Higher Ed Branding and Marketing Part 1:

Why is Higher Ed Branding and Marketing Important?

Table of Contents

Higher Ed Branding and Marketing Part 1

Higher Ed branding is in need of focused change to reverse the trend in the declining perceptions of higher ed institutions.

In today’s turbulent economic and political climate, higher education leaders are facing many challenges that they never have experienced before. Many institutions that previously have enjoyed sustained approval from policymakers, funders, and other stakeholders are increasingly seeing the pendulum swing. The new normal often entails bitter criticism and declining support from many federal and state lawmakers, employers, students, and parents.

A newly released survey by the Pew Research Center on Americans suggests that the vitriol and rancor may continue for the foreseeable future. The survey, which was conducted in June 2017, found that 58 percent of Republicans view colleges negatively while only 36 percent believe higher education is positive. In contrast, two years ago 54 percent of Republicans believed that higher education had a positive impact on the nation’s direction; at that time, 37 percent rated higher education negatively. 

While Democrats and Democratic-leaning citizens are gradually becoming more supportive of higher education, the negative opinions espoused by many Republican leaders and voters comes at a time when the GOP holds the reins of power at the federal level as well as key leadership posts in many states.

Therefore, the time is ripe for higher ed branding efforts. College and university leaders need to consider focusing on creating or strengthening their institution’s brand. A strong brand serves as the institutional lighthouse in the midst of a societal hurricane. That beacon helps stakeholders know what the institution stands for – and the value and services it provides to its students, community, and stakeholders.

Why is Higher Ed Branding and Marketing Important?

Entrepreneur.com defines branding as “the marketing practice of creating a name, symbol, or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.” That’s only the tip of the iceberg for higher ed branding. Your brand offers a promise to stakeholders about what they can expect from your college or university. Higher ed branding doesn’t need only appeal to students and parents, but a wide range of stakeholders. Each stakeholder wants to know the value you will deliver. Students are looking for a different value add than are donors, for example, and higher ed branding is getting more complex.

Your brand paints a picture and differentiates your offerings, the stakeholder experience, and outcomes from that of your competitors. Done well, higher ed branding, market strategy, and implementation differentiate your institution in such a way that it eliminates competition by attracting the right students and stakeholders who will find your higher ed institution the only logical option for them.

In higher education, brands are created based on who the institution is, what it aspires to be, and people’s perceptions of the institution. Branding also means that an institution of higher education stops trying to be all things to all people in order to be the right thing to the right people.

Higher Ed Branding Gets into Stakeholders’ Brains

Brand management is rooted in cognitive psychology. “Once an attitude is formed,  it often prevents new information from being accepted at face value,” said Dr. Paul Kerr, associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado said in an article for Educause.  “Accessible, summary attitudes, therefore, are quite predictive of subsequent behavior concerning a particular product. When an effortless flow  from  attitude  to  behavior exists, changing a person’s attitude  or judgment  is  extremely difficult,   if   not   impossible, even  though  the  object  may change considerably.”

It’s important to realize that while you create a logo and tag lines, it’s actually the stakeholders who build the brand. “Consumers give brands value by developing perceptions and expectations for those brands,” wrote Susan Gunelius in a 2014 Forbes.com column. “Companies enhance the value by delivering consistent brand experiences that consumers can trust.” She notes that brand marketers often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization) as well as Aristotle’s Seven Causes of Human Action (chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion and desire). These theoretical models help brand marketers create perceived needs in stakeholders’ minds that lead to action and support.

How to Define a Higher Ed Brand

So how does a higher education leader work to define a brand? Entrepreneur.com recommends reaching out to stakeholders for their responses on four key questions as the first step in developing the brand:

  • What’s the institutional mission?
  • What are the benefits and features of services and products that are provided by the institution?
  • What do faculty, staff, administrators, students and other stakeholders think of your institution?
  • What qualities do you want associated with the institution?

At the most basic level, the institutional brand is communicated by the institution’s logo along with its website, packaging and promotional materials. These materials are used as part of a brand strategy to communicate brand messages to stakeholders. The challenge becomes creating a consistent strategic brand that creates brand equity and increased value for the institution’s products and services.

An Inside Higher Education column by Ken Pasternak by Ken Pasternak, Marshall Strategy’s Managing Director, suggests that branding efforts in higher education also should extend beyond a logo. “Great brands are built by the sum total of promises made—and fulfilled—that add up to meaningful and lasting relationships,” he stressed, noting that institutions of higher education have only had to focus on branding recently.

He suggests five strategies to build a coherent brand:

  • Your culture is your brand. Your organization’s cultural values inspire students, faculty members and other stakeholders to participate in your organization. Pasternak suggests gathering perspectives from across the institution to identify core principles and drivers that can be used to marshal your community and develop a brand.
  • Your brand is driven by your community. “Great brands are those whose missions people want to be a part of, because they are the aspirations of the community,” Pasternak noted.
  • The brand inspires stakeholders’ behaviors. The brand identifies, communicates and rewards behaviors in the institution.
  • Organizations maintain discipline around their brand. Organizations with great brands make concise decisions about the messages they convey. 
  • Brands are a work in progress. Branding efforts don’t stop once a logo is created. The brand continues to evolve as the institution evolves.


With that said, The Change Leader’s next blog – To Whom Are You Marketing? One Size Fits All Doesn’t Work will focus on how universities can begin to create a brand to attract millennials and people from different demographics.



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