Brand is Culture: Your Most Important Audience is Internal

June 5, 2024  |  Greg Summers, PhD

Education

On most college and university campuses, talking about the organization’s brand can be risky. At best, such discussions are met with indifference or maybe eyerolling. At worst, they can be greeted with skepticism or outright hostility. Faculty members and academics tend to equate brand with advertising, an activity they often view as disingenuous, especially considering that many campus employees refuse to think of higher education as a business at all.

As a former faculty member myself, I know that academics can be prickly and difficult to work with, a reputation that is probably well earned. But there are perfectly good reasons for their skepticism when it comes to brand.

For starters, most colleges and universities are themselves guilty of thinking of brand solely as a marketing tool, ignoring the role that stakeholder experience plays in shaping an institution’s identity and reputation. (For more on this, see my earlier post on Brand Experience.) If faculty and staff members make the same assumption, this should hardly be surprising.

But even worse, many institutions think of brand as something that applies only to external audiences, ignoring the experiences of their own employees. Yes, a brand is a promise a university makes to its students, alumni, donors, and community stakeholders, but it should apply equally to the faculty and staff members whose responsibility it is to deliver on that pledge. If this isn’t the case, then most brand positioning campaigns will be hobbled from the beginning. They will feel inauthentic to those you are hoping to influence, and key success goals including student recruitment, retention, and graduation rates could be undermined.

You might well forgive a little eyerolling.

The renowned management consultant, Peter Drucker, was famous for saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His rule applies to any organization, but it seems especially apt these days in higher education. On many campuses, years of budget and enrollment pressures, rising competition, and strained resources for salaries, research, and program development have harmed campus morale and organizational culture, fostering skepticism of strategic initiatives and undermining employee hiring and retention. Consequently, launching any new initiative, including a brand campaign, might first require addressing these cultural barriers.

Fortunately, a good brand is also the best tool in any university’s arsenal for improving morale and organizational culture, provided you leverage it properly. First, it’s vital to engage the entire campus in both communicating the brand, and more importantly, placing an emphasis on brand experience as the most authentic way to pursue distinction in the marketplace. Strategic brand positioning should never be the job of the communications and marketing office alone. Instead, each unit on campus should develop messaging tailored to its unique audiences, and stakeholder experiences within its programs and services that reinforce the institution’s brand promise.

That’s a good beginning. But a second even more critical step is to improve the brand experience of your own employees. If your brand is a promise, are you first honoring that pledge with your faculty and staff members? Do they have the resources they need to adequately serve students? Are there internal policies or practices that create unnecessary obstacles? Are you paying them reasonable salaries and ensuring they have appropriate workloads?

Of course, it’s an unfortunate reality today that almost every college and university has encountered some level of underfunding and overwork, concerns that can easily erode organizational culture. A brand alone can’t make these problems disappear. Still, those institutions that leverage their brands proactively to identify and address these issues, even if the problems can’t be entirely solved, stand a better chance of finding success and distinction in the marketplace than those who focus on external communication alone.

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.

Presentation Overview

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is a Senior Advisor at BVK

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