Shifting Perceptions of Branding in Higher Education
In one of my colleague Jon’s recent posts, he wrote about one sign that you may need to reconsider your identity: your industry is changing. One industry we work in frequently—higher education—is currently going through significant change. Societal trends, shifts in funding priorities and emerging technologies are all contributing to increased competition: for the best students, for top faculty, for funding, for leadership and for reputation. Against this backdrop, branding and identity are increasingly important.
The Importance of Branding
“[A] properly constructed brand is essential for any university competing in the modern global education market,” wrote Ian Pearman, CEO of the UK’s largest ad agency, in a recent piece on the importance of higher ed branding (“Universities are brands whether they like it or not”) that accompanies a global study of the 100 most powerful global university brands.
But branding and higher ed have an often uneasy relationship. Research conducted at the University of San Francisco looked at the impact of branding on California institutions (including several of our clients) and found positive correlations between branding and campus identity, enrollment and foundation initiatives. In spite of this, many don’t see a role for branding and positioning in helping their schools achieve greater success.
In our work with higher ed clients we’ve sometimes encountered a sense that academia should be above branding. For some, the word itself is synonymous with marketing or advertising, and there is the perception that this cheapens the important work that educators and researchers do. A development campaign created by our client UC Berkeley matched students’ portraits with quotes on what the school meant to them. The fact that “We are not a brand” was graffitied on a poster installation reveals strong opinions about brand in the context of higher education.
There are ways to navigate around this. When working with higher ed clients, we often refrain from using the word “brand” and instead talk about “identity.” This focuses the conversation on the key issues: who you are, what you do and why you matter. When put in those terms, we find that many in academia are comfortable with, even enthusiastic about what our work can help them to achieve.
Helping to Navigate a Complex Landscape
As the educational landscape becomes more and more complex, it’s increasingly important that higher ed institutions think hard about how they can frame their offerings for perspective audiences. I think back to my own experience as someone trying to decide where to attend graduate school. I was living in Southeast Asia at the time and ill-equipped to form a consideration set for what would be an incredibly important life decision. Institutions of higher learning may want to keep themselves above the fray of “marketing,” but by communicating a clear sense of identity, they can certainly help their audiences understand who they are and what they have to offer.