Bringing Clarity to Higher Education Brand Architecture

During presentations about brand architecture, I often pose a couple of questions to attendees. How many aspire for their institution to be a branded house (leveraging a single master brand or parent brand across an entire organization and the organization’s multiple offerings)? Nearly every hand goes up. Next, how many of their institutions actually operate as a branded house? Only a few hands rise.

Of course, it is much more efficient and effective for an institution to build and maintain a single master brand than a house of separate or independent brands. Efficiency is critical for higher ed, a sector that spends far less on marketing—as a percentage of annual operating budget—compared to other sectors. (Large public universities, for example, may only invest roughly one percent of their annual operating budget on marketing.)

A case can be made for an occasional exception to the branded house model within a college or university, but it’s challenging to justify a house of brands as an overall institutional strategy. If an institution operates as a house of brands, it’s likely because they have organically fallen into that model over the years. They’ve become a house of brands not necessarily by choice but by default. The unfortunate result is a fractured or fragmented institutional brand that lacks the equity it needs.

If a branded house is desirable but not easily achievable, what is a college president and CMO to do?

I find it useful to look back at the origin of these terms—branded house and house of of brands—and the seminal work in 2000 by David Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler. They developed the Brand Relationship Spectrum, with a branded house at one end of the spectrum and a house of brands at the other end. Twenty years later, the model holds both relevance and irrelevance for higher ed:

  • It’s imperative to recognize that the Brand Relationship Spectrum is indeed a spectrum, not the either/or proposition we often make of it. The discussion of higher education brand architecture becomes unproductive when it’s a binary one. An institution, with its many parts and pieces, likely occupies multiple spots on the spectrum all at the same time.
  • Aaker and Joachimsthaler created this spectrum for the corporate sector, using mainly consumer packaged goods (CPG) as examples. Even with the corporate sector in mind, the authors acknowledged that a perfect branded house is difficult to achieve. Organizations with shared governance, for instance, were not a consideration.

Higher education needs its own model of the desired brand architecture.

I’ve seen some universities that one might characterize as a branded house; they’re pretty close to that end of the spectrum. But describing their organizing structure as a branded house feels too linear and doesn’t accurately convey their multidimensional nature. Various programs along with centers and institutes all contribute to wide-ranging institutional missions encompassing teaching, research and service. (A former colleague at a peer institution once told me, “Yeah, we do everything from canoe rentals to discovering planets outside our own solar system and everything in between.”) But these entities don’t always fit neatly inside the hierarchy of a branded housed. We’re simply not BMW or FedEx, among the typical corporate examples of a branded house.

In my research, I’ve proposed a new conceptual model for the desired form of brand architecture in higher education: a multidimensional branded municipality. I’ll save a deeper dive on the multidimensional branded municipality—yes, it’s a mouthful—for another time and focus here on practical implications.

At RHB, we describe a modified branded house as a blended house, an architecture based on the existence of various sub-brands (think academic colleges or schools at your institution) that benefit from the added credibility of the parent brand. In a blended house, marketing dollars are spread across both the parent brand and sub-brands—a reality for many institutions, particularly larger ones that are highly decentralized.

My former institution spanned multiple campuses and enrolled 100,000 students. Our work ranged from NAIA intercollegiate athletics at a regional campus to the largest medical school in the country at another campus. Through a comprehensive and inclusive process, we developed and deployed an institution-wide brand strategy that evolved to take a “parallel” approach rather than a hierarchical one (which corporate-based terms such as “master brand” and “sub-brand” imply).

A parallel approach strived for a mutually beneficial brand relationship where brand equity was built in concert at the institution level and at the unit level. As the primary driver, a strong and unified institutional brand provided the foundation (visualize a metaphorical foundation enabling an academic unit to stand taller.) The university-wide brand strategy had both static elements (from brand values to visual identity) and flexible elements (in storytelling and brand expression, for example). The flexibility enabled academic schools to build from this foundation or platform and develop school-specific positioning—through a research-informed and research-validated process—relevant to their specific competitive landscape for their specific audiences to help the academic unit achieve their specific goals. The school’s positioning work both supported and enriched the larger institutional brand.

Higher education brand architecture is complicated, and that’s okay. Rather than thinking in terms of a branded house versus house of brands, senior leaders are better served to embrace the intricateness and iterative nature of brand strategy work. This work involves a deep understanding of your audiences as well as an understanding of where your brand equity currently resides in order to maximize it across the institution.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is Vice President at RHB.