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Branding is a concept often associated with commodities like laundry detergent but is in reality a necessary part of any organization, instantly conveying to consumers an intangible identity that differentiates it from competition. Shifting societal trends and increasing competition are making colleges and universities think twice about how they are perceived – more than ever an institution’s reputation can make or break it. It influences its desirability among potential students, top faculty and funding bodies. Rebranding can be an expensive endeavour, encompassing a logo, colour or even a name change – or it can be a more subtle process of harmonizing your perceived, actual and desired school experience.

higher education branding

Higher education has been late to the branding game but now recognizes that in a crowded marketplace, an indistinctive institutional image amounts to an obscure future. Newfoundland-based College of the North Atlantic’s current rebranding process, for instance, is intended to “differentiate the college in an advertising landscape best described as a sea of sameness.” Successful branding must go beyond stock images and bland marketing platitudes to effectively resonate with a college’s diverse set of audiences.

Brand identities should be sculpted principally from within the university communities with plenty of internal consultation to encourage everyone to embrace the change. Students, alumni and an institution’s academy are understandably passionate about their school’s reputation and have the power to stop a rebranding in its tracks. Highly publicized six-figure initiatives involving external marketing agencies may fuel objectors’ perceptions that colleges are putting profit before educational quality, like adding a shiny paint job to a shoddy structure.

When Name Changes Go Wrong

Name changes are particularly contentious and must be considered cautiously. King’s College London abandoned its plan to become known as King’s London this year after a substantial backlash, despite having already invested nearly half a million dollars (£300,000). Trinity College Dublin also put on hold its controversial “identity initiative” that would have renamed it “Trinity College, the University of Dublin” after a backlash from academic staff, who also complained that its heraldic symbols had been rendered “toylike” by the proposed logo redesign.

The terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably but can mean very different things to prospective students in different parts of the world. Phil Baty, rankings editor for Times Higher Education, has noted that other institutions like University College London have attempted to play down “college” in their titles in hopes of drawing more overseas students. While reputation and rankings are especially vital for international student recruitment, Baty believes “there is a risk that heritage can potentially prevent universities from innovating, and can create structures that make it harder to adapt to the current environment.”

Time for a Rebranding?

Rebranding is a significant decision for any college or university, one that should arise naturally from properly understanding its existing brand position in the broader environment. Popular reasons for rebranding include changing offerings, an outdated image, waning visibility and the simple struggle for relevance amidst heightened competition. Beaver College in Pennsylvania rebranded itself as Arcadia University in 2001, after discovering that 30 percent of prospective students surveyed hadn’t applied because of its name.

Example: Canadian University College (CUC) is another example of a university seeking to distance itself from the sometimes troublesome “college” label. Last summer the Alberta government gave CUC and four other “university colleges” permission to change their status to “university” to avoid any confusion that graduates have earned legitimate bachelor degrees. An intensive process of focus groups suggested over a hundred possible new names before they decided on Burman University, after the institution’s original founders. Launching the new name and logo was accompanied by choral concerts, performances and presentations.

burman university rebranding

Focus on Core Strengths

External and internal research will help uncover your school’s core strengths (and weaknesses) from the viewpoint of all stakeholders to determine whether refining your college’s brand is necessary. Online surveys using a tool like Survey Monkey can be a good place to start. Branding efforts are a useful exercise for any higher education institution to better understand their primary purposes and prioritize objectives on the horizon. Clear goals that point to quantifiable results over a specific period of time should be anchored by the realities of budget, time, competition and audience.

Understanding and nurturing your core strengths and positioning your school in an underserved market niche rather than trying to be everything to everyone, could yield a stronger and more sustainable student base. Ensure your projected values have a corresponding market demand and communicate these attributes in ways that resonate emotionally with students. Develop and leverage student personas to effectively target prospects in these niches, following up on your broad branding with vividly compelling student testimony to tell your stories.

Example: The University of Akron recently rebranded itself as “Ohio’s polytechnic university,” a slogan that will accompany all future marketing efforts. The move isn’t without its share of controversy and detractors but UA President Scott Scarborough asserts that the riskier strategy is doing nothing and being perceived as a generic public university. Without ruling out a future name change, he emphasized that the slogan is a new way of educating at the school.

“ ‘Polytechnic’ describes both our historical strengths and our path forward: career-focused, experiential, technology-infused, connected to business and industry, applying to both sciences and the arts,” he said. “And let me repeat those last three words: … and … the … arts. Polytechnic applies as much to dance choreography as it does to polymer science and engineering and data science and IT.”

UA Rebranding

Engage and Align your Community

A barrage of protests and negative publicity can quickly thwart mismanaged rebranding efforts. More than 12,000 staff, students and alumni signed a petition protesting King’s College London’s proposed name change before plans were abandoned a month later. But when academics and students are committed to the project, their passion and insights signify immense branding potential. Higher education is a unique sector that places a special emphasis on critical debate and discussion, and branding for these audiences can engage with multiple interpretations. Inviting collaboration with your opinionated insiders may not yield an easy consensus but it should mitigate resistance.

Involving your community may begin by celebrating past achievements while communicating the necessity for change to thrive in the current environment. By first establishing the core truths of your institution, recognized by all stakeholder groups, you can proceed building a brand platform with a sturdier foundation. Some universities have encouraged branding buy-in by laying out the existing divergent sub-brands on a table and asking staff if they made sense.

Example: Vermont-based Middlebury College introduced a new branding system this year to clarify the unity between its varied academic entities while ensuring each retains its unique identity and mission. After research had revealed significant confusion about what the liberal arts college had evolved into, school officials spent over a year developing, refining and testing its rebranding, which includes a new look and family of names.

“We took great care with our process,” said Middlebury Vice President for Communications and Marketing Bill Burger, who oversaw the project. “In all, we spoke with nearly 400 people – faculty, staff, students, and alumni – over the last year. With that many people, you receive a lot of feedback, and it was indispensable. And in the end, that gives you a better product and greater confidence in the work.”

The accompanying video is a great way to show off the change:

Creative Implementation

When the brand platform has been solidified and your groups are aligned with the strategic direction, comprehensive planning is required to prioritize and schedule the development of marketing initiatives, considering budgets, resource allocation and completion dates. Speed of implementation is an important factor in managing costs – changing all of those materials to a new design won’t come cheap. Bring your brand to life by communicating your essential messages creatively across multi-channel campaigns, engaging your community throughout the implementation. Don’t forget that parents are often the key decision makers of your prospective students and alumni can be your best brand ambassadors.

Consider blogs, videos, infographics, mobile apps and more to share your process, personalizing your approach to various audiences (prospective students, staff, alumni). Never underestimate the power of an emotional connection – a stirring video can be an impactful introduction to the new you. An anniversary or special event make an ideal occasion to celebrate the rebranding launch. Make the most of the accompanying publicity in press releases, social media and other channels – it is a newsworthy event that could result in an admissions surge.

Example: University for the Creative Arts aimed to project creativity, freedom, criticism and rigour with their new visual identity. Besides consulting with staff, students and alumni, the design team looked to UCA’s architecture and campuses for inspiration. Art schools have a particular challenge to convey character and a sense of personality – UCA’s logo features its acronym in stencil lettering, which can be stacked or arranged horizontally, signifying the creative aspect of work in progress.

The visual identity has already been applied to posters and prospectuses, while a range of applications including 3D graphics for buildings, interior installations and exhibition stands will be created over the next few months. Instead of trashing recent publications with the old branding, they’ve printed stickers to place over the old logos. “Over the course of this year, we’ll run down everything we’ve got, which seems like the responsible, sustainable thing to do,” explained vice-chancellor Simon Ofield-Kerr.

Authenticity and the Student Experience

Of course, branding goes far beyond slogans and logos, far beyond the marketing department. Every interaction between a student or stakeholder and the school is part of your brand perception – as Socrates once said, “the way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” Higher education branding reflects your core strengths but is also aspirational – a better version of who you are. The goal is to align positive perceptions with reality.

Authenticity is important to remember when engaging in any kind of overt brand management as prospective students are increasingly suspicious of slick marketing campaigns that seem too far removed from their own peer group. In fact, the entire student experience should be a reflection of brand values, reinforcing the implicit promise made by the branding.

Has your school attempted a rebranding recently? What were your biggest challenges and insights?

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