Higher ed has come a long way toward understanding the value of an inspiring institutional brand, but some senior leaders still need convincing. Often the question is posed, “Is the investment in branding worth it?” This question isn’t restricted to higher education; it happens in many sectors and with many leaders. Typically, it’s an executive sales leader, a finance or accounting leader, an institution’s trustee or a provost, generally leaders not connected to marketing and brand activity. In higher education, the question about “worth it” is gauged against metrics like fundraising, quality of class, inquiry and enrollment and other similar benchmarks.
While this question is one side of the coin, what’s the other side of the coin, the side of no focus and underinvestment. What is the return on that side? If your target audience can’t connect with who you are, because they don’t understand you, how can they align with what you stand for and embrace shared values and beliefs? What is the cost to spending more time, more energy and more money on fragmented messaging that blurs understanding, awareness and compromises and investment in the end. How is chaos and confusion measured? Likely the flipside of donor engagement, quality of class and enrollment.
Fortunately, higher education continues the steady march toward understanding the significant influence of brand inspiration, activation and elevation on institutional success across a broad array of campus operating units (recruitment, advancement, academics, etc.) charged with moving target audiences toward taking desired actions.
Even with this progress, however, we regularly encounter campus communities whose senior leaders remain skeptical about committing significant resources to brand clarification and management. In our current economy, this kind of investment is usually funded by reallocating existing dollars. So, it’s no surprise that cobbling together a “branding budget” is a tall and complicated order for any institution that doesn’t already have one in place.
One of our favorite clients happens to be the alma mater of Eric Sickler (a Thorburn employee) and his former employer. Beyond his deep emotional affinity for Central College (IA), he is extraordinarily proud of the work Central’s leadership team has championed in the name of institutional brand clarification and elevation over the past few years.
Central’s president, Dr. Mark Putnam, led the process with a small-but-mighty senior-level internal working group. And he’s the first one to admit having a bit of an epiphany about the notion of brand: the total experience and story that an institution provides to its stakeholders.
As Central College wrapped up the foundational phase of its brand clarification exercise, Thorburn sat down with Dr. Putnam to record his observations about the process from a president’s perspective. A few of his key take-aways included:
- Robust market research helped members of his campus community identify perceptions they believed about the college that, while true, were not relevant to external audiences.
- Brand clarification and elevation takes time. Central embraced a “manage through“ approach over four or five years to make improvements gradually as the process unfolded, giving those involved the time and room they needed to be creative and to think openly among themselves.
- Branding is not about being clever; it’s about uncovering the essence of an institution and expressing it authentically in the marketplace.
We’ve extracted a 10-minute clip from that interview that several college-based marketers have used to encourage their senior leaders to support making a significant brand marketing investment. View and share it with your colleagues who may need some convincing that your institutional brand deserves more attention. And Thorburn would also take this opportunity to publicly thank Dr. Putnam and his Central College team for doing—and sharing via their story—some really outstanding higher education brand marketing thinking.