Learning to Play Nicely Together

September 17, 2019  |  Vince Kalt


Higher Education’s Critical Relationship Between Master Brand and Sub Brands

Vince Kalt, BVK Account Director
Beth Blume, Director, BVK Insights & Planning

With the changing landscape of higher education, there is a real need for marketing to be increasingly personalized to capture the attention of the right students. Gone are the days of a one-size fits all marketing message. Additionally, decentralization of the marketing function within institutions of higher ed has become commonplace. On its best days, decentralization allows for autonomy, unbridled creativity and unique connections. But on its worst, it can lead to knock-down, drag-out fights between the university relations team—policing the every move of its cross-campus partners—and the individual colleges and business units on campus, who want nothing more than to bring their distinctive brand essence and personality to the surface. So, when a university brand needs to consider a refresh, there are some key questions to consider:

The Importance of a Master Brand

These are trying times for universities of all shapes and sizes, without a doubt. At BVK, we believe the way to create those connective threads is by employing a values-based approach to branding that allows universities to dig deep into their DNA and create a thriving brand position. Values are our North Star: they guide us in determining who we want to be, how we aspire to act, what we want to be all about. Centering a university brand around a value allows our clients to be true to who they are and operate in a way that effectively lives the brand.

While a brand needs to be laser-focused with its brand value and position, there also needs to be an acknowledgment of the need for flexibility. Where are there opportunities for the brand value to extend and communicate the holistic story of the university’s identity?

Enter Sub-Brand, Enter Complexity

This all starts to get complicated when colleges and business units (think online programs, residential life, even food service) are expected to filter up to the master brand with little input or say. At BVK, we believe that precise brand strategy liberates these sub-brands to tell their story in the context of the university’s larger brand position. But that can be challenging, particularly at large publics, where there are greater levels of competition, as well as many layers of stakeholders.

But even when times get tough, even when brand guidelines are ignored or blatantly defied—even when logos are turned into cartoon clip art—what we cannot expect from a university’s sub-brands is an abandonment of their individual identities. Sure, they may have been involved in the brand development process. They may have even nodded their heads or clapped for your team when you presented information throughout the process. But how much ownership have your cross-campus partners had? And were they truly bought in to know how this will impact them?

Sound Familiar? Let’s Talk About What’s Next.

First things first, your university master brand needs to be mapped out in exceptional detail. Identifying the core value you stand behind is the backbone of the brand. It may sound simple, but it takes a variety of research methods, including insights from all the sub-brands, as well as competitive analyses to land on just the right one. It is critical that throughout the discernment and platform development process you are collaborating with colleagues across campus — actively engage colleges and units. With the platform established and co-created with key on-campus stakeholders, continue to engage and collaborate with them throughout the internal launch process to build the brand from the inside out. Not only will they be bought-in but will feel a sense of ownership and excitement about how the work will impact their college or unit.

At BVK, we see the creation of a holistic content strategy as another critical component of bringing the brand to life in a tangible way. During our content planning, we seek to uncover reasons why content makes a difference, and how we could organize content areas into pillars. Each pillar speaks to a different aspect of the university’s unique value proposition and describes the content types, recommended formats and university departments that comprise it. Those pillars are another connective thread to unite the master and sub-brands. Individual colleges and other entities will be able tap into the content framework, while providing their own unique perspective on how to develop content that aligns with their own voice as well as the overall university’s brand value.

Finally—and this is a big one—it’s crucial to plan for the nooks and crannies that you will inevitably encounter across campus. Sure, that sounds good, but how do you plan for the unknown? At BVK, we think it involves a mindset that anticipates and accounts for variances. At all costs, do not force uniformity. That means evaluating things like mandatory logo lock-ups, limited color palates, and narrow (or absent) messaging maps.

Want to know more? We’re happy to share our approach with you. We have a variety of case studies and sample frameworks via a complimentary presentation for your external relation and marketing communication teams. Just give us a shout or email [email protected] to request more information.


is a Vice President at BVK

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