (non-academic) audience.
What killed marriage? China’s divorce rate is up 75% in a decade
Although a somewhat off-beat topic for a business school, China’s divorce rate had recently made headlines as part of a broader discussion around the country’s growing demographics crisis (fewer married couples = fewer babies = fewer workers to replace an aging population).
At the time, we had on hand a paper by one of our faculty on the topic of divorce. The piece was originally written in Chinese, but after reading it, I believed it was something which would also be of interest to a non-Chinese audience.
The translated summary of the article was one of the most read of the year across all our platforms and set off much debate amongst our student and alumni community. Read it here.
Using the article as part of our media outreach efforts, we also landed the faculty (seen on the far right below) an appearance on Bloomberg TV. Watch here.
CEIBS Faculty Predictions
Not all of our thought leadership was published as long-form content. In an effort to create lighter, more social media-friendly content, we often asked faculty for quick takes on various hot topics. One of the most popular examples was our annual faculty predictions for the coming year. View the 2022 edition here.
Student and alumni stories
Student and alumni stories were an opportunity both to champion successful students and alumni and to show how the CEIBS experience helped them grow and achieve their personal and professional goals. The stories also fed into our customer advocacy efforts (as they encouraged students/alumni to share their stories with their wider networks).
CEIBS student awarded MBE for volunteer effort during COVID pandemic
In 2020, our GEMBA class president was named to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work in mobilizing resources during the COVID outbreak in China. Amongst other things, the story was a great example of how Chinese and non-Chinese were working to help one another.
The interview (which I conducted) spans his efforts fighting COVID, how CEIBS helped him hone his leadership skills and what it was like seeing his name on the same list as F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton.
The story got an additional boost in 2023, when our now-alum was finally able to travel to the UK to receive his honor in person from the King. Read it here.
One of my main responsibilities as a communications practitioner was, of course, to prepare and publish press releases to keep the public abreast of important school developments, such as forums and events, program rankings and other awards and recognitions.
China-EU co-op on decarbonization possible despite differences
In covering school events, we aimed to produce something of value to readers by focusing on the content of the talks given (rather than just writing event summaries). The example below highlights one of the key messages delivered by speakers at our 2022 forum in Brussels that, in spite of differences, co-operation on global issues is still possible.
Read the full press release here.
CEIBS makes presence felt on world stage at Davos
In 2022, China had record-low representation at the World Economic Forum in Davos. As such, it was genuinely noteworthy that CEIBS was still there offering a perspective from Asia.
Read the press release here (I contributed the angle and third paragraph and edited it).
Not all of our work was digital. I also served as managing editor of our alumni magazine TheCEIBSLink. We printed about 3,500 copies per issue, which were distributed to alumni and partners, at school events and on magazine stands around campus (and which disappeared almost as quickly as we put them out).
The issue below focused on the challenges and opportunities for businesses in fighting climate change and was published ahead of the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021. The theme also tied in nicely with the school’s mission to promote responsible leadership. Download a digital copy here.
In order to remain top-of-mind, we needed to engage with our audience on an on-going basis. Social media played a big role in this. During my time at CEIBS, we exceeded 10% follower grow per year and reached over 1 million users per month across all platforms.
Launching a new strategic channel
By mid-2021, CEIBS faced numerous challenges when it came to reaching our non-Chinese audience. China’s COVID-related border restrictions, for example, meant we were forced to deepen our domestic student recruitment efforts. At the same time, there was growing uncertainty around the future of LinkedIn, which Microsoft had announced they were ‘sunsetting’ in China. It was time to launch an English-language CEIBS WeChat account.
Outside China, of course, not everyone uses WeChat. Those who do, however, often have a connection with China and, as such, are more likely to fit our target audience.
The account grew to nearly 3,000 followers in 24 months after launch, far outpacing the benchmark for English-language accounts in a market with only 1.5 million non-Chinese users.
Below are some examples of banners featuring our WeChat QR code that frequently appeared on digital screens around our campus.
Social media campaigns for customer advocacy
In addition to WeChat, we managed official accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (TikTok still skews a bit too young for a graduate-only business school). One way in which we sought to use these accounts was to promote customer advocacy.
Ahead of our MBA Class of 2023 intake, for example, we launched a #SeeYouAtCEIBS campaign (I personally came up with the alliterative hashtag), where we encouraged in-coming students to share a message about their new journey along with a banner and the hashtag.
The Financial Times’ annual ranking of EMBA programs played an important role in both boosting brand awareness and enhancing our reputation. Following our #2 finish in the 2020 ranking, we invited students and alumni to share testimonials and reactions to the results, which we then posted on our social media channels on a custom banner.
Each year, we published upwards of 100 videos, including 360-degree campus tours, interviews, virtual lectures, animated content and more.
Meet our new president
When CEIBS appointed a new co-president in 2022, we invited him to our campus studio to shoot an on-camera interview. I envisioned the project as a way to introduce him to the school community, and we asked our program departments and alumni to contributed questions as well.
The interview was published as a four-part playlist (which has now been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube). This modular approach also made it easier for our MBA and GEMBA programs to re-use relevant content on their own channels. The interview was further spun off into an accompanying article. Watch it here.
Research explainer videos
Another type of content we regularly put out was text-only explainer videos. These videos served as teasers for thought leadership articles and regularly exceeded 50,000 views each on our YouTube channel.
The videos, which were produced with the help of AI, were social media friendly, required little effort to make and allowed us to recycle existing content. Check out an example here.
I’m not a graphic designer, but my background studying film has provided me with a solid understanding of visual aesthetics. I was also lucky to work with a very talented designer.
In addition to producing visual content that was instantly recognizable as CEIBS-branded, we were also tasked with enforcing the school’s visual identity (VI) guidelines. Here are some examples of the work we created together:
One of the most important factors affecting the long-term reputation of any brand is the quality of its product or service (you can fool people for a little while, but if you have a poor offering, word will eventually get out). Moreover (assuming you have a high-quality offering), one of the most impactful ways to boost your brand is to create opportunities for potential customers to experience your offering first-hand. As a business school like CEIBS, this meant hosting open classes, executive talks, forums and more.
Note: It is, of course, impossible to stage a large-scale event without the collective efforts of many people. In the example below, I was responsible for steering the event described, including taking all of the key decisions.
How will China’s economic recovery play out beyond the Two Sessions?
In early-2023, following the end of China’s zero-COVID policy, CEIBS sought to reconnect with the foreign business community in China by hosting a special half-day forum in Beijing. The budget for the event was roughly 300,000 RMB ($55,000 CAD).
We co-organized the event with the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China (EUCCC). The EUCCC was selected because of its shared interest in bridging the Chinese and international business communities and because its membership is largely comprised of foreign professionals (i.e. our target audience).
Beijing was selected for the forum as it is a major hub for the foreign business community in China and a key regional market for the school’s student recruitment efforts.
The event was scheduled for the second half of March 2023 to coincide with the first post-COVID Two Sessions meetings of the Chinese government. The Two Sessions are the highest level of annual political meetings held in China, during which the government announces new economic policies for the coming year.
The theme for the event was How will China’s economic recovery play out beyond the Two Sessions? The event provided insights into China’s growth prospects in light of new government policies with an emphasis on the challenges and opportunities for foreign businesses in the country.
Format and agenda
The forum included a series of keynote speeches and a panel discussion followed by a networking event and MBA and GEMBA program info-sessions.
Offline or hybrid? Open or closed door?
Importantly, we wanted to provide a high-quality experience for those in attendance. However, China is a very politically sensitive environment. Hence, in order to ensure open dialogue and create the best space in which to showcase CEIBS, we opted to make the event wholly offline (as opposed to a hybrid event which could have been livestreamed to a larger audience). The event was also closed to journalists and the panel discussion portion of the event was conducted under Chatham House rule.
The decision to make the event English only (with no interpretation provided) also created a barrier to non-English speakers, filtering out people who didn’t fit our target audience.
The forum featured speeches from two CEIBS faculty, Professor of Economics Zhu Tian and former World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Pascal Lamy. They were selected for a couple of reasons:
- Pascal Lamy is a big name and served as a major draw for attendees; by contrast, although lesser-well-known, Zhu Tian is one of the top experts on the Chinese economy and we knew he could impress our audience with his insights
- Together, Zhu Tian and Pascal Lamy represented the two sides of the school’s positioning around its slogan of ‘China Depth, Global Breath’. To this point, Zhu Tian’s speech focused on the future of the Chinese economy, while Pascal Lamy’s speech focused on China’s role on the global stage
We also presented a panel of business leaders who discussed the opportunities and challenges facing their organizations as China emerged from COVID. The panel featured two CEIBS alumni and two representatives from the EUCCC. In order to convey the message that CEIBS is a business school for both Chinese and non-Chinese students, the panel featured a mix of local and foreign participants.
We targeted an audience of 200 participants for the event (with CEIBS and the EUCCC each taking responsibility for half of that number). Based on an average online registration-to-show-up rate of 50% for past events, we aimed to get 400 registrations for the forum.
The event was promoted via numerous channels, both paid and unpaid. These included LinkedIn, WeChat and other social media channels, EDMs and partner organizations, as well as the school’s student and alumni network. Promotional efforts began about one month prior to the forum and increased roughly two weeks prior to the event date. Find the event listing here.
As mentioned above, the event was closed to media. That said, we did use our time in Beijing to meet in person with various international (non-Chinese) media, including AFP, Bloomberg, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. SCMP and ARD also met one-on-one with CEIBS faculty around the event.
Post-event and follow-up
The post-event press release focused on the main points of the discussion under the headline Trade, climate and geopolitics will dictate China’s path to economic recovery. Read it here.
In response to feedback we received, we opted to release a video recording of Zhu Tian’s talk online (viewed on YouTube more than 3,500 times). Watch it here.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), we created a WeChat group for attendees, through which we were able to share the press release and event photos, collect participant feedback and continue to engage on an on-going basis.
The nature of branding activities such as the Beijing forum is such that their return-on-investment may only become apparent in the long run. Added to this, the customer purchase decision time for an MBA or EMBA often runs anywhere from six months to two years. Hence, it is difficult (if not simply too soon) to assess the full impact of the event.
That said, the Beijing forum received 450 online registrations and 210 show-ups (exceeding our target). A post-event survey also indicated that a majority of attendees had not been aware of CEIBS prior to the event and that only very few had previously engaged with the school in any way. A majority of respondents also stated having a very positive view of the school as a result of joining the event.