Who Are U? Branding in Higher Ed

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There are certain university logos that produce immediate, almost subconscious thoughts and feelings whenever I see them. Put the Harvard logo in front of me and I think Ivy League, prestigious, exclusive. I associate the Alabama logo with football and the Duke logo with basketball. Stanford is innovative and high tech, the farm system for Silicon Valley.

I have deeply engrained, strongly held preconceptions about these schools even though I’ve never set foot on their campuses, and seeing the school’s logo is enough to bring those preconceptions to the surface.

My gut reaction to each logo is a reflection of that university’s brand.

What’s a brand?

When we talk about brands, people often think first of icons, color schemes, and typography. Indeed, I started this post by considering the power of logos. But logos and colors are merely manifestations of a brand, not the brand itself. Logos are symbols that marketers use to represent their brands and elicit specific emotions in their audiences, but branding goes much deeper and is far more complicated than selecting the right font.

Bestselling author and marketing guru Seth Godin defines a brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

A good university brand connects with prospective and current students, alumni, staff and faculty, parents of students, potential employers of students, and people in the greater community who might not know much about a school, but still make certain associations when they hear the name.

Our brand is the promise we make through the story we tell. The promise sets expectations – this is what we do. The story is our enactment of that promise and proves that we deliver on the expectations we’ve set – this is how we do it. The fulfillment of the promise leads to trust and a sense of value. Emotional bonds are formed and long-lasting relationships are established

Why do we need branding?

Every university has features that make them unique: legacies, traditions, reputations, success stories. Don’t schools just brand themselves.

At Bethel, we have alumni doing amazing things in the world. We have incredible students who create a supportive, encouraging community. We have brilliant faculty members who genuinely care about their students.

We’re already walking the walk. What’s the point of taking a step backwards to think about how we talk the talk?

I’m glad you asked. Certainly, the walk is the priority. But we can’t do the things that make us great if nobody knows who we are or what we stand for. We can’t have a community of students, faculty, and staff without the students, faculty, and staff. Even more importantly, we can’t have our community without the right students, faculty, and staff.

Recruitment is important. But a brand goes beyond meeting quotas and filling seats. Branding is about finding the right fit people. The people who help build our community, support our mission and values, and want to make a difference in the world. The people who resonate with our promise and our story, and who will go on to further our brand just by the way they live their lives.

And we’re not interested in wasting anyone’s time. We want the people who will connect to Bethel, who will find their time here enriching and transformational, the community supportive, and their money well spent.

When we do branding, we’re specifying our promise and showing how we deliver on that promise, helping us find the people who resonate with Bethel.

Why is branding so hard?

Branding isn’t easy in any industry. If it were, every company in the world would have a strong identity and brand loyalty from customers. But only a select few have established that kind of relationship and emotional bond.

Adding to the difficulty, higher education faces unique challenges that make our branding efforts even more complicated than in other enterprises.

1) We’re tough to define.

Higher education is a difficult thing to describe, define, or categorize. Think about it this way: if I go to a gas station and buy a bag of Skittles, I know I’m getting delicious candy and I’ll experience a taste of the rainbow. It doesn’t matter which gas station I choose. Or if I visit an Apple Store and buy a new MacBook, I know the features and screen size and user experience I’m buying. I can easily compare the specs of MacBooks to Dells and ThinkPads to decide which is best. It doesn’t matter which Apple Genius rings up the final sale.

But if I’m a 17-year-old trying to decide where I’ll go to college, how can I tell them apart?

Every college claims to have exceptional professors, a passionate and active community, challenging academics, state-of-the-art facilities, study abroad programs and a global perspective, internship and research opportunities, and a wide variety of majors and minors.

So is it true that all universities are all of these things? Or is it more likely that we highlight these features because they’re safe, tested marketing points, and it’s really hard to figure out what actually makes us different?

What makes us different – that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

College is an experience, and each experience is unique to an individual student. How can we possibly pinpoint the parts of the experience that make us different from other schools when the experience is so hard to generalize from student to student? Can we make a promise to prospective students when we won’t know the outcome of their time here, or our ability to deliver on our promise, until they’ve already invested 4 years and a considerable amount of money? If each student experience is different, how can we identify a “typical” prospective student? Is there such a thing?

Does your head hurt yet?

2) We’re big and messy.

No matter how a university is organized, it’s always made up of subgroups: traditional undergrad schools, adult undergrad schools, graduate schools, seminaries, different academic departments (arts, humanities, sciences), athletics, student life, offices, alumni groups, etc. The list just goes on and on, and varies greatly from one university to the next.

University branding is confusing because each subgroup has slightly different identities and personas. Their people have different needs and expectations. For a university brand to work, it needs to capture the essence of all subgroups in a unified way while giving each the ability to adapt the brand to its audience and context

In other words, it’s extremely complicated.

3) We’re not a bag of Skittles.

There’s a hesitancy to run Bethel like a business or treat what we do here as a product to be sold. The fear, it seems, is that we risk compromising our integrity, restricting academic freedom, and cheapening the college experience by touting outcomes at the expense of life experiences, exploration, learning, and growth.

I understand the concern. But this isn’t the way it has to be, or should be. All groups at Bethel – faculty, staff, students – should be working together to define, establish, and support our promise and story. The idea isn’t that a team of marketers invents a brand and forces the rest of the school to conform.

We’re always making a promise to our community. When someone enrolls at Bethel, or comes to work at Bethel, there are certain things they can expect to get from the experience. And Bethel already has a story it’s telling. Students, faculty, and staff live it out every day.

We just need to figure out how to define those things. How can we be specific about our promise so we can differentiate ourselves from other schools? How can we tell our story in ways that resonate so our promise will be understood? How can we ensure we deliver on our promise time after time to create long-lasting relationships?

Those are the questions that branding asks. It’s not easy, but worthwhile efforts never are.