I was recently talking with
a friend whose 17-year-old son is in the depths of his college-selection
process. She related to me her family’s impressions of several campus visits,
saying that one school had stuck out because the entire day’s experience—from
the information session to the tour to random interactions with students—had
reinforced an impressive theme of service. She concluded with a remark about
how we all know, however, that higher ed marketing is B.S.
I’ll admit to being a little miffed that my good friend had basically just said that my profession was proliferating B.S. But I had to smile, too, because the story that she had relayed was an example of higher ed branding at its best. She had been captivated by the institution’s consistent delivery of its core ethos—to the point that this university was now her top choice for her son.
It bolstered a point that I always make with clients: staying on message—for the long haul—is critical. Even if you start to get bored with it yourself, it’s important for key audiences who may know of your institution in a general sense but are now interacting with it on a personal level for the first time. But with so much skepticism around college—the admissions process, delivery, outcomes—and just marketing in general, how can you relay your brand in a way that truly connects with cynical parents and their nonplussed teens? How about grouchy alumni and been-there-heard-that donors? While there is no bulletproof solution, I advocate for the following three tenets of branding that can make a difference in how today’s wary stakeholders receive your message.
Build around a relatable theme. So many “about us” statements and marketing materials I see for institutions present a mind-numbing laundry list of attributes and benefits that just end up making the place indistinguishable from its competitors. There’s such a fear of leaving something out that the end result is a run-on sentence of mush.
A recent Fast Company article gave a great example of how a carefully curated brand can provide a better framework for messaging. The article quoted Simon Endres, CEO of Red Antler, the agency that branded Casper mattresses, who said, “With Casper, we worked to say they’re a sleep company, not a mattress company, which gives them flexibility to build content. They can do anything with sleep, or waking life, because the [idea] was that better sleep leads to a better waking life.” The lesson for colleges: You can actually open up possibilities by honing in on an authentic high-level theme and then showing how different aspects of the campus experience support and extend it. Bonus: It’s easier for prospects to remember a singular theme—and make it their own—than to try to memorize a million different facts about your school.
Transcend the transactional. An article last year in Harvard Business Review explored the differences between purchase brands and usage brands. Purchase brands, it says, emphasize promotion, think about what they say to customers, and try to shape what people think about the brand. Usage brands emphasize advocacy, worry about what customers say to each other, and try to influence how people experience the brand—that is, they “think of customers less as one-time buyers and more as … members with an ongoing relationship.”
Colleges and universities often act as purchase brands, and that mindset can be hard to shake. But small moves can set change in motion. Engaging in social listening can open your eyes to associations both surprising and helpful, as well as identify powerful influencers to leverage. Regular market research is a must; we have some clients that make it a priority to conduct replication studies every two years and closely track the results to gauge brand equity and determine where they need to focus resources. And as my colleague Matt McFadden noted in his November blog post, institutions should think about opportunities where they can shift some traditional marketing activities toward more experiential approaches—programs, events, interactive sites, and other offerings that focus on community-building, customer service, and personalization that positions your brand as a lifestyle choice rather than a negotiable commodity.
Operationalize it. On college campuses, the word “branding” is almost always still paired with “marketing.” The common perception is that branding is the sole purview of the marcomm office. But a handful of colleges and universities are starting to understand the essential role of branding in the institution’s long-term growth. More and more we are seeing brand strategy informing strategic planning, rather than being one of the action items arising from the plan. In terms of best practices, neither is the chicken nor the egg—rather, each is constantly reinforcing and informing the other.
Your brand is not a tagline, logo, and color palette. It is a mission-based expression of your institution’s distinguishing ethos, and its power cannot be taken for granted. The brand promise and values must be taught and consistently nurtured, as noted in a recent Branding Strategy Insider article, which said: “Brands have so much potential to restore credibility to communications in ways that build the business. … Actions must align to the values of the brand, and customers need to see those values being lived by every worker and in every transaction, internal or external.” NYU is a good example of a higher ed institution working to operationalize its brand: the university is creating a faculty and staff onboarding center that will provide a one-stop shop for not only handling the logistical components of setting up a new employee—ID badge, health-insurance enrollment, etc.—but also offering training on the institution’s core brand values. From the very start, those who are on the front lines of providing the university experience will understand their role in living and propagating the NYU brand, whether in the classroom or in the dining hall.
On January 14th, TV, radio and digital channels across the Midwest started rolling out our latest creative multimedia campaign for Indiana Tech.
We are beyond excited to see this work takeoff into the world, especially as it helps promote our great friends and strategic partners in Fort Wayne.
Since the first day of our work with Indiana Tech, SimpsonScarborough learned never to underestimate what this institution was capable of.
For better or for worse, the word “tech” often is seen as limiting in the higher ed space. But for the Warriors at IT, tech is hardly a constraint. It’s the starting point of a powerful story that needs to be told. Indiana Tech has a campus in Fort Wayne serving traditional undergraduates, as well as 18 regional campuses across Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Indiana serving adults seeking to continue their professional studies. Its offerings and the people it serves are hardly limited.
Our robust quantitative research confirmed this hypothesis. So, we dug into the data and created a strategic platform for telling (and showing) the IT story. Building on that solid foundation, we then developed a big creative idea, and corresponding brand identity, that tied all of our insights together:
At its core, tech is the practical application of knowledge. It’s transforming everything we learn into everything we’re capable of doing. For centuries it has enhanced our minds, enabled us to see farther than ever before, and empowered us to live better, more fruitful lives.
The resulting creative work was unveiled to an internal audience of more than 500 faculty and staff and was met with a standing ovation.
When our partners at Indiana Tech asked us to help them with a 360° ad campaign — building on our past year of research, strategy, and creative work — it didn’t take long to send our response, “Tech Yeah.”
We set out to answer the big question: how do we create a campaign that actually shows people the true comprehensive nature of IT’s offerings? How do we spark a conversation that expands the relevant regional perceptions about this high-quality, hard-working university in Fort Wayne, Indiana?
In this case, we started with the big story, we focused the campaign on the three biggest offers at Indiana Tech — and we turned up the volume.
Learn It: Academics.
Live It: Student Life.
Bring It: Sports & Recreation.
Finally, we expanded the story (and the conversation) to show the many ways Indiana Tech makes a real impact on people and their careers.
Every day, Indiana Tech helps people pull their distant dream into broad daylight, where they can see it, try it, and grasp it for themselves. The long-term goal of our work with this amazing client is to help illuminate that truth to the world.
“Warrior students and alumni have always known Indiana Tech as a place where people achieve remarkable things every day. We’re a university that helps our students, faculty, and staff reach for a brighter future. The Go for IT campaign created by our partners at SimpsonScarborough not only captures this idea perfectly, it also helps us reach prospective students, partners, and community members to make sure these audiences are aware of — and inspired by — our Indiana Tech story.”Brian Engelhart, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Indiana Tech
For many marketers, a brand initiative is an enticing idea. It’s also a time-consuming and costly process, so you need to make sure your institution is ready before you dive in. Just because you don’t like your logo doesn’t mean you need to scratch everything. But how do you know when the time is right?
Your Brand Doesn’t Reflect Your Values
Most would agree that your brand is not your logo or colors, although there are still some holdouts. Your brand isn’t the curriculum, study abroad opportunities, or the student-faculty ratio either. Your brand is your values – what’s important to you and what you stand for. It’s these brand values that should be the primary driving force behind your actions, decision-making, and behaviors. They also influence the way you connect with your target audiences. Your prospective students, internal audiences, alumni, donors, influencers, corporate partners, potential faculty hires, and others are more likely to engage with a brand whose values are aligned with their own.
Your Brand Is No Longer Relevant
We all know how hard it is to build a great brand, one that consistently inspires, influences, and compels. And in a time of constant change and heightened customer expectations, maintaining brand relevance is the key to remaining valuable to the people who matter to your institution. Brands need to evolve in a way that meets the needs of their target audiences, embraces change and innovation, and differentiates from the competition. At the same time, trying to stay relevant but not doing it authentically never works. A relevant brand must also align with where the institution is today and where it’s headed.
Your Brand Has Become Too Complicated
Sometimes people describe their brand, and several sentences into it, you still don’t understand their core message. That’s a bad sign. Simplicity makes a brand great. We lose this simplicity by trying to be everything to everyone. You can’t be everything to everyone. This is something most of us understand very well in our own personal lives, but it can be easy to lose sight of this in your brand and marketing efforts. No person, no company, no anything is universally beloved. The most popular restaurants on Yelp still get one-star reviews. The most critically acclaimed movies rarely reach 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. If you attempt to broadly appeal to everyone, it might work in the short-term, but over time, there’s a chance you won’t appeal to anyone.
Your Brand Doesn’t Stand Out from the Crowd
Higher ed generally suffers from a crisis of differentiation. It seems every time one institution discovers something that works well, others race to the same idea. But the reality is that people are attracted to different brands because they don’t all want the same thing. So why aren’t we enabling them to choose the brand that is most meaningful to them? Simply put, differentiation directly affects a brand’s short-term profitability and long-term viability. When your target audiences see brands as interchangeable, they make decisions primarily based on price. This ultimately compromises a brand’s ability to survive, especially in challenging market conditions. Differentiation is a long-term objective, not a “take one and call me in the morning” solution. Following the crowd never produces exceptional results.
If you said yes to any of the above, your institution is ready for a branding initiative. So now what? Join me and Mike Roe next month in Atlanta at Converge 2019 at our two-part workshop, Harnessing the Power of Research to Build a Brand and Leveraging Data to Achieve Long-Term Brand Success. At the end of this session, you will have a thorough understanding of all the steps involved in building, launching, and tracking a brand, complete with examples from many colleges and universities around the country.
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.
Help distinguish yourself as a higher education marketing leader by participating in the Institute for Higher Education Marketing (IHEM). The 3.5 day program will be held in Austin, TX, February 25-28, 2019. It was refined and shortened based on feedback from the pilot institute held in August 2018. Learn from world class faculty and instructors like Haley Rushing, Co-Founder of the Purpose Institute, who has helped organizations from Southwest Airlines to Whole Foods to IMG align their brands and values, as well as multi-category practitioners like David Perry, most recently CMO of The University of Utah Health System. The Institute, the first of its kind, will award a University of Texas credential upon completion of the program. Contact IHEM Founder Teri Lucie Thompson for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org) or enroll here.