Higher Ed Branding – Why Does It Have to Be This Hard?

Posted by Deborah Maue on 12.4.2013

Every brand manager thinks her brand is the most difficult to define, differentiate, and communicate.  And in fact, defining a brand is a challenge in any category. But higher education presents some unique branding challenges:

1. Most of the brand value comes from experience.

Unlike branding a new product line, a university’s brand isn’t something you choose one day; a university’s brand is largely a result of the experience people have with it. Strategic messages can build and reinforce the university’s brand over time, but the brand will always be more about what you do than what you say.

2. Institutions interact with many different audiences that want and expect many different things. 

For example:

  • Prospective students (and parents) want to know that a university gives students an opportunity for an excellent education and lifelong career success.
  • Alumni want to know that the value of their degree will continue to appreciate.
  • Employers want to know that a university’s graduates will have what it takes to be successful on the job.
  • Prospective donors want to know that the university will use their donations in a responsible way that’s consistent with their goals and values.

And the list goes on.

Further complicating matters is the fact that audiences aren’t discrete and can’t be completely isolated in marketing. For example, potential donors see prospective student advertising. Parents are also employers, and often prospective students, themselves. All the more reason that an integrated messaging strategy — shared across all communicators — is essential for successful brand implementation.

3. Responsibility for communicating to those different audiences is often distributed across a lot of people in different divisions of the institution.

Therefore, successful implementation of an integrated brand requires agreement, commitment, and cooperation from many people. This can be difficult in higher ed institutions, where cross-divisional collaboration is often difficult or unprecedented.

4. Brand strategy requires communicating benefits, not features.

Historically, institutional communications have focused more on facts and figures — the number of tenured faculty, the level of diversity, the age of the science building — than the benefit that the students get from these features. Successful branding goes beyond features to communicate the benefits of those features.

5. Brand strategy requires choosing to not be all things to all people.

It requires defining a target. And in saying, “This is our target,” you’re also saying, “Everyone else is not our target.” This is difficult and scary, because it feels like turning people away. But it’s better to be clear about what you offer, so that your “right-fit” students will find you more easily. (The “bad fit” students will figure it out eventually anyway.)

6. Effective brand strategy requires simple messages.

Things are seldom simple in higher ed. It’s a complex industry. That complexity often translates to complexity in messaging. But effective messaging requires simplicity — getting to the core of the institution’s brand promise and communicating it in a few, powerful words. That takes courage and discipline, and sometimes a level of risk-taking.

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Posted by Deborah Maue on 12.4.2013
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