When Mark Healy took over as chair of the alumni association at the Richard Ivey School of Business six years ago, engagement was low and graduates seemed too disconnected.
To help bring them together, Mr. Healy and members of the Ivey Alumni Association decided to stage an annual one-day event modelled after the live New Year's Eve television broadcasts that feature countdowns around the world.
The event, called Global Ivey Day, held on the second Thursday of November, starts with alumni events in Sydney and is rolled out across other times zones in cities such as Hong Kong, London, New York and Vancouver.
Global Ivey Day, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last month, has grown to include more than 58 events across 33 cities worldwide, touching more than 4,000 alumni who either attend an event or follow it on social media through sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
A number of employers with Ivey alumni, such as Royal Bank of Canada, Deloitte and technology firm Merrill DataSite, to name a few, also sponsor the event, which the association says has grown to three times the size of the homecoming celebrations of the University of Western Ontario in London, where Ivey is located.
For the school, Global Ivey Day is a way to engage the school's alumni, as well as current and future students, who are all connected by the Ivey brand.
"Your best brand advocates, if you're an academic institution, are your alumni," said Mr. Healy, the chief marketing officer at Tennis Canada, who handed over the Global Ivey Day chair role in 2009, while remaining chair of the association until the end of 2012.
"For better or worse, they wear the brand on their forehead for the rest of their lives. They're out there as walking, talking billboards," he said. "A strong alumni base that does well on their own, and is very connected and do things for one another, is huge for the brand of the school."
Universities need strong brands to build and maintain their reputation, which helps to lure top students. Once they graduate, alumni aren't just brand ambassadors, they're also potential donors. This is key for universities today, as governments continue to cut back on education funding.
Business schools in particular need strong brands to better compete with a growing number of universities offering more diverse education models, such as online courses and degrees combined with overseas study.
Ivey, for example, has a reputation for producing executives who have the potential to command top jobs and salaries, such as Fairfax Financial Holdings founder and chief executive officer Prem Watsa and well-known investor and TV show host Kevin O'Leary. The Schulich School of Business at York University plays up its global reach with overseas programs, while B.C.'s Thompson Rivers University and New Brunswick's Sandermoen School of Business promote their online MBA programs.
"It comes down to culture and positioning," said Andris Pone, president of Toronto-based consultancy Coin Branding, "It's a way of defining how you are different and, by extension, how you are better than the next guy. You are trying to target your niche."
There are also more opportunities for business schools to differentiate their brands, Mr. Pone said.
Unlike medical or law school graduates, business school graduates can be found in a more diverse number of sectors and jobs, he said.
"It's all about how you stand out from the crowd. What you're known for," said Jim Southcott, partner at Vancouver-based Southcott Strategy, who has worked on marketing campaigns for the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and Capilano University.
Some schools are also trying different tools to engage millennials, those aged 18 to 33, who dominate current postsecondary classrooms. They're promoting their schools as more of an experience rather than just an education, and communicating through social and digital media.
An example is Victoria-based Royal Roads University, which recently launched an all-digital recruitment campaign, including live virtual tours of the campus using Google Glass and a microsite that offers potential students the chance to connect one-on-one with staff and alumni.
"They're all trying to differentiate themselves around an experience, rather than buildings, with happy, smiling students and professors," Mr. Southcott said. "The millennial mindset is less about 'Get in, get out, get a job.' I think that's why you're seeing these different programs."
Global Ivey Day's social media element targets millennials, but the event also caters to older generations of alumni. The goal is to connect former students – in hopes of empowering them and inspiring them to give back to the school in different ways.
"Ivey wants their alumni to think 'Ivey first' – whether it's hiring grads, or graduates sending their kids to Ivey, or their co-workers to executive development programs," said Bill Hennessey, an Ivey alumnus and president of cleaning products manufacturer Qwatro RoyalPak. He now co-chairs Global Ivey Day alongside Mark Whitmore, another Ivey alumnus and managing partner in Deloitte's Toronto office.
"In society today, everybody is trying to compete with the noise out there," Mr. Hennessey said. "Ivey has used Global Ivey Day to ensure that, at least one day a year, Ivey is top of mind for all alumni."