A More Sophisticated Definition of Branding

A story about the cancellation of a contract for branding work at the University of Oregon sparked my thinking about how often leaders in higher education misunderstand the concept of “branding.” Branding is not the efforts you make to market and promote yourself to students or other constituents. Nor is it the visual identity (i.e. logo) or the collateral you produce, such as a flashy video.

Here is the definition I offered in a recent presentation: “Your brand is the sum total of people’s experiences with your organization and what they believe about its value and relevance in their lives.”

Marketing and promotion can affect people’s beliefs, but more important (and growing ever more so in an era of social media) are their actual experiences with your institution. Their beliefs are also affected by how they compare you to other choices in the marketplace and by their assessment of whether you are relevant to their needs—a concept that is deeply connected to their values, biases, and life experiences.

By this more complex definition, Oregon’s decision to invest more in faculty and research is a legitimate part of its efforts to build the university’s brand. So are the efforts of other colleges and universities (such as the University of Chicago or Furman University) to invest in and enhance the student experience.

One of the biggest mistakes universities make is thinking that the only factors that matter to their brand are their outputs: their decisions about the programs they offer and what they communicate about themselves. They often ignore or gather too little information about the values, biases, and beliefs of their customers or constituents, and they frequently make assumptions about or fail to examine closely enough the competitive landscape in which they operate.

To be maximally effective, a higher ed brand strategy should rigorously examine the competitive landscape; the needs, values, and beliefs of the customers or stakeholders whose behavior you seek to influence; the institution’s culture, history, and competitive strengths; actual performance data and trends over time; and what operational and programmatic decisions and investments will establish a distinctive niche or competitive advantage in the marketplace as well as being perceived as having value to the desired group of customers or constituents. All of that analysis then points the way to a marketing and promotion strategy that builds and reinforces institutional positioning.

The clear trend, fueled by competitive and financial pressures, is for more of this work, not less. Gradually colleges and universities will get smarter at this, and they will direct their investments in “branding” in ever more effective ways.

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