A Conversation with Robin Heitzman, New Director for Brand Strategy and Communications
James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation
The University of Michigan stands alone in its commitment to excellence and comprehensiveness and through its continuous expansion of public purpose. As the great public research university, U-M is a community bound together by a commitment to the discovery of what’s next. It is also a community that has worked for 200 years to break down barriers to accessing higher education. U-M’s impact on the world is breathtaking, and far from complete. Remaining on the edge of discovery requires more: more interdisciplinarity, more inclusivity, and more imagination. This is an academic innovation story worth telling.
Brands should tell compelling stories. So it gives me great pleasure to welcome Robin Heitzman to our Academic Innovation team to guide us in this important ongoing work as our first Director for Brand Strategy and Communications. Robin is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and comes to us most recently from her role as the leader of Nike’s North America business at MKTG. She has dedicated her career to building brands and experiences that help people to feel connected, empowered, and inspired.
U-M is uniquely positioned at the intersection of excellence and comprehensiveness. This position allows us to create a future where everyone can participate. Our brand must provide an invitation to our growing learning community: join us in shaping the future of higher education, construct and share new knowledge through interaction with global learning communities; discover in Michigan an opportunity to create your personalized pathway for lifelong learning.
Robin and I connected as she stepped into her first week at the Office of Academic Innovation and discussed building on traditions of excellence, converting challenges into opportunities, and building brands that tell compelling stories and inspire us to fulfill our potential.
1. You are stepping into a new role with the Academic Innovation team as Director for Brand Strategy and Communications. What excites you about this next step in your career and what motivates you to create authentic connections with learners in Ann Arbor and around the world?
I’m proud of the fact that the first CD I ever bought was “Ten”, by Pearl Jam, which undeniably remains one of the best albums of all time. Back then I had to go through this process called ‘shopping,’ which involved physically going to a store location during normal business hours to buy music on a disc with actual money. Fast forward to 2018, and now we consume music on demand, at the touch of a button, and it lives invisibly inside this beautiful little screen that gives us instant access to our digitally preferred world. It’s rather magical.
Today, we live in a mind-blowing time where possibilities are endless. Technology is causing dynamic shifts in how we connect, consume, communicate and spend our free time. All of this is fundamentally impacting how and what we learn.
As the University of Michigan drives innovation in education to serve this instant-everything reality, I am thrilled to join the team to engage educators and learners from an Academic Innovation brand perspective. I believe we are uniquely positioned in this technology-driven world, to create and influence real progress that has the potential to have great impact on society. To me, that is an incredibly exciting place to be.
2. How does growing up as a die-hard soccer player influence the way you approach building brands and experiences that make people feel?
Growing up, I loved playing soccer. Every chance I got I had a ball at my feet all the way up through college. No doubt, being an athlete has shaped who I’ve become, but it was my experience learning to live without the game that left the most significant mark. Five surgeries, countless hours of rehab and some crushed dreams along the way taught me how shifting perspective and finding workarounds can convert challenges into opportunities. Ultimately, because of these roadblocks, I developed the grit and creative problem-solving skills that have served me well beyond the soccer field.
Brands that tell compelling, consumer-centric stories that tap into life’s tensions can inspire us to take action and reach to fulfill our potential. My journey as an athlete has given me an empathetic perspective on the types of questions we all face that are pivotal to life’s experience. I’ve used this to help cultivate brand stories and engagement strategies that make people feel understood and validated, which ideally leads to coveted intangibles like consumer trust and brand loyalty.
While you won’t find me on a soccer field quite as often these days, don’t be surprised if you see a ball at my feet in the office. My best ideas come when my feet are busy!
3. How do you hope to work with faculty, staff, and student innovators in your new role?
The University of Michigan is a world-class leader in higher education with an incredibly rich history. Its stories have been built by smart, innovative thought-leaders who have established the traditions of excellence that exist today. But as technology evolves around us, being nimble and open to change is the only constant we can rely upon. Through listening and asking relevant questions, my hope is that we can use our collective empathetic lens to tell illuminating stories that will inspire educators and learners alike, to strive well beyond what they ever thought possible.
4. What has your experience with Nike taught you about the importance of storytelling reaching your audiences?
Nike’s mission statement is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. (*if you have a body you are an athlete).” So, in short, they seek to inspire all humans on the planet to reach their potential. This is a bold mission, but it is critical to differentiate the company’s mission, which is a guiding principal, from its strategic marketing approach, which is much more targeted. Nike’s marketing teams have worked tirelessly to build hyper-local relationships at a global scale. That means they dive deep into the ever-changing consumer nuances by sport categories, demographics and geographies, to understand how to make marketing stories and experiences most relevant to those they target.
Ultimately, consumers need to feel understood and valued before they trust brands enough to be loyal advocates. I look forward to diving deep into University of Michigan learner segmentation to better understand how we might not only best serve the existing U-M community, but also to attract and inspire new learners around the world.
5. What else should academic innovation affiliated faculty, staff, and students ask you about?
I’m game for chatting about any of the latest and greatest marketing strategies or tactics people see in the marketplace. I love talking shop. My wife and I are new to the area, hailing from Chicago (Go Cubs!) and have twin four-year-olds. We are on an epic journey that always has funny stories attached. In my free time, I am an amateur wood-worker and love to learn tips and tricks of the trade!