At mStoner, we define your brand as the position you occupy in the minds of the people you want to reach, influence, and move to action.

To your audiences, though, your brand is the promise you make to them about what you will do for them. A few examples that we’re all familiar with:

  • Tide laundry detergent will get your clothes cleaner than any other detergent. (Disclaimer, I am 100 percent brand loyal to Tide laundry detergent.)
  • Disney will give your family a magical experience.
  • Honda will get you where you’re going safely and reliably.

When there’s a big difference between your brand promise and your brand experience, dissatisfaction reigns. Cynicism creeps in. People think you’re either out-of-touch or dishonest.

Bridging the gap between your brand promise and your brand experience requires asking hard questions to determine what needs to change and, more importantly, how you’re going to change it. In other words, a strategic plan. In consumer packaged goods marketing, the brand forms the foundation of the strategic plan. The strategic plan starts with an assessment of perceptions of the brand among key audiences and includes (among other things) a plan to address the gaps between current and desired brand perceptions.

The need to address the brand gaps is just as true for higher ed as it is for laundry detergent, theme parks, and automobiles. And yet, in my experience, higher ed institutions rarely consider the brand promise in the institutional strategic planning process. In most institutions, the strategic planning process is conducted separately from the marketing planning process, and includes few, if any, of the same stakeholders. In fact, all too often, the CMO is not invited to the strategic planning table.

So what does a brand-centered strategic planning process look like?

  1. Conduct research with key audiences to understand your current brand perceptions. This doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, or lengthy. It can be a series of focus groups or one-on-one interviews with the audiences who matter. It can include many different stakeholder groups, but should include, at a minimum, prospective students, prospective parents, current students, and alumni.
  2. Develop a SWOT analysis based on a comparison of your actual brand with your desired brand. Use the research results to create a grid of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats relative to your brand promise.
  3. Identify a sub-team responsible for each brand attribute. Every strategic planning process has sub-teams. Make sure there’s a team to address each major brand attribute.
  4. Develop a specific list of initiatives that will close the gap. Each sub-team should develop a specific list of action items to to address the gaps, as well as a plan for how progress will be measured.

I’m not suggesting that your brand is the ONLY thing to consider in the development of a strategic plan. Often, there are mission-oriented goals that reflect what the institution wants to be that are not strongly reflected in the brand, or not reflected across all audiences. (For example, increasing access to under-served populations may be a goal that comes out of your mission but that isn’t a strongly stated part of your brand promise.)

Starting the process with a discussion of your brand promise ensures that your audiences are heard in your planning process. Their perception matters of how you are — and how you’re not — living up to your promise. They pay the bills. They keep you in business.

And they know when you’re not telling the truth.


Higher education branding doesn’t have to be difficult. By understanding the unique dynamics — and the potential pitfalls that can arise – you can create a process that ensures that you get buy-in for a compelling brand positioning that will capture the unique story of your institution.

Want to learn more? We recently published a white paper that explores the specific challenges of higher education branding and gives you strategies for clearing the most common hurdles.

Deborah Maue

AUTHOR - Deborah Maue

As a marketing professional, higher education is just a fascinating category to work in. It's incredibly complex, and ever-changing, so just when you think you have it figured out, it changes. (It's way more interesting than the laxatives category, I'll say that.) All of my experience in the last 20 years - in CPG marketing, at DePaul, in market research - has brought me right here to this role at mStoner. So I got that goin' for me. Which is nice. Find me on

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