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Brand Strategy

Colleges and universities are revamping print materials and web sites.
University Business, Sep 2006

There are seven commonalities for the creation of a successful brand strategy and campaign. These commonalities include:

A widely felt need

Presidential support

A clear goal in mind

A common language

A solid research foundation

Engagement at every opportunity

A sustainable budget

The initial impetus for a successful brand strategy is a common need or opportunity that is widely felt. If the need is clear--we need more students, we need to change our profile, we need to support the capital campaign, we need to gain traction in a changing marketplace--then there will be greater internal buy-in, and by extension, less resistance.

Not surprisingly, the support of the president is essential. The president must be a visionary for what a solid brand can do for the institution and must be willing to not only commit the necessary resources, but commit the necessary political capital as well. The president must see that the senior team and the middle managers that report to that team support the strategy as well. The president's support must be visible, ongoing, and robust.

Brands are utilitarian; they are designed to accomplish a goal. Most often this goal is tied to admissions and/or fundraising. The clearer the goal, the better the strategy and the ability to measure progress.

Some people, especially faculty, seem to recoil at the idea of brand marketing. But these same people are usually OK with the idea of reputation building. While there are some differences between the two concepts, these differences are more nuanced than important. Even before a team launches a brand marketing initiative, it should work hard to find a common language.

Without data, there is only an opinion. And in higher education, everyone seems to have one. For this reason, a solid brand strategy cannot exist without solid research. Not only does this provide important insight into how an institution is perceived and compared, but it gives essential baseline data upon which to later measure progress. It also, importantly, helps legitimize the process in the eyes of the campus community.

Much like strategic planning, the creation of a brand strategy must be aggressively open and inclusive. It is important to seek opportunities, especially early on in the fact finding stage, to engage the campus through interviews, surveys, open meetings, and focus groups.

Finally, it does little good to undertake a blitzkrieg brand strategy that consumes vast time, talent, and treasure resources one year that is not sustainable to the next. It is much smarter to allocate fewer dollars over a longer period. In other words, if the budget is only $200,000; spend $50,000 for each of the next four years rather than blow all the dollars at once.

Creative Examples that Build Brand

The samples are designed to be representative of a much larger body of collateral and includes a blend of traditional and nontraditional media. For this web page, the focus is on elements of the brand strategy that could be depicted visually. Note, however, that many of these strategies also included media relations and special events as well.

The University of South Dakota built brand strategy around one simple yet captivating idea, "Extraordinary." USD students can expect an extraordinary experience and value and residents of South Dakota can expect an extraordinary resource for their state. As is obvious from the examples below, the campaign is highly visual and largely uses traditional media including kiosks, billboards, radio, TV, and other media. Gone, too, are the more than 160 different looks and logos that Michelle Lavallee mentioned in her related interview (published in University Business, April 2006).

Miami Dade College needed a new look that reflected its changed role from primarily a two-year institution to one that is much more comprehensive. Juan Mendieta, Director of Communications at Miami Dade College, says the name change was relatively straightforward and largely involved the creation of a new mark and then ensuring that all printed and visual materials and student touch-points displayed the new mark correctly. The new mark also figured prominently in the College's advertising, Web, and other communications strategies which keyed around the idea of "essential." In other words, MDC is essential to not only students, but to the larger community as well.

Dennis Trotter, Vice President for Enrollment & Marketing and Dean of Admission at Franklin & Marshall College, uses a large palette to help establish the College's brand. Aside from high concept admissions publications, (see samples below), the brand strategists at Franklin & Marshall use special events in a highly engaging fashion.

In addition to traditional media, Franklin & Marshall--recognizing that its prospective students are extremely tech-savvy--s further establishing its position by using such nontraditional media as an admissions-specific website, video blogs (vlog), and even a video iPod.

Beyond print and electronic media, the College also uses special events in an extremely engaging manner. For example, the College celebrated the 300th anniversary of Ben Franklin's birth, one of the College's two namesakes, on January 19.

Entitled The Franklin Experiment, the day-long celebration, for which classes were dismissed, featured a robust schedule. Some of these activities included:

A lecture by Walter Isaacson, highly regarded American historian and author of a best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin.

Cents and Sensibility: Benjamin Franklin and Popular Culture at the Phillips Museum of Art.

The Common Wealth: Benjamin Franklin and the Building of Community at the Lancaster County Historical Society.

An opera titled Benjamin by John Carbon, Professor of Music, and Sarah White, Emerita Professor of French and Italian, at the Roschel Performing Arts Center.

Benjamin Franklin & the Susquehannock at the North Museum.

Benjamin Franklin & the Founding of the College, at the Phillips Museum of Art.

Sebastienne Mundheim: Currently Franklin: The Story of a Paper Boy.

Operating reproduction of a Franklin printing press.

Demonstration of 18th century food and food preservation.

A tinsmith demonstration how lanterns, candlesticks, and other period items were crafted.

Interactive 18th century sewing demonstrations.

A specialist presenting on period medicine and cosmetic concoctions of the 18th century.

The Fourth Light Dragoons, Revolutionary War reenactors, and the Third Battalion Pennsylvania Augusta Regiment, citizen-soldier reenactors, on Hartman Green.

An 18th century wedding ceremony.

Ben Franklin himself mingling all day long.

The celebration included campus reenactments. In addition, faculty, staff, and students were encouraged to "dress the part."

The event was supported by a variety of creative including publications, seven different banners, news releases, and advertising in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other regional newspapers. In addition, the college prepared broadsides to publicize the event. Some samples of the collateral creative are presented below.

As part of its larger brand strategy, MIT Sloan sought to leverage MIT's already strong brand and graphic identity. Margaret Andrews, Executive Director of Marketing, Admissions and Alumni Relations at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says, "visually, we have adopted the MIT signature color. Importantly, we now always use "MIT Sloan" rather than a 'naked' Sloan."

The old mark is on the left. The new mark is meant to be an improvement on the existing logo, not a new logo. The new one was also meant to more closely align Sloan visually with MIT by using the MIT color, PMS 201, rather than the bright red used in the old logo. They also changed the weight on the text so that the "MIT" is now slightly bolder than the "Sloan." Other changes were the addition of the word "Management," which necessitated changing the logo from more of a square to a rectangle.

MIT Sloan cleaned up the dome by reducing the number of lines used to create the columns by half. The new mark is used on many items, including banners, signage, posters, shirts and other clothing, pens, clocks, paperweights, etc.

Of the colleges and universities interviewed for this article, Biola University had one of the most complete brand portfolios that is founded on a truly distinctive brand promise and attributes. The importance of an established brand portfolio cannot be overestimated. It creates a clear goal--the establishing of a brand promise in the minds and hearts of the target audiences, the message strategy established through clear brand attributes, and the people, or target audiences, that need to be reached. Portions of the Biola University brand portfolio are presented below.

Biola is a theologically conservative, Protestant university that provides biblically-centered education in a wide range of undergraduate programs and graduate education through the doctoral level, to evangelical students, equipping them in mind and character to impact the world in any professional setting.

Raise Biola's awareness and profile

Inform stakeholders of the university's vision

Ensure the highest quality of all forms of communications

Align with Biola's new strategic plan

Increase enrollment and financial support

Friends and supporters of the university

Prospective students

Prospective and current parents


Business community leaders and friends

Churches and para-church organizations

Current students

Internal groups - faculty, staff, board of trustees

Community at large

Other educational organizations

Frank Zang, BSU's Director of Communications and Marketing, says that the first thing that many people say about Boise State is, "aren't you the school with the blue football field?" Based on that, he says, the brand campaign was tied to the signature blue turf and the success of the football team (which had been ranked in the top 25 and played in bowl games). "Beyond the Blue" is an awareness-building effort aimed at demonstrating the many attributes--told in colors--associated with Boise State. There were five initial concepts with individual marketing messages and creative execution--Red Carpet, Gray Matter, Gold Standard, Green Light, and Orange Juice. The five colors reflected five themes: research, academics, events, student life, and economic impact. The themes are represented individually and rotate on BSU's Web site.

Robert Sevier is a senior VP at Stamats Communications, and is the author of Building a Brand That Matters: Helping Colleges and Universities Capitalize on the Four Essential Elements of a Block-Buster Brand, available from

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