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Branding - What Colleges are Doing to Stand Out

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People are infatuated with brands. They don’t buy tennis shoes, they buy Nikes. They don’t buy jeans, they buy Levis or Lucky. They don’t go to college, they go to Yale or Harvard. People seldom buy a thing. Instead, they buy a name and all the associations that go with that name. In other words, they buy a brand.

All human beings have a need to identify with a group. Branding creates a potential group that you could belong to. Let’s look at Harley Davidson as an example. Harley Davidson draws its tribe from every demographic – from the Hell’s Angels to Politicians – and their Harleys are the common denominator. Every brand would like to be seen as a club that people aspire to join — a club whose philosophy you share, a place where you can go to be yourself and to meet other like-minded people, and an opportunity to talk and share stories.

Branding isn’t all about recognizing a product. It’s about recognizing yourself in the product. If branding is all about identification, what better model is there than a college or university? Corporations spend millions of dollars to create an emotional bond – it’s already there for colleges. It may be difficult to get people to bond with laundry detergent, but it’s easy to bond with a place where someone will live and learn and grow into an adult.

Colleges, though, too often fail to capitalize on this advantage. Differentiating yourself requires:

  • Answering tough questions honestly – A college needs to ask itself: Who are we? What do we do? What do we promise students? Why does it matter to prospective students? Do we fill a void?
  • Knowing what everyone else is doing – You’re not marketing yourself in a vacuum. Research your competitors to know what they’re doing and what voids they already fill, if any.
  • Focusing on what makes you different – This is where most schools fail. They try to reach everyone, resulting in a watered down message. In marketing wars, the well-differentiated specialist tends to be the winner. Once you isolate that differentiating characteristic, you’ve got the building blocks for a solid brand identity. Your communication efforts now have a focus.

Not more than a decade ago, anything that hinted of commercialism in higher education was viewed with derision. It was an abomination even to suggest that the educational system had anything in common with selling cars. Brands were fine as long as you were talking about toothpaste, but higher education? No way.

With over 3,600 community colleges, public colleges and universities, private colleges, and for-profit enterprises all competing for the same students, the concept of marketing higher education with the same strategies as any other product came to light. Some schools have created marketing or branding positions to address this need, while others have hired top marketing agencies.

The results of a successful branding effort are many. They include increased awareness by the public; increased pride felt by students, alumni, faculty and staff; increased giving by donors; and, ultimately, a growth in applications and enrollment.

When successful, a brand is more than window dressing; it’s a strong, truthful, convincing statement about a college or university’s mission and purpose. Every college and university is trying to articulate what makes it uniquely valuable. This new effort is directly tied to the growth of for-profit schools, like ITT Technical Institute and the University of Phoenix, and a more intense competition for students.

The branding of a college can be focused on numerous audiences – parents, students, etc. College kids clubs-which offer free admission to athletic events, team paraphernalia and other goodies to those in 8th grade or younger-have become common on many campuses. Marketing colleges to high school juniors or seniors occurs at the age of 12 or 13. What colleges are really trying to do is to get their college on the radar screen for these students before everyone else does.

Many studies indicate that a “reputation” for something is one of the most powerful of all benefits. Reputation is a benefit that affirms a decision to oneself and to one’s peers. It is a benefit that makes a promise. And it is a benefit that, by your association with it, enhances your personal marketability. You look better by association.


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