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Have College Brands Delivered on Their Promise?

Ten years after higher ed became enamored with branding, a panel of university marketers talks about lessons learned.
University Business, Sep 2010

It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since brand marketing first swept higher education. During that time we have seen countless colleges and universities launch and develop brand strategies. And based on the number of RFPs in play, it appears that the interest in brand marketing will likely not diminish any time soon.

As we look forward to that next decade of brand marketing, I thought it might be useful to look back to see what lessons we have learned.

For a view from the trenches, I turned to a handful of brand veterans at both public and private institutions. Participating in the discussion were:

  •  Greg Carroll, vice president for university marketing at Stetson University (Fla.)
  •  Pat Frantz Cercone, director of communications and marketing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford
  •  Catherine Herman, vice president for communications and marketing at the University of Albany (N.Y.)
  •  Mike Franz, vice president of enrollment at Robert Morris University (Pa.)
  •  Rob Westervelt, vice president of marketing communications at George Fox University (Ore.)
  •  Kelley Bozeman, director of marketing at the University of Kentucky

This is what they had to say.

Savvy campus marketing pros know that messages are most effective when the creative team seeks to differentiate them from what other institutions are saying and then integrate the branding across multiple channels.

Carroll: "Many brand strategies are built on unfounded expectations - a kind of marketing magic bullet. However, if the brand strategy was built on a realistic market assessment, had achievable goals, and was sufficiently resourced, then the likelihood was high that the brand would live up to its promise to return value to the institution."

Franz: "The brand strategies that truly lived up to their promise tended to have one strategic distinction: a point of differentiation. Without that differentiation, you run the risk of looking and sounding like everyone else and frittering away the few resources available."

Westervelt: "Absolutely. And the key word here is 'investing,' rather than 'spending.' We were already spending a significant amount of money branding the university across the country. But, in reality, we were getting the majority of our students from two states. I made the argument that we could reallocate existing money that was being spent nationally to our regional target geography and get more bang for the buck."

Bozeman: "Frankly, this is the best time to invest in brand marketing. Resources are scarce, so you had better start improving your brand and marketing your product to new audiences. Otherwise, you will not change your market position. We knew that if we could improve our brand in surrounding states, we felt that we could discover new revenue streams for the university."

'When developing a brand strategy, there will always be people who feel they were not adequately involved in the process.'
-Catherine Herman, University of Albany

Herman: "There is a misperception in higher education that marketing dollars are spent only by the institution's marketing office. Every day, we see various divisions, schools, and colleges, and the admissions office, spending institutional funds on newsletters, magazines, website design, brochures, banners, direct mail, and more. In today's economic climate, if the institution has not invested in a solid brand strategy, the dollars will be squandered on disparate messages and missed opportunities."

Cercone: "Our brand strategy produced almost immediate and measurable dividends. It gave our institution the focus it needed to communicate more effectively to our audiences, whether it's what we say in our admissions materials, how we deal with students who come to pay their bill, or how we treat families when they visit. It has encouraged all of us to row in the same direction, which has helped us to enhance our campus culture."

Cercone: "There were folks on campus who questioned why we would spend so much money on something that they didn't think could or would produce results, particularly when, in their minds, that money could have been better spent elsewhere. However, I think part of their initial objection was because they didn't understand what a brand was, and how having one would help us grow and enhance our campus. We have communicated that information and continue to do so. The biggest point in our favor, of course, was the tangible results we've all seen on campus."

Westervelt: "The word 'branding' has so many negative connotations in higher education. We decided to instead use the phrase 'building our reputation.' Faculty does understand the importance of reputation in higher education. Most of them are involved in building their own reputations within their disciplines."

Herman: "We were nearing the finish line of what ultimately was a nine-month branding initiative when a faculty leadership group voiced to our new president that they had not been adequately involved in the development of the brand. This came as quite a surprise to me, since we had taken major steps to build consensus and engage all campus constituents in every step of the process. Fortunately, we were able to show there had been many opportunities for faculty to be involved in the process. We learned an important lesson. When attempting to engage such a complex organization in developing a brand strategy, there will always be people who feel they were not adequately involved in the process. It is important to have a process of engagement that is robust, far-reaching, and documented."

Franz: "Before Robert Morris, I worked at Wilkes University (Pa.) on its brand strategy. During that process, at key milestones, we held open forums for internal audience feedback. All of this went smoothly until we introduced potential print images and taglines. What had been a unifying experience for the campus up to that point turned into wild disagreement and nothing resembling consensus. Our solution was to continue the brand development process but without a tagline. The tagline issue was just too distracting. Some five years later, there remains no tagline."

Bozeman: "We constantly evaluate how our brand strategy is working. We are repeating our key baseline research to evaluate not only whether our image has been enhanced, but also whether or not key student groups are more interested in enrolling at UK. We also monitor more informal, anecdotal data - the internal buzz that has been created on campus. Our students have adopted 'See Blue.' You see it on T-shirts, on Facebook posts, on Twitter, and in our recruiting strategy. It literally is everywhere. Even our athletic supporters - affectionately known as the Big Blue Nation - have bought into 'See Blue.' "

Carroll: "Stetson uses three broad measures of brand equity. First is our ability to get the class. Second is our ability to shape the class. And third, consistent fundraising growth even during a financial climate that is volatile."

Westervelt: "We evaluate our brand strategy in several ways. First, we track results through Google Analytics, focusing on new, nonpaid external visits to our site. We look at specific keyword phrases related to our brand message and our target geography. And we track the time on page, campus visit submissions, and inquiries. Second, we survey all incoming first-year students and ask them specific questions related to our campaign, particularly what they were exposed to prior to enrolling at George Fox. Third, we track anecdotal data. From admissions to advancement to HR, we hear story after story of students, alumni, donors, and prospective employees repeating our core message--that we are a top-ranked Christian college--back to us and that the message was important to them.

'Too often, campuses fail to measure how well they are living the brand.'
-Mike Franz, Robert Morris University

On the advancement front, we had one of the biggest fundraising years to date. On several occasions, our president has shared with me how donors and donor prospects have viewed or heard our message and how it influenced them.

We are expecting the largest incoming class in the school's history this fall, and we have a waiting list for the first time. Right now, there are 29 deposited students on it. Our SAT scores and GPAs are both up, and we brought in a more diverse class."

Franz: "Too often, campuses fail to measure how well they are living the brand. A brand is much more than awareness. A brand must be lived by those who work at and attend the institution. At Robert Morris, our brand promise 'Change a Life and Yours Will Be Changed Forever' will require us to evaluate how the lives of our students and employees have been changed by each other. If successful, how can anyone argue that helping someone change their life in positive ways is anything but a fantastic use of university funds?"

Westervelt: "Data. Nothing is more convincing to university personnel than cold hard facts. I think most of the support we received was because we kept opinions out of the conversation, and relied heavily on data, both institutional and external market data."

Herman: "Build your brand on research. It is so important to formulate the foundation of any brand through the use of solid quantitative research. Having a concise snapshot of attitudes, opinions, and perceived strengths and weaknesses versus real strengths and weaknesses offers opportunities to build and track the success of a strong brand."

Carroll: "Do everything you can to get cross-institutional buy-in during the brand development process, during the brand launch, and as you execute the brand strategy."

Bozeman: "You must have support from the top. Our president has been the biggest champion of this project. He has given us freedom and feedback, while also supporting the 'See Blue' campaign at all times."

Cercone: "Don't bother trying to develop a brand strategy without clear and ongoing presidential support. Besides making the funds available for the initial investment, and continuing to make funds available for our marketing efforts, he frequently reminds the campus community of our brand promise. He closely monitors the campus community to make sure we continue to live the brand promise. He also keeps a keen eye on any potential threats to that promise. Our president gets it. If you don't have that support and commitment coming from the top, I can't see the endeavor being successful."

Franz: "Invest in living the brand."

Robert A. Sevier is senior vice president of strategy at Stamats, Inc. To download a copy of his recent paper, "Understanding and Applying mROI," go to