The Current

Thoughts on industry trends from your BVK friends.

Brand is Experience: Your Actions Speak Louder Than Your Marketing

February 1, 2024  |  Greg Summers, PhD


As a former provost, the best part of watching my university launch a new brand wasn’t seeing the new ads on social media or the signs on campus buildings and streetlights, and it wasn’t adding the new tagline and logo to my email signature. These creative aspects of brand expression can be exciting, to be sure, but what really captured my attention was how to leverage our new brand to make improvements in the experience of our students and stakeholders.

When academics think about their college or university brand, if they consider it at all, they think of marketing and communications. But an organization’s true brand isn’t the words you speak, it’s the experiences you give to your students and other stakeholders.

This isn’t a criticism of brand expression. Communication and marketing are critical. But communication alone is never sufficient.

The old axiom is as true in higher education as it is in most aspects of life: your actions speak louder than your words, or in this case, your brand experience speaks louder than your marketing. Whether you are trying to grow enrollment, increase fundraising, enhance your reputation, or simply stand out from the crowd, what a university does—how it teaches and supports students, how it engages alumni and stakeholders, and how it solves community and societal problems—communicates its true brand more powerfully and with greater impact than any tagline or marketing campaign.

If actions speak louder than words, it seems vital for colleges and universities to truly live their brands by integrating them into all aspects of their daily operations and culture, from student recruitment through teaching and learning to commencement and beyond. So why then do so few colleges and universities think about brand as anything other than communications?

I’m not sure, and I’d be curious for your thoughts.

Fortunately, breaking out of this conceptual trap is easier than it looks. Just try this simple reframing in how you describe your college or university brand: a brand, in essence, is a promise that you make to your students, faculty and staff members, alumni, and community partners about what they can expect when they engage with your institution. Are you delivering on that promise, or are you falling short?

Notice how this reframing immediately connects your brand to the lived experience of your students and other stakeholders, right where it belongs?

At BVK, when we do this exercise for clients, we call it a Brand-Strategy Gap Analysis. It’s a fancy name for something that every college and university could and should be doing to better leverage its brand: a systematic review of each operational area of your institution to identify where your brand is being effectively cultivated and communicated—through your actions as well as your words—and where there is room to do better. By locating gaps between your institution’s brand promise and the lived experience of your stakeholders, you create a detailed list of opportunities to strengthen your brand in the ways that matter most, the daily experiences that shape your institution’s success in achieving goals and meeting expectations. It’s a simple but powerful way to leverage your brand for focused strategic change and differentiation that is truly authentic.

All it takes is a simple reminder that your true brand is the substance of your stakeholder experiences, and that actions speak louder than words.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to utilize your brand to create authentic and meaningful experiences for your students, staff, and stakeholders, please reach out. Email me at [email protected] and we can talk about best practices for genuinely living your college or university 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 “From Brand Expression to Brand Experience.” Through case studies and practical advice, you’ll learn how to leverage your brand to create more authentic stakeholder experiences, more focused and effective strategic planning, and improved organizational culture. To learn more, download our Presentation Overview below.

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