Finding the “What Else” that Really Drives Your Brand

When we kick off any new branding initiative, our SimpsonScarborough team always starts by spending several days on a campus, meeting with faculty, staff, administrators and students and asking them to share what is distinctive about their institution, what they see as its strengths and weaknesses, and how it is relevant to its constituents. The goal is to find the strongest strands that weave together the fabric of the institutional brand. The discussions often go like this:

“What is something distinctive about your institution?”
“I would have to say it’s our robust study abroad program. More than half of students participate!” 

“What are your institution’s biggest strengths?”
“Our small class size really allows our faculty and students to build close relationships.”

“What makes your institution relevant?”
“Definitely our high placement rate. Ninety-some percent of our students are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation.”

People almost always resort to talking about institutional attributes: high job and graduate school placement rates, strong student-faculty relationships, small class sizes, affordable tuition, and beautiful campuses, to name a few. Even though these attributes, and others like them, are important aspects of an institution, they unfortunately don’t do much to communicate its brand.

We refer to key institutional attributes as foundational elements of a brand — the building blocks of the college’s or university’s offerings. For prospective students, their parents, and high school counselors, these foundational attributes are table stakes. Through a Google search, they can determine which schools have the baseline attributes that are important to them. Then they start asking, What else? It’s the “what else” that forms the heart of your brand. It might be a standout program, a unifying institutional personality, an overarching philosophy that drives your people and programs — or a rich combination of all three. When we conduct discovery sessions and research, we are trying to find your “what else.” Two factors help define a successful brand pillar or position:

  • It is differentiating. Your class sizes may be small; your student-faculty relationships may be strong; your placement rates may be high, but many institutions (including your competitors) can also claim the same things. To all the small schools thinking, “But we actually have a low student-to-faculty ratio,” the large public down the road is still talking about meaningful faculty-student interaction, just with a different proof point. Your brand messages should speak to the things that you do differently or better than your competitors.
  • It is emotion-driven. Your brand should build an emotional connection to the audiences you are trying to reach. As much as you might want your 10:1 student-faculty ratio to resonate in the hearts of your prospective students, it just doesn’t. Rather, audiences are drawn to brand messaging that inspires, excites, or strikes them — ideas like providing students opportunities to move up in the world, fostering a passion to impact society through a life of leadership and service, empowering students to do and achieve more than they ever thought they could.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t talk about strong attributes. Instead, start thinking about the benefits that students and others derive from them. “Empowering students to do and achieve more than they ever thought they could” is possible because of your small class sizes and strong student-faculty relationships. “Providing students opportunities to move up in the world” is possible because you are affordable and accessible. “Fostering a passion to impact society through a life of leadership and service” is possible because of your robust internship, study abroad, and community service programs.

Because it’s so common to fall back on attributes, we have been changing the way we ask people to talk about their institutions. We ask questions like, “What kinds of behaviors and attitudes are encouraged here? What is discouraged?” We ask people to share their most meaningful moments as a student or professor and other questions that are personal and transcend the transactional (see more on this idea in a blog post earlier this year from my colleague Kristen Creighton).

Bottom line: In a competitive market, you can’t rely on strong yet non-differentiating attributes to drive your brand; you must unearth the bigger-picture benefits that speak to your audiences’ aspirations and drive their loyalty to your institution.

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