The Current

Thoughts on industry trends from your BVK friends.

Brand is Strategy: Your Strategic Plan is Likely Missing It

May 1, 2024  |  Greg Summers, PhD

Education

As a former faculty member and provost, I’ve participated in my share of strategic planning in higher education. Annual department work plans, five-year university plans, state-level system plans.

I can say this: they rarely work, and worse yet, they almost all sound alike.

Try an experiment: ask ChatGPT to write a strategic plan with three goals for a typical [fill-in-the blank: community college/four-year public/private university]. Most likely, what you get in response will sound familiar.

  1. Enhance Academic Excellence and Student Success
  2. Promote Community Engagement and Global Outreach
  3. Improve Fundraising and Alumni Relations

There’s a reason that strategic plans are so generic that a simple AI tool can write them. Higher education excels at planning as a process: at most institutions, there are campuswide committees with broad stakeholder representation, innumerable listening sessions, volumes of data gathered, and endless meetings—so many meetings. Yet, despite this attention to process (or maybe because of it), few strategic plans produce genuine strategies: theories that articulate why your institution exists, define the market you aim to serve, and explain specifically how you intend to win what is, after all, an intense competition for enrollment.

If you’re a marketing and communications professional, you probably know this already. But what you might not realize is that your university’s brand offers perhaps the best solution to creating a more effective strategic plan.

It’s a rare university that includes brand in their strategic planning. When they do, it’s usually just to assign the task of “brand stewardship” to the marcomm office with a goal of “telling our story better.” But a good brand is more than messaging and communication. Your true brand is the substance of your stakeholder experience, and because of that, it should drive your operational planning.

Fortunately, your institution’s brand is also strategic in all the ways that most strategic plans are not. For starters, a good brand—meaning an identity defined by your core values, not simply your attributes—should articulate the purpose of your college or university, why you exist and who you serve, sharply defining your market. In theory, this should be captured in your mission statement, but sadly, most mission statements are every bit as bland and cookie-cutter as the strategic plans they wind up producing. A brand, by contrast, tends to speak your identity more powerfully and with greater clarity, exactly the foundation you need for devising effective strategies.

Second, while most strategic plans list only what you want to accomplish, a brand can focus your efforts on how the goals should best be achieved. The trick is asking yourself a simple question: Are we keeping our brand promise in the experiences that we deliver to our stakeholders—in our recruitment of prospective students, in our teaching and learning in the classroom, in our student support and co-curricular activities, in our alumni and donor engagements? If you are, then you are genuinely living your brand. If not, then by asking this question, and more important by answering honestly, you’ve created a specific, actionable, and prioritized list of strategic improvements your institution should make before doing anything else.

Finally, living your brand in this way is the clearest path toward authentic differentiation, which offers perhaps the best strategy for winning in any competitive marketplace. Genuine distinction requires more than just a new tagline and a clever social media campaign. In addition, you need to combine brand messaging with authentic brand experiences to ensure that you are communicating as much with your actions as you are with your words. Integrating your brand and your strategic planning gives you a roadmap for creating exactly these kinds of impactful, differentiating experiences.

Let’s be honest, it’s an open secret in higher education that most strategic planning is ineffective. But the purpose, focus, and differentiation provided by a values-based brand create a powerful framework for devising the kinds of strategies that colleges and universities desperately need to thrive in today’s competitive marketplace.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to build partnerships for your brand and marketing work among key campus stakeholders, let me know. Email me at [email protected] and we can talk about best practices for helping your college or university to genuinely live your brand. Or you can visit BVK’s Brand Academy for Colleges and Universities to explore how to develop and leverage your brand.

We also offer a free presentation called “It Takes a Campus to Make a Brand.” Through case studies and practical advice, you’ll explore ways to better collaborate with university leadership, faculty and deans, and staff members who work in student support, admissions, alumni and donor relations, and human resources. To learn more, download our Presentation Overview below.

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