Has Your Institution Fallen into a Brand Trap?

As higher education deepens its embrace of marketing, a wide variety of innovative and successful practices have begun to emerge. On one end of the spectrum you can cite the truly wonderful brand awareness campaigns such as What Will You Fight For? for the University of Notre Dame—an awareness campaign that aligns perfectly with the academic and spiritual mission of the University. At the other end of the spectrum are institutions that work on the product component of the marketing mix, such as Agnes Scott College with Summit and Earlham College with EPIC (Earlham Plan for Integrative Collaboration), each of which aims to deliver a more compelling experience, packaged and branded, as a way to entice best fit students and donors.

These examples (and many, many more) are cause for celebration in our community of higher ed marketing. They are the best side of the practice. Yet, there’s an untold number of initiatives that seek to gain the same successes as these institutions—under the auspices of marketing and branding—that do not reach this level of power or measurable success. Even though the strategy manual has been published, if you will, many institutions still fall short, or worse, don’t have a way of knowing why their investments have not yielded what they want. Why is this?

After reading my 447th RFP for “brand awareness” for a top 25 R1 institution (I know the math doesn’t work; I’m making a point), it became clear that many institutions, seeking the same successes as others, fall into a trap. A brand trap.

I can’t believe I need to keep typing this here or on Twitter.

There’s brand, there’s branding and then there’s marketing.  Brand is what your audiences believe you to be (you can’t control this). Branding is what you do to influence what your audiences believe about you (you can manage this). Marketing is creating an environment for exchange between two parties (you can control this).

Yet, even with mastery of these terms, institutions fixate on brand—the thing they can least control—and invest millions in the Sisyphean task of making EVERYONE aware of their (current) existence.

Here are the signs that you’ve fallen into a brand trap:

You blindly chase “awareness.”

I know, I know. The Board of Trustees wants you to be a “household name.” That would make your life so much easier. But it really wouldn’t. First, chasing awareness is notoriously expensive, hard to measure and beyond your control. Second, your audience isn’t everyone. Your audience is comprised of those that your mission is written for, those that advance that mission, those that fund that mission and those that tell the story of your mission to others. Those are the people that need to know you exist. If you add those up, the sum would not be the whole world—it’d be a manageable, prioritized list.

And while I believe that monolithic audience descriptions are fading as a practice, there’s a second, perhaps more detrimental path institutions take on their mission to bring about more awareness:

You seek to be known instead of known for something.

It’s insufficient to simply be known. If you wish to pursue awareness in the prudent, best practice, practical sort of way, you must endeavor to be known for something. That thing, the deliverable, the marketing position, etc., is the specific thing that must be talked about and shared with your current and potential audiences. The best part: you get to choose what that thing is.

But there’s a worse part: Instead of identifying and developing something to be known for (something you can control), you spend all your energy and resources on becoming known (something you can’t control). In other words, investing millions in advertising won’t ensure that you are well known. “Getting the word out” won’t make you a household name. But making a difference by doing something remarkable might be a good place to start. Which leads me to the third point:

You attempt to solve marketing problems with branding.

You employ branding to solve a marketing problem. Your research shows that misperceptions about you exist, even among your closest constituents. Your competitors are claiming expertise and distinctiveness on your strongest (and better) assets. You’ve exhausted the potential for growth in your geographic area. You’ve developed a shiny new offering that may be a big hit. These are all examples of marketing problems that your branding efforts can fix. But you must first understand your brand: what do people believe about you? Trust you for? Count on you to deliver? Without this critical data, you frankly have no hope of moving the needle on brand improvement (accuracy or awareness growth). I don’t intend to be a pessimist, but those are the facts. No data on external perception equals no platform on which to build your brand.


Where to focus if you have the symptoms:

Identify and secure a market position.

Back to good news. You get to choose your market position. You can look at all the options out there and select the competitive set you wish to operate within. You can choose the Ivy League as your competitive set if you want. Of course, there are implications for choosing this set. And if this is your choice, you’ll need to add a few billion dollars to your endowment, you’ll need to play your year of founding as a distinction among some historic leaders, you’ll need to recruit an alarmingly strong faculty, and you’ll need to build relationships with major corporations that you may not yet hold. Granted, that’s likely not the competitive set you’ll choose. But, you can.

Better, you will choose a market position among peers and aspirational peers with whom you most identify and with whom most of your audiences place you. Of course, when selecting a market position (and accompanying competitive set), you will build on what your audiences know, believe and trust about you. Your chosen market position will be coherent with your mission, values and vision. The market position you choose can be aspirational to the degree that you are willing to change from what you are now to what your selected position claims.

Catalog the experience and document evidence supporting your market position.

“Customer Experience” and “Experience Design” are burgeoning fields that higher education is quite adept at creating. Since the genesis of American higher ed, keen founders and mission caretakers have designed remarkable and effective ways of taking a student from a certain intellectual and social position and moving them to another. There’s tremendous evidence of this throughout the many options for higher learning, but also in a society filled with better citizens that can be directly linked to their designed, educational journeys. We can all think of touchpoints—pedagogical, social traditions and otherwise—that were intentionally implemented for the betterment of a student. Then why is it that many colleges and universities don’t have a documented catalog or map of the student experience? Why wouldn’t we apply the same rigor to recording the journey that we do for academic research? What assumptions have been made, corrections left uncorrected and opportunities forgone because we simply do not document what occurs to a student? (Here’s a hint: how many campus pole banners say “transformational” or “immersive” or “engaged” without an evidence-based explanation? Fake news.)

I recommend this step not only because it’s part of the due diligence in fulfilling any promises that you make, but because it generates the support—the marketing and branding support—that you need to put in front of those who fund you, choose you and tell others about you. The experience is real (and it’s spectacular).

The brand trap is real, too. We all see it: in the failed logo launches (because you used branding to fix a marketing problem), in the vast sea of tagline sameness (because you want yours to resonate with everyone), in the copycat design solutions (because they’ve made someone else “known”) and in the generic messaging (because you can’t articulate your distinction); all of which is done in an aimless pursuit of having more people know your name. Sad.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.