Can You Brand Higher Ed?

First, let’s agree on what brand means
iStock/Michael Burrell

Brand is a big topic and a polarizing one in higher education. Unlike Nike or Apple, a school is a place, a community, an experience. It is not a lifestyle that has evolved from a product. There is a culture that is made up of diverse people, experiences, and knowledge. Can you brand this? 

I don’t mean the logo, type, and color—these are all crucial elements for consistency in communications and merchandising. But can you tell a community, especially one that is trained to question such directives, how to talk about themselves?

In speaking with Bryony Gomez-Palacio co-founder of the blog and conference, Brand New, she notes, “You have a very unique challenge [with higher ed]. Basically, everybody’s offering the same thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re more humanities or more stem-oriented, essentially each organization is offering the same thing. And it’s governed by the same body of people, basically, who are always looking sideways, what is everybody else doing? What is working for the other? So let’s go ahead and do that. And let’s keep it safe.”

I couldn’t agree more. As many schools are struggling with enrollment there is a tendency to move towards a safe zone—to be like everyone else. Instead, they should be doing the opposite by owning what makes them unique and clearly communicating that to their prospective students. Dive deeper into what distinguishes them—are they known for an area of research or study? Traditions? The location of the campus? A specific offering or teaching approach? Dig into the things that your audience finds most meaningful: connections, fun, a sense of purpose and place. 

On the other end, as schools evolve so does their student base, leaving some alumni to feel disconnected with the school. “This isn’t the school I attended,” is something we hear often from our clients when working on their alumni magazines. Understanding how to bridge these two is imperative to continue engagement for recent graduates as well as pride for older alumni. 

Melissa Connolly, Vice President for Communications and Marketing, University of Albany notes, “The key is to tell the stories of the university in a consistent and compelling way; to highlight those things that are unique and cutting edge, and use a consistent visual style guide, while honoring and recognizing all the audiences for whom the university’s brand is important.”

So to answer my question, I do think it is important for members of an institution to have clear talking points in order to effectively differentiate themselves for prospective students and engage with alumni. But I believe the word “brand” gets used inappropriately in higher ed. Melissa adds, “The word ‘brand’ is often confounded with the assets of a brand, like a logo or tagline, or the idea that an organization must have a single unique selling proposition. But that’s not how universities work. Universities are made up of thousands of stories of individual experience. A university’s relationship with its publics is complex and varied, and highly dependent on individual circumstances.” 

As Bryony notes, “Identity is your kit of parts. The brand itself is when you turn all of those things into an emotional and psychological connection between the brand and the human, and whoever is experiencing that brand. And if you are consistent, that is really important as a brand, and you deliver on your promise, then that emotional connection is always going to grow. It doesn’t so much matter if it’s pink, or blue, or rounded or not round, it doesn’t matter, aesthetically as much. It’s how you’re using those assets in order to create that connection.”

As Universities define their brand they have to take risks to differentiate by defining a strong value proposition. The marketing and communications team train people on how to share that messaging for consistency across campus (which we all know can be challenging). But buy-in is imperative to get the messaging to stick. With that said it is important to be flexible and allow the brand to evolve because schools are designed for people to do just that. The culture of an institution cannot be distilled into one pithy phrase like, “Just Do it.”