Battle of the Brands in Higher Education

April 8, 2010

The days when the biggest rivalries among colleges and universities were fought on the gridiron and in the gymnasium are gone. Today, the main clashes take place within the admissions arena, where schools are locked in intense competition for the best and brightest students. Schools employ many strategies to win these battles, but none are more effective, especially over the long term, than projecting the right image, or brand identity, to prospective students and their families, as well as faculty, academic journals, high school counselors, donors, alumni, government officials and other important audiences. Properly conceived and communicated, an identity can be self-perpetuating by bringing to the school the students, faculty, grants, corporate sponsors and alumni giving needed for the institution to achieve and expand upon its most ambitious goals.

A cohesive identity
Schools must now speak to audiences that are highly diverse, and not only in terms of ethnicity. For example, only 25 percent of those attending colleges and universities today match the profile of a "traditional" student. The rest are decidedly "untraditional" -- students today who attend part-time, work full-time, delay enrollment, support dependents (including as single parents) or otherwise confound stereotypes. The need for an identity to communicate to "all of our constituencies" does not mean a school must be all things to all people. A strong brand program can speak in a focused, meaningful way to diverse audiences. In fact, through its cohesiveness, it will bring synergy to communications campaigns geared to a wide range of objectives and audiences. This cohesiveness becomes especially critical as schools launch initiatives aimed at new audiences. All too easily, these new ventures can seem to conflict with the institution's traditional identity. For example, a school known for its strong humanities program might suddenly find itself with an endowed chair in the sciences. Or it might see an opportunity to form an alliance with or even acquire another school. Whether these kinds of changes are perceived by students and others as positive depends on large part on how well they fit the identity the school has established.

Assessing an institution’s identity
Even schools with no formal brand identity program already have an identity. The question is, how accurate and effective is it? Many schools today are scrutinizing their identities to see how they might be strengthened to meet the challenges of the coming decades. And though the best brand identity programs work in many subtle ways, the signs of ineffectual ones are far from subtle. Administrators can see the evidence in low inquiry and application rates, a sign that prospective students don't fully appreciate a school's strengths. With prospects applying to more schools than ever," according to Jim Scannell, president of Scannell & Kurz, an enrollment-management strategy firm, based in Pittford, New York, "of equal concern is a low rate of inquiry follow-up, which can signal discontinuity between what a prospect initially thought about a school and how well subsequent investigation confirmed that first impression. "Students who are accepted but do not enroll may be sending a similar message -- or, perhaps, one that says they saw more promise in the offer of another school. A lack of high quality applicants for faculty positions is another common indicator of identity issues." If a school has an identity program, sometimes just an objective look at it will reveal areas that need to be fine-tuned or even totally revised. Questions to ask center on the four key ingredients of an effective brand-positioning program:

Deservedly, education is one of the most, if not the most, prized commodities in the world today. And the competition to create the intellectual climates that support superior education has never been more intense. Those colleges and universities that can best identify and articulate their unique strengths through a brand and identity program will be those best positioned to capitalize on those strengths.

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