Inside Iowa State

Inside Archives

Submit news

Send news for Inside to, or call (515) 294-7065. See publication dates, deadlines.

About Inside

Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

January 14, 2005

Coordinating a staff of 'thousands'

by Linda Charles

When you drive past the banners on Elwood Drive, rent a vehicle with Iowa State University stenciled on the side, see the university display at Des Moines' Jordan Creek Mall or look at an ISU publication, you see the hand of University Marketing.

That hand belongs to University Marketing director Carole Custer. Her job is to help a decentralized campus present a unified message that bolsters the university's reputation and mission, helps attract both students and public and private support, and fosters alumni loyalty.

It seems like a tall order for a small office that consists of Custer, her assistant and a couple of students.

But ask Custer and she'll tell you she has a staff of thousands.

"People look at me and wonder when I say that," Custer said. "But if the university is doing its job in terms of marketing, then we are graduating alumni who are happy, get good jobs and have a wonderful education. Each one is a marketing person for Iowa State."

She also adds to her workforce the university's faculty and staff. "They all represent the university every time they are outside the walls of Iowa State," she said.

No doubt about her loyalty

Representing the university well is more than a job for Custer. It's a heart-felt mission. She admits that she bleeds cardinal and gold.

Her association with the university started when she was in junior high school. She was invited to show her science fair project (she trained two white rats -- Elizabeth and Ethel -- to work together to get food) in the psychology department's VEISHEA display.

After that, "as far as I was concerned, Iowa State was the place I was going to go to school," she said. "And I did."

She graduated in 1971 in science journalism, with a broadcast emphasis. She and husband Roger (also an ISU grad) headed to Mason City where Roger had accepted a banking job based on the assurance that it would be easy for Carole to get a job at the local radio/TV station (then KGLO).

It wasn't. The news director turned her down, saying the audience wouldn't accept a woman anchor, and the station manager said she might get pregnant and leave.

"Jack Shelley was my adviser at Iowa State," Custer said. "He never told me this might happen. But I knew this was what I wanted to be. Barbara Walters was an icon, and Jane Pauley was on her way to becoming one."

Custer headed back to the station and talked herself into a job -- as Iowa's first TV anchorwoman.

When her husband had the opportunity to manage the family farm operation seven years later, Custer reluctantly left the station to move with him to Jefferson, where she accepted a marketing position at a local bank. Although she left the broadcast business, she kept the look: the stylish hair, high-end clothing, polished nails and perfect accessories, including an array of scarves.

When Iowa began a lottery, Custer was tapped as communications director and later marketing director.

"I commuted to Des Moines and Roger commuted to the farm," she said. And then she laughs, her trademark boisterous laugh that belies her manicured look.

But that is Custer -- a study in contrasts.

She lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mid-century house, with nary a bit of clutter. At her office, piles of projects cover every square inch of surface and part of the floor. She can have an entire room laughing at one of her stories -- or grumbling because she won't accept anything but the best when it concerns the university. She's outspoken and stands her ground, but she's never confrontational. And she loves Iowa State.

Giving back to her school

It was this love that led her to serve on the university's alumni board of directors and its fund-raising arm long before she began working at Iowa State. It was what prompted her to leave the Iowa Lottery job when former President Gordon Eaton offered her the newly created university marketing position in his office.

"Back then (in 1987), 'marketing' wasn't even a word universities would use," Custer said. "But I decided the job was a way I could give back to the university. And I like breaking new ground, helping to define the job responsibilities and goals. I like that kind of challenge."

Custer believes that research should be an integral part of marketing. Her early research showed that while departments and units were sending myriad messages to the public, the general public thought of the university as one entity.

"An organization can either be a house of brands or a branded house," Custer said. "The university didn't have the money to build identities for individual units. We had a better opportunity to build the university's identity."

This led Custer to develop the university's visual identity program -- a program that calls for everything destined for public consumption to bear the same Iowa State "look." (More information about the system is available online at http://www.

"While the visual identity is important, you have to put meat on the bones," Custer pointed out.

That's where the university's messages come in. The university has five major positioning messages that communicate the university's strengths to prospective students, Custer said.

"We're in a competitive market, so we don't share our messages in public," Custer said. But they are shared with the university community during the image summits Custer holds each semester. (For information on the summits, contact University Marketing, 4-9624.)

University Marketing operates like an internal agency for departments and units, helping them do market research, assess their images and current materials, develop promotional materials and plan special events. The office has on contract a design agency and an advertising agency, which helps keep internal costs down while providing the fresh creative skills of professionals, Custer said.

University Marketing produces three TV ads a year, run during Iowa State men's basketball games and a few other times. Custer also "seizes opportunities" to put Iowa State before the public, such as the display situated by the escalator at Jordan Creek Mall that touts the university's great faculty.

Another opportunity for the university has been the Iowa State Fair. For the past 11 years, Custer and her staff have organized the university's exhibit. (Her favorite was the "then" and "now" residence hall rooms.)

"The fair is often our first opportunity to make contact with someone," Custer said. "It's also great for our alumni. It builds loyalty and pride."

She was instrumental in developing the athletic department's visual identity. The historic signs around campus are the result of Custer's efforts, as is the Atanasoff display in the Durham Center.

Setting priorities

Amid all that, Custer always manages to make time for students, whether they want to interview her for articles, discuss career paths or book her to speak to their classes. And, she hires several student interns each year.

"It's very important to me. It's something I just make time for," Custer said.

Custer puts 30,000 miles a year on her car, most of it in the Jefferson-Ames commute. Much of the time, she is on the phone. ("As a commuter, you can work an hour in the car before you get to work.")

Among close colleagues, Custer perhaps is best known for her entertaining stories about Lucy-like predicaments in which she seems to find herself. (Ask her about the time she accidentally locked herself in a car in her own driveway and her daughter Whitney -- now an Iowa State junior -- kept hanging up when she called the house for help.)

But while Custer will joke about her life, there's one area that she never jokes about -- promoting Iowa State University.

Carole Custer

University Marketing director Carole Custer. (Photo by Bob Elbert.)


"An organization can either be a house of brands or a branded house. The university didn't have the money to build identities for individual units. We had a better opportunity to build the university's identity."

Carole Custer