Branding like you mean it

It may have been twenty years ago when the idea of “branding” became an obsession of higher education.  We studied it, engaged consultants to refine it, created roving teams of artistic police to protect it and acted as if a new and highly rigorous discipline had been discovered that would take us to the next level … of something.

Two decades into the branding era, private higher education is more known for anecdotes of eye-popping student debt and football scandals than for clever catch phrases and marque consistency.  Branding, at least the kind practiced by higher ed, has produced little. My observation is that the meat and the message are not feeding off each other.

In its basic form, a “brand” represents whatever the public believes about you.  BMW claims, “We only make one thing; The Ultimate Driving Machine.” They are expensive but are built for total performance.  This is BMW’s claim – their real estate – in a crowded market for premium automobiles. Lexus sets its sights on being number one in initial quality surveys. This reinforces, “The relentless pursuit of perfection.”  Visiting 48 Lexington Avenue in New York, you are likely to “Feel the Hyatt Touch,” with highly trained staff and marble everywhere.

In each case, the message reinforces the meat.  A differentiating performance standard is set, then delivered and independently verified, with messaging consistent with reality. This is branding’s version of perpetual motion.

Now consider a few examples of higher education slogans that purportedly represent a brand.

Be Known
Know thyself
Defy convention
Forward to the future
Becoming Extraordinary
Christian higher education since 1892
Excellence in liberal arts and professional programs

You then see, “In the top 100 nationally of liberal arts institutions” or, “A top value in the North Central US.”  A vague and general promise, backed up with unremarkable statistics.

Claim your real estate.  Don’t be afraid to share upfront that which sets you apart.  What about the audacity of saying, “Our grads can do anything,” backed up with stories of graduates making a difference in areas where you don’t offer a major.  Interject exclusivity, “When you’re serious about success,” with more graduate’s stories.  You have a 100% pass rate for Nurses and for med school acceptance – tell us about “Promises delivered.” Rarely does anyone make an exemplary claim about their faculty – why not?  “It’s our faculty,” with stories of accomplishments and accolades. 

Alternatively, you could continue with a me-too approach, pleading with students to choose you, with out-sized financial aid being the differentiator.

And then I get a phone call.