The attitude of university presidents, chancellors and provosts toward the notion of integrated institutional branding runs the gamut, and those attitudes have a tremendous impact on the outcome and success of your brand campaign. I’ve heard everything from “give me something neck-snapping” to “is it really necessary to draw that much attention to ourselves?” to “we are not a toothpaste!” Having a brand champion at the highest level is important. Having a brand champion at the highest level that understands the value of doing something truly distinct, well as they say, that’s priceless.
I’ve been very fortunate to be at two institutions where the top leadership recognized the value of an integrated branding effort. They may not have articulated things quite that way, but they certainly understood that they needed something to help raise the awareness and profile of their institutions and get everybody moving in the same direction.
At the University of Maryland, I worked with President Dan Mote. He not only understood the need for an integrated brand effort, he also recognized the power of doing something distinct that would capture people’s attention. When asked about what he’d like to see in the campaign, he said, “something neck-snapping, something that will get folks to stop and take a second look.” President Mote realized that the University of Maryland was a much better university than it was perceived to be, and he wanted people to know about the transformation, quickly. To do that we needed to first get their attention. He was more than okay with doing something a bit unexpected, something with some attitude and just a bit of bravado, in order to stand out from the competition—understanding that once we got folk’s attention, they’d be more receptive to our messages of institutional progress and pride.
Under Mote’s leadership, we developed and launched both the ZOOM and the Fear the Turtle brand campaigns. Looking back on things, I think he may have been a CMO in a past life.
There are, however, many university leaders who are reluctant to push the envelope and would prefer to take a less neck-snapping approach. They understand the value of an integrated brand campaign in theory, but feel more comfortable with a subtle, run-with-the-pack approach. Unlike us marketers who strive to find a distinct voice for our institutions and want to stand out from our competition, many academic leaders see their schools as part of a certain peer group and would prefer to benchmark themselves against others in the group. This often leads to mimicking the positioning and messaging of aspirational peers, which does very little to set you apart in a crowded market and advance your institution. And, in fact, probably does more to advance your aspirational peers than it does for you. The good news is that your leadership is open to the concept of integrated branding and may just need some help to understand the value of doing something that is truly authentic to your school.
Then there are the leaders who have no interest in branding whatsoever. It could be that they find the notion of branding and marketing in higher education unnecessary or even distasteful (i.e. we are not a toothpaste), don’t understand its value, or it simply hasn’t become a priority, yet. This group can be harder to influence, but not impossible.
So how can we help our less then enthusiastic leadership recognize the value of integrated marketing and branding? Here are some insights that will help you build your case.
Research peers and branding stars. Look at not only what your peers are doing, but also look at those institutions that have done it really well. And not just in terms of their positioning or messaging, but in terms of their attitudes towards integrated marketing. Are they embracing it, is it a priority, what are they spending, where are they in the process, how are they organizing and who’s heading up the effort, what are the goals and outcomes to date? Higher education colleagues are notorious—in a good way—for sharing information that benefits the greater good. You’d be surprised at what you can learn to benefit your argument.
Data goes a long way. Nothing is going to sway an academic like good data so if at all possible start with research. A formalized research effort like a stakeholder study to determine current perceptions and potential positioning is ideal, but given budget, timing and resources, may not be realistic. If not, don’t give up. There are plenty of good sources of information all around you if you know where to look. Start first internally with what you already own—institutional research, dashboard measures, enrollment trends, web stats, development data, etc. Then move to free, secondary external resources like the census data, association data, Neilson and Scarborough, etc. The amount of available current data can be overwhelming so determining what to look at, how to organize it and evaluate it are key.
Do an internal marketing audit. One way of determining how your audiences perceive your institution without the benefit of formalized research is to access how you’re communicating with them. Take a look at all your marketing and communication efforts across the institution—from the perspective of your target audiences—to see how you currently position your school, what key institutional messages are you communicating, do those messages align with strategic initiatives, are they distinct from your competition, is there consistency with logos, colors, fonts and other brand elements?
Chances are without a formalized brand effort and strict guidelines, you’re spending lots of money on materials with very little high-level, institutional impact.
Get expert help. Although I don’t necessarily agree with the perception that outside agencies can do a better a job of branding than your own internal team, there is something to be said about getting a little help when you need it. Don’t be adverse to reaching out to experts for advice, consultation or to take on the effort. There is a good chance they’ll have the experience and credibility needed to move your leadership to take action.