July 28 2017 0Comment

Higher Ed Branding, Part 1.

In today’s turbulent economic and political climate, higher education leaders are facing many challenges that they never have experienced before. Many institutions that previously have enjoyed sustained approval from policymakers, funders and other stakeholders are increasingly seeing the pendulum swing. The new normal often entails bitter criticism and declining support from many federal and state lawmakers, employers, students and parents.

A newly released survey by the Pew Research Center on Americans suggests that the vitriol and rancor may continue for the foreseeable future. The survey, which was conducted in June 2017, found that 58 percent of Republicans view colleges negatively while only 36 percent believe higher education is positive. In contrast, two years ago 54 percent of Republicans believed that higher education had a positive impact on the nation’s direction; at that time, 37 percent rated higher education negatively.  While Democrats and Democratic-leaning citizens are gradually becoming more supportive of higher education, the negative opinions espoused by many Republican leaders and voters comes at a time when the GOP holds the reins of power at the federal level as well as key leadership posts in many states.

Therefore, the time is ripe for higher education leaders to consider focusing on creating or strengthening their institution’s brand. A strong brand serves as the institutional lighthouse in the midst of a societal hurricane. That beacon helps stakeholders know what the institution stands for – and the value and services it provides to its students, community and stakeholders.

What is Branding?

Entrepreneur.com defines branding as “the marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.” Having a brand offers a promise to stakeholders about “what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offerings from that of your competitors.”

In higher education, brands are created based on who the institution is, what it aspires to be, and people’s perceptions of the institution. Branding also means that an institution of higher education stops trying to be all things to all people.

Getting into Stakeholders’ Brains

Brand management is rooted in cognitive psychology. “Once  an  attitude  is  formed,  it often  prevents  new  information  from  being  accepted  at face  value,” said Dr. Paul Kerr, associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado said in an article for Educause.  “Accessible, summary attitudes, therefore, are quite predictive of subsequent behavior concerning a particular product. When an effortless flow  from  attitude  to  behavior exists, changing a person’s attitude  or  judgment  is  extremely difficult,   if   not   impossible, even  though  the  object  may change considerably.”

It’s important to realize that while you create a logo and tag lines, it’s actually the stakeholders who build the brand. “Consumers give brands value by developing perceptions and expectations for those brands,” wrote Susan Gunelius in a 2014 Forbes.com column. “Companies enhance the value by delivering consistent brand experiences that consumers can trust.” She notes that brand marketers often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization) as well as Aristotle’s Seven Causes of Human Action (chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion and desire). These theoretical models help brand marketers create perceived needs in stakeholders’ minds that lead to action and support.

Defining a Brand

So how does a higher education leader work to define a brand? Entrepreneur.com recommends reaching out to stakeholders for their responses on four key questions as the first step in developing the brand:

  • What’s the institutional mission?
  • What are the benefits and features of services and products that are provided by the institution?
  • What do faculty, staff, administrators, students and other stakeholders think of your institution?
  • What qualities do you want associated with the institution?

At the most basic level, the institutional brand is communicated by the institution’s logo along with its website, packaging and promotional materials. These materials are used as part of a brand strategy to communicate brand messages to stakeholders. The challenge becomes creating a consistent strategic brand that creates brand equity and increased value for the institution’s products and services.

An Inside Higher Education column by Ken Pasternak, Marshall Strategy’s Managing Director, suggests that branding efforts in higher education also should extend beyond a logo. “Great brands are built by the sum total of promises made—and fulfilled—that add up to meaningful and lasting relationships,” he stressed, noting that institutions of higher education have only had to focus on branding recently. He suggests five strategies to build a coherent brand:

  • Your culture is your brand. Your organization’s cultural values inspire students, faculty members and other stakeholders to participate in your organization. Pasternak suggests gathering perspectives from across the institution to identify core principles and drivers that can be used to marshal your community and develop a brand.
  • Your brand is driven by your community. “Great brands are those whose missions people want to be a part of, because they are the aspirations of the community,” Pasternak noted.
  • The brand inspires stakeholders’ behaviors. The brand identifies, communicates and rewards behaviors in the institution.
  • Organizations maintain discipline around their brand. Organizations with great brands make concise decisions about the messages they convey.
  • Brands are a work in progress. Branding efforts don’t stop once a logo is created. The brand continues to evolve as the institution evolves.

That last point is important because institutions of higher education face a different challenge than companies such as Apple or Starbucks. “Colleges and universities, though, have multiple constituencies that may have conflicting cognitive representations and values,” Dr. Kerr said. “Attempting  to  position  a  college  optimally  with  respect to  all  these constituencies  is  a  daunting  task;  adding  or deleting specific links may please one group while alienating  another.” With that said,The Change Leader’s next blog will focus on how universities can begin to create a brand to attract millennials and people from different demographics.



Primary Sources for This Post:

Educause. (ND).  Higher Education Institutional Brand Value in Transition: Measurement and Management. https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ffp0104s.pdf

Entrepreneur. (ND). Branding. https://www.entrepreneur.com/encyclopedia/branding

Gunelius, S. (2014). The Psychology and Philosophy of Brand Marketing, Needs, and Actions. Forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2014/03/05/the-psychology-and-philosophy-of-branding-marketing-needs-and-actions/#2b6ab3dd725a

Pasternak, K. (2017). Five Strategies for Building a Great University Brand. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/call-action-marketing-and-communications-higher-education/five-strategies-building-great