On Purpose: Barnes & Noble College’s Cynthia Zimmer on the Role of Brand

The Buzz Bin’s “On Purpose” feature explores the thinking behind the strategies and tactics top marketers employ in pursuit of business goals.

When it comes to B2B communications, brand marketing is a critical differentiation strategy. Today, we talk with Cynthia Zimmer, director of corporate marketing at Barnes & Noble College, the leading college campus bookstore operator on more than 725 campuses, about how she and her team express and market the company’s brand. For Cynthia, expressing the Barnes & Noble College brand is about much more than what the company does—it’s about connecting back to the company’s purpose and mission. PadillaCRT has worked with Cynthia and her team for several years and continue to be impressed by their passion and talents.

Buzz Bin: How does Barnes & Noble College’s brand guide and shape your B2B communications?

Cynthia Zimmer: Our brand is at the core of everything we do – from operations and customer service, to finance and human resources, to our sales communications and of course, both our B2B and B2C marketing efforts. It’s who we are internally and externally. For me and the B2B team, we are working with directors of auxiliary services, business officers and VPs of operations who are in charge of selecting a partner to operate their school’s bookstore.

Cynthia Zimmer is director of corporate marketing at Barnes & Noble College. Her 15-year background in strategic planning and creative execution of diverse B2B integrated marketing initiatives allow her to effectively build and manage internal marketing groups with a customer-centric philosophy.

Though our B2C and B2B marketing teams have different audiences, our brand purpose is the same – to support and celebrate the social and academic experience of the students, faculty, administrators, alumni and communities we serve – to be their ally. School administrators have an identical mission, while also striving to enhance school loyalty and increase bookstore revenue.

All of our communications are built on this principle of purpose as well as the understanding that the academic retail industry is changing rapidly due to new technologies in the higher ed space, changing student behavior, revenue pressures and a million other things. It’s a challenging environment for many schools. My job is to help our college and university partners understand and, above all, experience how we are leading the way in transforming their bookstore and using it as a platform to achieve their goals.

At the end of the day, your marketing and communication efforts need to demonstrate how your brand makes a difference.

We do this across every channel – digital content, direct presentations, event marketing, our overall thought leadership, and much more. But what we communicate isn’t all about WHAT we offer and provide – it’s about the WHY behind what we do. For instance, we show schools why it’s important for their bookstore to connect with their new students the moment they are accepted – establishing the bookstore’s role as a support system right from their first interaction with the school and building a foundation for loyalty that will last throughout their four years on campus and beyond. Similarly, when it comes to faculty, we aren’t just talking to them once a year when textbook adoption comes around. We’re conducting research and engaging them year-round to uncover ways to help them save time – their most precious commodity – and offering additional tools, resources and support to help them foster student success.

At the end of the day, your marketing and communication efforts need to demonstrate how your brand makes a difference. You don’t do that by putting a spotlight on what you do, but by being a beacon that helps those you serve, and those you hope to serve in the future, achieve their purpose and goals.

You talked a little about research. How does customer feedback and insight play a role in your overall marketing efforts?

Everything we do comes from the voice of our customers: campus partners, students, faculty, alumni. It’s why we don’t chase the latest craze in marketing and say, “let’s do that.” What comes first is what our customers expect, need, and want from us, so we can enhance the bookstore experience and meet our campus partners’ needs. That’s our obligation.

We just launched a campus partner advisory panel to complement our online College Student POV panel, which consists of thousands of students nationwide that we regularly survey. We also have a faculty online panel as well as local Bookstore Innovation Groups that our on-campus store teams meet with regularly to gain invaluable feedback and ideas. We ask, listen and innovate – and then ask again to ensure that we’re meeting their needs.

A great example of this is our Igniting the Alumni Connection initiative. The B2C team surveyed both recent graduates and older alumni to better understand their engagement and preferences related to the campus bookstore, as well as their overall connection to their alma mater. The results showed that alumni were eager to stay connected, so the consumer marketing team built a digital program that featured curated merchandise and dynamic imagery for these alumni. The results are phenomenal, with open and click rates twice the industry average. Equally important is the fact that this program has deepened our relationships on campus and unlocked an additional revenue stream for our campus partners.

What are your thoughts on the importance of storytelling in marketing?

Well, I am a HUGE Seth Godin fan and he is a big champion of storytelling. I am, too, because it brings to life the experiences we deliver to the millions of students and faculty we serve daily. Yes, we sell textbooks, merchandise and more–but as I said earlier, we have a bigger purpose. Beyond our functional competencies as an organization, our passion and commitment is about making a difference. It’s what inspired our founder to open our first store more than 45 years ago.

Marketing is storytelling. They are synonymous. The only way your brand ultimately has credibility is through creating and then capturing the experiences that impact those with whom you want to connect.

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