Lessons from Jeff Harris, Sam Houston State’s CMO, on Authenticity and Gravity

February 21, 2024

In our fractured age, crafting a brand that emotionally inspires trust and loyalty from both customers and employees can seem impossible for large organizations. However, Jeff Harris, Chief Marketing Officer of Sam Houston State University, believes that large brands orgs can still connect authentically in 2024 if they focus on amplifying internal purpose over imposing external perceptions.

We got Jeff in the hot seat to break down his six critical insights for C-suite leaders to pilot a cultural marketing renaissance at organizations in 2024 by looking at how he brings them to life at Sam Houston State.

Jeff has steadily elevated regional academic institutions’ brands for over a decade by fundamentally listening and understanding audiences before building marketing strategies. He sees the marketing team’s role as almost entirely supportive – bringing together disparate organizational voices into compelling, cohesive stories that serve others while advancing the collective mission.

Listen Deeply to Uncover Your True Brand Core

Jeff says that the foundational ingredient to authentic brand building is listening. No executive can arbitrarily decree what a company stands for. Instead, they must dig deep through both open-ended discussions and structured research to uncover what makes the organization truly unique and valuable from an audience perspective.

At Sam Houston State, Jeff is spent his first year on a “listening tour”, having over 40 one-on-one meetings with deans, directors and faculty leaders across siloed divisions. Far from coming in with a prepackaged brand platform, he asks thoughtful questions about passions and priorities to start aligning the organization. Quantitative surveys will eventually supplement these qualitative insights.

The culminating brand platform must ring true both emotionally and rationally to all stakeholders. When audiences recognize their own authentic hopes and values reflected in communications, you grab their hearts as well as their minds to spark action.

Position Marketing as an Internal “Gravitational Force”

Rather than self-interested promoters or superficial spin doctors, marketing leaders should position their department as an objective connector and champion of enterprise talent.

Jeff mentions that, “I believe that there really isn't a purpose for marketing and communications, probably anywhere, unless you were honest. You're just a point to support incoming amazing stories, and to summarize, distribute, and then push them out to share with others.”

At Sam Houston State, this means identifying faculty, students and staff doing groundbreaking work and developing campaigns that amplify their voices. It requires suppressing ego and agenda to curate and distribute inspiring narratives already occurring. When marketing is an authentic megaphone rather than manufactured hype machine, the brand levitates accordingly.

Tap Individual Passions and Purpose

Rather than cookie-cutter organizational charts and job descriptions, Jeff advocates mapping talent to duties that unlock their highest potential for the collective benefit. Although transitions can start bumpy when units consolidate, patience and empathy can lead to self-actualization.

Jeff likes having deep talks with each individual to discover their unique interests within marketing. He states, “If you can find out where somebody's passion is, then you can get them in alignment with their passion...as long as you're there to support them and their journey into realizing their passion, what they're interested in, and it might be a passion in video production, it might be in writing, it might be in web development, it could be any number of different practices.”

When people bring their personal gifts to bear, the aggregated brand resonates that much more sincerely.

Root Your Why in Serving Others’ Needs

While quick sales through slick campaigns may temporarily boost metrics, to become beloved requires living your purpose. Jeff suggests, “It’s important, I think, to be on a listening tour, which gives you sort of that qualitative approach as to why this is the right place, what we're about.”

At Sam Houston State, this translates into marketing itself as a supportive function that only says yes to amplifying the great work already happening across media, events and content teams if it shapes perceptions of the greater university. Rather than institutional self-promotion, they channel campus collaborators addressing societal problems.

Brand building is thus a grander collaboration towards fulfilling student and stakeholder needs by contributing to the public good.

Unite Disparate Groups Through Transparency

When structuring an integrated marketing department, Jeff used an opt-in approach where deans chose which resources to provide him, preventing forced centralization. He remained extremely transparent about intentions through 1:1 conversations, aiming for win-win synergies that respect current identities. This patience built necessary trust.

He explains, “The time that I spent at Navy and the time that I spent at the other universities before Sam Houston really helped me to set up for what’s the proper way to go about this and bypass the sense of loss people will have by pulling this together.”

Gradually, the aligned structure takes on its own energy as people guide activities tied to personal fulfillment under a common banner.

Blend Service With Disciplined Prioritization

While listening, collaboration and support for community members should direct activities, focused strategy must still guide marketing so key audiences, messages and budgets stay on track towards the north star while preventing initiative overload.

“You can be service focused and you're just sort of on this conveyor belt of satisfying everybody's needs and you're not being strategic and the work is just moving through,” Harris says. However, he adds, “There’s also an understanding because you only have people, time and money...So you’ve got to manage the amount of work people are doing and you’ve got to keep room there available to be agile.”

At Sam Houston, this pragmatism shows up through a theme of transparency and negotiation – not every great idea can rise to the top if it distracts from perception priorities. Gentle education brings stakeholders into alignment.

In closing, marketing executives can model Jeff’s approach of facilitating contagious momentum by putting authentic audience understanding, galvanizing talent and driving institutional mission before vanity metrics. Brand building is a patient journey of helping others become their best selves by contributing value to society.

This idealism may seem removed from the hard-bitten realism expected in boardrooms. Yet Jeff argues that leaning into purpose over prominence can powerfully elevate regional universities. The same secret applies for demystifying fortune 500 branding in 2024 – properly harness the excellence within your organization and the rest will unfold.

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