Discovering a Brand’s Core

Developing a brand in higher education is an exciting, albeit complex, process. One of the most common challenges higher ed marketers face when embarking on a brand effort is that the brand doesn’t know who or what it is. If a brand doesn’t know its core, building a brand is almost an impossible feat. And it is precisely the reason we firmly believe that any branding project starts with research.  

To discover a brand’s core, we partner with our clients to develop survey questions geared toward uncovering students’ motivations, goals for the future, and personality attributes. Our goal is to understand the values that drive likeminded people to enroll each year. We tap into the emotional drivers for prospective students and see where commonalities exist among current students at the institution. And it’s by looking at these elements together that we can start to uncover character attributes that help us understand why people feel connected to a school, as well as its enduring values.

In my opinion, this is the best part of the process because it gets to the heart of the brand, but it’s also much more fun to develop and answer survey questions about personality and values. The results from these questions tend to yield results that go beyond our hypotheses (in a good way). A military institution driven by compassion. A healthcare school focused on love. These are the most authentic and differentiating aspects of your brand, not the fact that you offer 100+ majors and have a great U.S. News & World Report ranking.

As 2019 kicks off, it’s time for higher ed marketers to challenge the status quo and not shy away from emotionally charged, real, raw, authenticity. In the end, what parent doesn’t want to hear that love is an enduring value of a school? Or compassion is what drives the connectedness on campus? Here are a few considerations that will help define your brand:

  • Start with why. Your brand’s core truths often lie at the answer to the question, “why does our institution exist?” One great exercise to help discover your institution’s “why” is Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. Sinek has found that majority of companies start with the “what,” but it is the most inspired and influential companies that communicate the “why.”
  • Give your brand a real personality. Challenge your institution to come across more like a person. To do this think about what personality traits your brand embodies. Ask your community: Are we the type of person that everyone trusts? The kind of person you go for to advice?
  • Be bold in your approach. When it’s time to put pen to paper and craft the brand platform, choose words that describe your campus, even if they seem too bold for higher ed. “We care about our students,” is something we hear on many campuses, but the words “love” and “heart” are often left off the table. If it’s authentically you, don’t water it down. Own it.

At the end of the day, this world could use more love, compassion, and heart. Higher education seems the best place to start.

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