Establishing Your Higher Ed Brand Identity By : Richard McCulloch

Establishing Your Higher Ed Brand Identity

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Are you marketing your reality?

“A total of 81% of marketers believe customer experience is a better way to build brand performance than communications. However, only 52% of those marketers believe the brand experience they deliver to their customers is industry leading…”

What brand experience are you delivering to your students?

When I first read the opening quote in the article What Marketers Really Think About Brand Experience, I could not help but think about the numerous schools that I have visited in my career. In the world of Higher Ed, the concept of branding is often a secondary focus area when it comes to developing a marketing strategy. Though many business and institutions in other industries place a premium on establishing a brand identity that offers differentiation from their competitors, many colleges and universities struggle to establish a brand identity, and even more are challenged to offer a brand identity that is consistent with their institutional reality.
An institutional brand goes far beyond a tag line. Last year, I wrote a post for LinkedIn, in which I explored this very topic. In the post “What Makes You So Special?”, I challenged schools to focus on identifying the substantive characteristics of their student experience, program offerings and outcomes in order to develop a marketable brand identity. If you’re unable to express some level of value driven brand differentiation from your competitors, you are compromising your ability to realize the best results from all your other marketing efforts.
As important as it is to create a brand identity, it is just as important to make sure that the institutional brand you market is rooted in the reality that you deliver. To ensure that your branding efforts are an accurate representation of your institutional reality, here are some important things to consider:
Test your staff and faculty “buy in”: In the first article that I referenced, there is an infographic that features some interesting facts about employee alignment behind an organization’s brand promise. In their study, only 53% of staff members indicated a successful internal-external brand alignment in their workplace. What almost half of these surveyed staff members are actually saying is that “they don’t see, what the organization claims to be.” Clearly, if your staff members don’t believe in the credibility of your brand promise, they are ill-equipped to represent that brand promise effectively when communicating with prospective students and their families.
Evidence your value-driven brand promise: Empty promises are often more damaging to an institution than no promise at all. It is very tempting to claim brand differentiation that sounds appealing in your marketing material, but are you delivering what you say, and how can you prove it? If you have decided on promoting a “Students First” brand identity which touts the operational focus on the student experience, be prepared to evidence what you have in place to ensure that this is in fact the case. Your integrated marketing strategy should provide opportunities to highlight:

  • Student services personnel and the student focused programs and support they offer
  • External student support resources that are brought onto campus and how they benefit your students
  • Academic support systems that ensure that students can receive academic assistance delivered via flexible schedules that reflect the institution’s commitment to accommodate student availability to receive this support
  • Testimonials from graduates that reinforce that the brand promise was delivered and they were able to maximize their educational outcomes because your institution followed through on that brand promise

Enlist Students and Alumni in the Brand Creation Process: When creating or redefining your brand promise, it’s often best to work backwards. Instead of assuming that you as the institution can accurately reflect a reality-based brand identity; lean on the beneficiaries of your institutional experience to offer feedback on their experiences. Through surveys and focus groups targeting students and alumni, you will be able to identify real institutional benefits that are being delivered, which can be leveraged into a credible brand promise. If you find that the feedback reveals that you are falling short of delivering brand worthy experiences or outcomes, you now have a blueprint of opportunity to create a more marketable reality for your students.
For more information on this and other Marketing and Admissions topics, please contact me at or (866) 255-4955