Does Your University Have a Brand?
Does Your University Have a Brand? If You Don’t Know, That’s a Problem
American higher education pays too little attention to brand. At a time when universities are desperate to stand out in a competitive marketplace, when they face mounting pressures from stakeholders to bolster rankings, enrollments, and fundraising, and when growing numbers of Americans express doubts about the value of a college degree, institutions remain loath to articulate and utilize strong brand positions.
It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that higher education has been slow to adopt brand and marketing as purposeful strategies. Academics are predisposed to be skeptical of anything that smacks of business jargon. Many faculty members view such efforts as disingenuous hype in the best of circumstances and unethical corrupting influences at worst. To the extent that some universities have adopted brands, their use is typically confined to admissions, communications, and alumni offices where they help define recruitment and fundraising campaigns. Rarely would academics consider brand central to the teaching, learning, research, and outreach missions of their universities.
This is a lost opportunity. When cultivated and deployed thoughtfully, an authentic brand position can not only help differentiate a university from its competition, but it can also function as a powerful tool for driving strategic change and continuous improvement, items near the top of any institutional to-do list in higher education.
Before elaborating on how brand can play this role, it’s worth mentioning the one nearly ubiquitous tool in higher education that too often fails to produce helpful results. University mission statements are supposed to serve as institutional “north stars,” providing clear declarations of purpose that help universities define outcomes and decide how best to achieve them. Yet as anyone knows who has ever engaged in strategic planning in higher education, this ideal rarely matches reality. Although some institutions possess sharply focused, differentiating missions, most do not. Because mission statements are inherently political creations, especially at public institutions, they are usually written in deliberately broad and expansive terms meant to be inclusive and avoid offending stakeholders. As an exercise, look up the mission statement of a peer institution, then ask yourself if what you’re reading might just as easily describe your own campus. Most likely, it does.
Inclusivity is a worthy goal, but it tends to produce mission statements and strategic plans that reflect the banal conformity of higher education. Today, the vast majority of universities look remarkably alike. Though they differ in size, location, price, and the kinds of programs they offer, there is an unmistakable sameness to the attributes by which they define themselves. Higher education is replete with institutions that claim academic excellence, student-centeredness, career preparation, national rankings, world-class faculty, and high-tech facilities. All are important, but none provide true differentiation from the competition. Likewise, most university strategic plans speak confidently of achieving academic excellence, student success, enrollment growth, community engagement, and fundraising, but with little specificity as to how to achieve these goals. As a result, too many such plans sit unused, gathering proverbial dust on administrative websites.
This is precisely why a brand position, if crafted well, can be useful in promoting differentiation, strategic change, and continuous improvement.
Unlocking this potential begins by recognizing that every university has a brand whether or not the institution deliberately articulates and promotes it. In fact, what a university does—how it teaches and supports students, how it engages alumni and other stakeholders, how it solves community problems—communicates its true brand more powerfully and with greater impact than any tagline crafted by a marketing office. If an institution does these things well, its reputation and identity are probably well established among its stakeholders. If not, then even the best branding and marketing campaign is likely to be inauthentic and unhelpful. In either case, being more intentional in how your brand is cultivated and communicated through the daily experiences of teaching and learning can open the door to the kinds of nimble, forward-thinking, and innovative strategic actions to which many universities now aspire.
Strategic change in higher education has never been more important. Colleges across the country are struggling to adapt to changing circumstances, from demographic and enrollment pressures to budget reductions, rapidly evolving technologies, and shifting economic and political demands. For those universities willing to make the effort, articulating and utilizing a brand position can reveal unique and authentic pathways through which institutions can successfully navigate these challenges.
To begin, a brand need not serve simply as a workaround to an ineffective mission statement. Indeed, it should align with the purpose and values reflected in the institution’s mission. Yet because brand positions are less subject to the political constraints of board policies and divergent priorities among stakeholders, universities have greater opportunities to craft sharply focused identities that stand apart from the crowd.
The best way to ensure differentiation is to define brands based on the institution’s core values—its central reason for being—rather than the typical list of attributes that every university claims to possess. In other words, a brand should be defined based less on what a university does or how it does it, than on why it does it and who it serves.
As challenging as this may seem, crafting a brand is actually the easy part. More difficult still is delivering on the promise articulated in a brand position. For a brand to be truly authentic, an institution needs to communicate its values in everything it does, not just what it says. This requires a university to integrate its brand into every aspect of its operation, from student recruitment through commencement and beyond. This is where a brand becomes a key driver of strategic change and continuous improvement. Brand can provide a far more focused lens than mission through which to craft and implement a strategic plan. There may be dozens of ways to improve academic excellence, for example. However, if a university makes those strategic improvements that best align with its brand position, its actions will inevitably be the ones that communicate most authentically its values and sense of purpose—the institution’s “why.” The more a university measures its progress against the promise of its brand position, the more it will foster a culture of continuous improvement and nimble adaptation.
Universities that take brand seriously—that actively cultivate and use their brand positions to make purposeful strategic choices aligned with their core distinguishing values—stand a much better chance of adapting to the many challenges confronting higher education today. And they will do so in ways that stand apart, resonating genuinely, powerfully, and personally with their stakeholders.
Lisa H. Foss and Greg Summers are brand strategy integration advisors at BVK, a higher education consultancy on brand strategy. Foss is a former Vice President for Planning & Engagement and Chief Strategy Officer at St. Cloud State University. Summers is a former Provost at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
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