Kirti Celly: Professor of Marketing Publishes Seminal Study on Branding the CSU System
Kirti Celly, associate professor of marketing, at California State University, Dominguez Hills, had her article, “The California State University: A Case on Branding the Largest Public University System in the U.S.” accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing. The article was co-authored by Brenda Knepper, director of Communications and Public Affairs at CSU Dominguez Hills, who spearheaded a major branding project for the 23-campus system while serving in her former position as creative director at the CSU Office of the Chancellor. The comprehensive CSU branding program, which was launched in 2006, is widely used in all CSU Chancellor’s Office communications, the award-winning “How to Get to College” integrated marketing campaign, the CalStateTEACH program, and inter-campus programs such as CSU COAST.
Celly says that branding efforts are critical for public universities, particularly for the CSU, which is the largest state university system in the United States. Of her collaboration with Knepper, Celly says she was delighted to work with someone who had such a keen appreciation of the significance of a well-developed, consistently used, and flexible branding and visual identity system.
“[In thinking] about a system like ours, with 23 universities, some with multiple campuses, a common visual identity system and brand is critical to a consistent representation of the CSU to all of our publics, whether it’s the taxpayers, the students, our colleagues, or other universities,” states Celly.
Celly, who uses the CSU case study in the classroom, says that there is little published research on branding public universities, in part because marketing is viewed negatively within the academy.
“In the history of branding, services have lagged behind goods,” she says. “And universities have lagged within services... because of funding and because branding is a dirty word.”
Celly’s corporate expertise includes marketing specialty products for niche markets and developing market entry and marketing strategies for large multinational corporations and small and medium size exporters while working for the ExIm Bank and the leading management consulting firm in her native India. While serving on the faculty of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, she led projects for companies in markets worldwide, including Lockheed Martin in the United States, Whirlpool in Central Europe, Monsanto in Spain, AT&T in Qingdao, China, and Cummins-Engine in Chongqing, China.
Celly says that the power of the CSU visual identity project lies in the distinctive colors of red and warm gray that effectively differentiate the CSU from the University of California and its blue and gold color palette, and in the tagline, “Working for California,” that establishes the educational system as an economic engine within the state. In addition, the CSU branding system includes designed-in flexibility so that it can easily be adopted for a variety of Chancellor’s Office communications and systemwide CSU programs.
“For public universities like ours, branding becomes even more important because you don’t have a lot of money to constantly advertise,” Celly notes. “If you have a consistent image and a consistent visual identity, you’re reinforcing your brand to students, employees, external publics, state administrators, every single time they see it, creating strong brand associations, and eventually [building] brand equity, the value of the brand.”
In her marketing courses Celly reinforces the value of brand recognition in a unique way, through the use of poetry. An article she wrote on the subject, “Creative Writing in Marketing Education: Poetry as an Innovative Pedagogical Tool,” was recently published in the spring issue of the Marketing Education Review. According to Celly, until that piece, nothing had been published in the field of marketing education on poetry.
Celly’s goal is to leverage her research so that it informs her teaching in a way that brings meaning, relevance, and active learning to the classroom. By giving her students assignments that include writing verses about their favorite – or not-so-favorite – brands, she aims to show students how brand associations are made by consumers; how to present a brand; what ideas and associations make up a brand; and how consumers will always gravitate toward a brand without even considering the competition. With this exercise, Celly says the students, who were reluctant at first, surpassed her expectations with odes to everything from fast food to hair products.
“Some of the students said when they started, they thought it would be easy to write a poem, but it turned out to be challenging,” she says. “The majority of students said they loved doing it. These are students that are not just memorizing [concepts], they’re thinking, applying, [and] understanding.”
Celly says that learning through writing poetry, which is nothing new at the elementary school and middle school levels, is new in business education at the university level. She is currently extending her work in the area of poetry and business education with a co-researcher from the University of Louisville. They are working on a typology of different forms of poetry to be used for different educational objectives.
“At the elementary school level, you’ve got math books written in rhyme to teach addition and subtraction,” she says. “Poetry writing develops creativity among students. I anticipate that [poetry] is usable in the classroom across disciplines... as a complementary way of writing to the traditional descriptive and analytical writing that is the mainstay of business writing. In reflecting on their experiences of writing poetry in my courses, students echo what the American poet laureate Robert Frost has written: ‘For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.’”
Prior to arriving at the CSU, Celly was on the faculty at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She achieved her bachelor’s degree in economics and statistics and a master’s in management studies in finance at the University of Bombay (now known as the University of Mumbai), and her doctorate in business administration at the University of Southern California. She has co-authored the textbook, “Marketing Management” published by Prentice-Hall (with Richard Bagozzi, Jose Antonio Rosa, and Francisco Coronel), which has been adopted in many countries and has been re-written in Italian. Her articles have been published in academic journals such as the Journal of Marketing Research and Journal of International Business Studies, and she has presented her work in the areas of distribution, international strategic alliances, marketing education, marketing of higher education and non-profits, and branding at conferences around the world.
- Joanie Harmon