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.

Enrollment Open: The Institute for Higher Education Marketing

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 ( or enroll here.

The Marketing Organization of the Future

I’m fascinated by the continued evolution of the marketing department within higher ed. While the current reach of marketing is significant at many universities and great strides have been made, there are often still big limitations and challenges that inhibit the CMO and her department from playing a truly strategic role on campus. That said, I’ve noticed some key shifts that are taking place across the best-in-class marketing departments. Here are four trends of 2018 coupled with four predictions that provide a glimpse at what the marketing organization of the future may look like.

Trend #1: Centralization of the marketing communications function. This is a growing trend for small to mid-size universities. It’s most successful for those who have already established a central unit that is positioned as a strategic partner on campus. Today, the most common reporting structure I see on campuses is a federated model – a central hub with distributed communicators across campus. Within that model, there is quite a range of reporting types between the hub and distributed communicators, from direct to dotted to none. In terms of reporting, there is not a one-fits-all model, and the right approach usually comes down to some form of politics and personality. Anecdotally, I have heard that the college-based communicators tend to have higher turnover. I don’t have any hard data on this, but can speculate that it’s because they are often teams of one, have undefined jobs roles or conflicting priorities, and have no peer professionals to collaborate with.

Prediction: It’s not a big leap to say that this trend will continue to accelerate, and that marketing communications will be completely centralized at most campuses.

Trend #2: Development of annual plans. Annual plans have been around for a while, and some more sophisticated campuses are shifting to more agile-based quarterly plans. However, a positive trend with the annual planning approach is the formalization that is taking place. These plans are typically developed by a central marcom unit to support university-wide goals and objectives. The plans now often serve as a framework for other units on campus, and some distributed units even submit a version of their specific plans to marcom for approval. One university I spoke to this year also now identifies central funds that are designed for “brand alignment” projects across campus. The funding is used then to sponsor brand projects going on around campus. How cool, right? Those who say they have used central plans successfully mention that it has been an evolving project that takes time. And patience. Start by developing a plan and circulating to begin to foster collaboration. And then in the next few years you can shift to co-planning with others.

Prediction: I often see that marketing and brand strategy efforts are developed through a completely separate process than university strategic plans. I don’t think strategic plans and annual marketing plans will ever be one and the same, but my hope is that they’ll be developed in tandem and in support of each other. These collaborative plans point in that direction.

Trend #3: Formal collaboration across campus. Standing monthly or quarterly forums with all communicators, as well as a meeting with campus leadership, are becoming the norm. So are separate weekly crisis/issues mange meetings. At risk of blowing up your calendars with way too many meeting invites, what’s most meaningful is the formal collaboration these meetings encourage. I think it’s not only aiding in alignment, but also one factor leading to the centralization we’re seeing. The goal of these meetings is primarily to share updates and best practices. Some marcom units have a regular cadence of featured experts and speakers, which is a huge plus for distributed communicators. What’s refreshing is that participation in these meetings is typically encouraged rather than mandatory. Have a goal to put together a fun yet substantive agenda, and I bet others around campus won’t want to miss or risk being out of the loop.

Prediction: If this collaboration keeps up, the next natural step is to eventually think beyond meetings to formally combining efforts, budgets, and teams. And I say this in a safe space with a bunch of higher ed marketers…could it be that enrollment and development will eventually report to the CMO?

Trend #4: Analytics capabilities are growing. I heard from marketers that this is where the most development is still needed. Analytics responsibilities still tend to be distributed across various individuals and units, if they are happening at all. Yet some colleges are developing weekly or monthly analytics reports that are shared across campus. What’s noteworthy is that in the past few months, I have seen multiple job postings for marketing data analytics manager, marketing intelligence director, and other similar roles. This trend is the one that I anticipate will continue to quickly progress in the next few years.

Prediction: I’m hopeful that brand and marketing metrics will someday be equals with enrollment and fundraising figures. As marketers, it’s a great opportunity to help our campuses become familiar with these metrics.

In the age of digital transformation, I believe that CMOs and marketing leaders are in a position to help pave the way for their institution and propel internal changes. However, the marcom team structure and alignment across campus must first be in place to successfully champion change. The exciting news is that many of these trends point in that direction. What trends are you seeing on your campus? What did I miss? Have you successfully used a pilot project to help align marketing, enrollment, and others to move the needle on institutional-level goals? I’d love to hear about it!

Articles from 2018 Worth a (re)Read

2018 has been a long and busy year. February alone gave us the Winter Olympics, “Black Panther,” and an Eagles’ Super Bowl title, so we can’t blame you if you’ve forgotten a few of 2018’s under-the-radar headlines. It’s finally December, which means it’s time for our annual tradition of revisiting a few of the year’s best higher ed articles worth a re-read.

  • In many ways, 2018 was a continuation of 2017, as issues and movements such as #MeToo continued to find their way into the higher ed sphere. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report that found that “half of women in science experience some form of harassment.” But how do these academies handle the harassers when membership is for life?
  • The Chronicle’s article on the NASEM report discusses the reporting procedures that college campuses have in place, and the way that they often protect institutions from liability. Reporting from The New York Times detailed this idea further, upon obtaining Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ August proposal to increase the rights of the accused and reduce liability for colleges and universities. Any policy changes will continue to come at a sensitive and critical time, as investigations of sexual misconduct continue to take place at some of the nation’s most prominent universities.
  • In addition to the #MeToo movement, 2017 gave us a national debate about Confederate symbols that played out in college towns like Charlottesville. While the news typically examines the (oft-heated) conversation from a variety of perspectives, rarely is the focus on professors who give the debates a historical context. The Chronicle listens to historians who say that in 2018, “’business is good,’ but often for bad reasons.”
  • News of Amazon’s new headquarters locations made waves a few weeks ago, but back in June news from another online giant made quiet ripples on the web. A report from The Chronicle discussed Google’s plans to play a bigger role in the college search process, and that’s something we should all stay ahead of. As Google continues to be the internet’s preeminent gatekeeper of information, colleges and universities should monitor what data the search giant is highlighting for prospective students, and how this may change recruitment efforts including your college or university’s website.
  • Colleges and universities across the country are growing more diverse and inclusive by the year. But Forbes’ Josh Moody wonders, where is that diversity at the top? In a year that saw my alma mater William & Mary appoint its first female president after more than 300 years, there still exists a wide gap between the number of men and women who lead our institutions.
  • “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing evening.” No one will soon forget Nike’s new campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. But what can universities learn from it? In the words of William Bernach, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.” SimpsonScarborough’s own Steven Lovern also talks about what taking a stand means in today’s political reality.
  • Private support is more important than ever to colleges and universities. However, as the need for support grows, so must the scrutiny with which one examines the complicated nature of a gift. Take for instance a very recent and very generous donation: Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University. It’s an enormous contribution to a worthy cause, but Vox argues that even if the “why” is right – the “where” might be misplaced if you’re aiming to do the most good.

Finally, at the end of a long year, we could all use a reminder of why we do what we do. Higher education is about students and the pursuit of knowledge, and this East Carolina University professor reminds us that sometimes that means showing up to a late night library study session to provide some last minute help.

So, no matter what that sacrifice is for you in your role, we know that you all make it every day in the name of a greater good. Here’s to 2019!

Missed our (still relevant) recap of 2017? Check it out here.

Speaking Up: Higher Ed’s New Political Reality

Playing it safe — the way colleges and universities have traditionally approached politically charged issues — doesn’t work the way it used to. Our new political reality is not kind to those who sit on the sideline or approach issues half-heartedly. According to a recent study by Sprout Social, the majority of today’s consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues. Staying silent is considered more of a risk than a brand communicating a position on issues.

The 2016 Presidential Election is a prime example of institutions starting to speak up more and take a stand.

On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the U.S. woke up to a political reality nearly all thought was improbable. While the effect of the election was felt across the nation, colleges and universities — especially a majority of students on campuses — seemed to be particularly affected.

I spoke with Trinity Washington University President Pat McGuire about the experience on her campus the day after the 2016 Election.

“Like almost everyone, including Donald Trump, I was shocked. It was quickly evident that the mood on campus was funereal. Students were crying, and faculty were stunned. The large number of Dreamers in our community immediately felt like their protections were going to evaporate.”

Witnessing and experiencing this moment, President McGuire knew she needed to “assure the campus community that the political change doesn’t necessarily mean a change for life on campus.”

In her message to the Trinity Washington University community, President McGuire stated, “I […] know that the election of Donald Trump poses some real concerns among members of the Trinity family. Let me take this moment to remind all of us of the common values we share here at Trinity, and the commitment that I, as your college president, owe to each of you to continue working to ensure our values.”

When reading the statement, the phrase “working to ensure our values” is what stands out to me. President McGuire went on to denounce “rhetoric or action or policy that denigrates women,” reiterate the values of social justice, and reaffirm the institution’s support for all students regardless of where they were born, what God they worship, the color of their skin, or who they love.

Still to this day, President McGuire doesn’t necessarily see this as a political statement, but rather considers it a message grounded in the institution’s values that is moral, ethical, and community-focused.


President McGuire was not the only president to release a statement in response to the election. There were dozens of institutions and presidents who made statements in reaction to the 2016 Election. It was during this time period that higher ed saw more institutions speaking up and speaking out about politics more than any moment in recent history. And this trend didn’t stop with the 2016 Election.

Seven days into President Trump’s term, he signed an executive order banning entry into the U.S. from seven predominately Muslim countries as well as suspending the refugee program — an executive order that would become more popularly known as the Muslim Ban.

The Muslim Ban prompted swift denouncement from colleges and universities across the U.S., with some of the most effective presidential communications coming from institutions using their values as the basis of their statements.

President John Sygielski of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) said, “Whether you were born in the [U.S.] or you are one of HACC’s…international students…the central mission of the college – to create opportunities and transform lives to shape the future together – applies to each of you equally. You are right where you belong — at HACC.”

President Janet Napolitano and the Chancellors of the University of California said, “[T]his executive order is contrary to the values we hold dear as leaders of the University of California. It is critical that the [U.S.] continues to welcome the best students, scholars, scientists, and engineers of all backgrounds and nationalities. We are committed to supporting all members of the UC community who are impacted by this executive action.”

Recently, higher ed has also seen institutions come out on politically charged issues such as the Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

After the release of the ad, College of the Ozarks decided that it would no longer use uniforms carrying the Nike logo. College of the Ozarks President Jerry Davis stated, “If Nike is ashamed of America, then we are ashamed of them.”

Marci Linson, Dean of Admissions for College of the Ozarks, continued, “Nike is free to campaign as it sees fit, as the college is free, and honor-bound by its mission and goals, to ensure that it respects our country and those who truly served and sacrificed.”

Much like the institutions and presidents using their community values and personal values to speak up and speak out in reaction to the 2016 Election or the Muslim Ban, College of the Ozarks and others used their community values and personal values to speak up and speak out in reaction to the politically charged ad.


Institutions and their presidents speaking up and speaking out about politically charged issues is more common in today’s higher ed landscape, but it is not a new phenomenon. There is historical precedence.

When I asked higher ed history scholar and William & Mary School of Education faculty member Dr. Eddie Cole for one example of such precedence, he told me about Princeton in the early 1960s and the larger political question around stronger civil rights legislation in America.

“Princeton President Robert Goheen felt personally obliged to see to it that the university did its part to address racial inequality. This disgruntled many southern Princeton alumni, which was sizable considering the university’s history, but Goheen pressed forward with a number of initiatives. He launched programs to actively recruit more black students, opened campus employment for black employees beyond menial roles, and removed local businesses that discriminated from campus advertisements.”

President Goheen was willing to take a stance and advocate for one of the early examples of affirmative action in higher education, a cause that was important to him and his community — even if it meant upsetting a cohort of alumni.


For so long, institutions have tried to be everything to everyone. The reality is that’s unsustainable and ineffective. When you try to be everything to everyone, odds are you are nothing to nobody. By taking a stand you’ll likely gain admirers and turn off others.

You read that right, there are some people that will be turned off by your brand and the statements you make, and that is okay. Colleges and universities are in need of a change in mindset about how they position themselves. Institutions need to be bolder and more authentic in their approach of what connects them to people, what makes them different from or more relevant than their competitors, and ultimately, what they believe in. A strong brand has a point of view. It has the power to take a stand by clearly and simply stating what your institution values while being authentically rooted in your mission and vision.