Higher Ed Branding — Lessons From McDonald’s


Higher Ed Branding — Lessons From McDonald’s

Mar 24, 2014By mStoner Staff

If domestic sales are any indication, McDonald’s appears to have lost its way. In the light of five consecutive quarters of sales declines, analysts are wondering if McDonalds has strayed too far from its brand promise. The similarities between higher education and McDonald’s may be tenuous, but McDonald’s results raise a few important questions that education institutions should be asking themselves:

What’s our core brand?

Not the brand you want to have. The brand you have.  McDonald’s likely understood their core brand but ignored it. Education institutions often have a different problem — they haven’t done the market research to understand what their core brand is. But either way, if you act in a way that’s inconsistent with your core brand, you’re likely to steer off course.

Who is our core audience?

McDonald’s is trying to appeal to everyone. Institutions make the same mistake. If you try to appeal to everyone, you will appeal to no one. That doesn’t mean you have to pick just one audience. You can have several — adult completion students, students who want an urban experience — but you can’t have everyone.

What do we do well?

No company or institution does everything well. Part of understanding who you are is knowing what you can do well and what you can’t do so well. McDonalds does “kid entertainment” really well. But “ladies who lunch?” Not so well. What is your institution known for doing well?

How many things can we do really well?

It’s better to do a few things really well than a lot of things poorly. It’s tempting to keep adding new products/programs to appeal to more and more people. More salads? Sure. More breakfast sandwiches? Bring it on. But it’s better to be strategic in adding new products. For education, the driving question should be, “What new programs can we offer that will attract a large number of incremental students without having to add a lot of resources?” That means starting with research — generally not where new program development starts — and prioritizing opportunities based on revenue and profitability. More and more institutions are inviting marketing into discussions of new program opportunities. And it’s long overdue.

Of course, there are also things that higher ed can learn from the many things that McDonald’s does right:

What’s our Shamrock Shake?

You know them, those diehard Shamrock Shake fans who every year count down the days until the green elixir flows again. When we interview students and alumni at institutions, we hear “Shamrock Shake” stories. These are the events and traditions that students look forward to each year. (They can even be popular classes that are only available once a year.) Whatever these are for your institution, you need to make sure they are prominently featured in your marketing materials. And if you can capture your diehard fans talking about them, all the better.

What do we do better than our competition? 

McDonald’s owns fries. Despite criticism that their French fries aren’t healthy, McDonald’s refuses to make any changes that would make the fries less tasty. The lesson for higher ed? If it’s working, try not to change it.

What does our competition do better than us?

McDonald’s keeps a keen eye on the competition. Sometimes they make changes because of the competition. Case in point: They improved the quality of their coffee because Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts were taking away breakfast business. But they pick their battles strategically. In higher ed, it’s important to include competitive understanding in your market research. What programs do they offer that we don’t? What do they do better than we do? What are they known for? But it’s important to be true to what you are. If you need to make program, service, or marketing changes because of a serious competitive threat, fine. But don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it.

You want fries with that?


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.