Higher Education and Distinctive Branding: To the Victors Go the Spoils

Higher education branding has never been more important, as demographic shifts, economic and competitive pressures, and public/ private investment and philanthropy decisions bear down on the success or even viability of America’s colleges and universities – institutions that remain the envy of the world despite their challenges.

Yet branding is rarely the strong suit of college or university presidents. Lucky are the presidents whose chief public relations or marketing officers “get it,” and even luckier for the institutions if those presidents listen to and respect their communications and marketing leaders.

Too often, presidents are swayed by the idea that a new logo, tagline or revolving annual campaign slogan will thrust their institutions into the forefront. They often undertake external brand research, usually some sort of electronic survey that yields a recommendation for a tagline or two that would generically fit most institutions.

These kinds of tactics have helped perpetuate the decades-old higher ed lament, “my institution is a best-kept secret.” (See RIP: Universities as ‘Best Kept Secrets.’)

Fortunately, there are some higher education professionals who do understand the key principles of positioning their institutions and have helped move their institutions forward.

The most important, and perhaps most difficult, principle is “know thyself.”

Every institution has at least one thing that sets it apart from its peers. It might be location, culture, history, a specific research expertise, faculty experts on subjects of major public interest, strategic community or business relationships, highly successful “VIP” alumni and so on.  But colleges and universities are egalitarian by nature. Everyone and every department get equal recognition and mention. Finding agreement and buy-in on the few things that set them apart from their competition can be a huge challenge.

Nonetheless, that determination of an institution’s distinctive qualities is extraordinarily important and valuable.  When defined and communicated consistently and pervasively with a college or university’s many internal and external constituencies, important results can occur.

If faculty and students and staff believe an institution’s distinctive qualities are authentic they’ll resonate with it.  They may even start talking about how much prouder they are to be a part of institution X and begin spouting bragging rights. Over time, the school’s fundraising ability grows, more students become interested in attending,  media stories increase, business and community relationships prosper and the like.

All of those results are happening right now in Atlanta, at Georgia State University. There, a dynamic president, Mark Becker, understands the importance of institutional positioning. He brought in Don Hale, the former vice president for public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, to help him define Georgia State and introduce the university’s distinctive brand.

When he arrived in late 2012, Hale immediately began the pick-and-shovel work of determining Georgia State’s distinctive traits. He studied brand research that had been done prior to this arrival and used that as the foundation of a brand strategy. He engaged a small team of faculty experts and creative staffers across the university and worked with them to identify, clarify and describe the university’s distinctive characteristics. They discussed the credibility and authenticity (an important brand principle) of every word and phrase that became part of Georgia State’s “brand pillars.”

Within just four months, the team delivered a realistic, credible “umbrella” position with six distinctive dimensions underpinning that overarching brand statement. Their work was shared widely with key university groups, from administrators and faculty to alumni, donors, students and others. All criticisms, comments, suggestions and edits were evaluated by the positioning team and incorporated into the draft position and “pillars” if they added value. There was buy-in across campus. President Becker stood behind the group’s work, and the implementation of the positioning program began.

Hale posted the distinctive brand pillars and overarching “position statement” on the university’s website. His team color-coded the themes, and coupled the pillars and their color coding with content that demonstrated the veracity of the university’s distinctive traits. They also created digital icons that accompany the themes, and they show up as “shorthand” for the themes in other internal communications (see commkit.gsu.edu). This enables everyone across the university to see the proof points, use them and add their own examples to them and consistently communicate Georgia State’s distinctiveness.

Of the defining aspects of the university, two emerged as particularly distinctive.

First, Georgia State’s unique location in downtown Atlanta affords faculty, students and staff “neighborhood access” to the culture, transportation and relationships with businesses, government agencies, community organizations and others in that world-class city. This position honed faculty and student attention on such things as collaborative city/campus problem-solving, student internships and easy, quick access to entertainment, cuisine and even film-making opportunities in the “Hollywood of the South.” A long-standing solid working relationship between campus and city is now an even more engaged symbiotic and synergistic relationship.

Second, Georgia State is now nationally recognized (even by the White House) for its distinctive work in helping students succeed. Its program incorporates an “early warning system” that lets administrators know when students are falling behind in their studies or otherwise struggling, perhaps for financial or other personal reasons.  This system enables administrators to quickly step in with appropriate assistance, and today the student success rate for the school’s highly diverse student body is among the best in the nation.

And, of course, Hale and his team are constantly feeding back news coverage, research breakthroughs and civic/university activities to the entire university community, always underscoring the connection with Georgia State’s distinctive traits.

Just two years have passed—and Georgia State is on the move. Fundraising and research funding are up. Its student body is about to become one of the largest in the nation, thanks to a vote of confidence in the university’s strong management by the state’s higher education board. One academic dean has called the work Hale and his team “transformational.” The president and others at Georgia State say they are no longer feeling as if their university is one of those best-kept secrets.

There’s nothing easy about positioning a school’s distinctiveness in the crowded higher education marketplace.  But you can achieve cost-effective results like Hale and his team with strong support from administrative and academic leaders, an enduring commitment to broad institutional involvement and a solid plan that systemically communicates the authenticity of an institution’s distinctive qualities.

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