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You Can’t Brand Without It…

Bob Brock

In retail marketing, effectively positioning a new product can be done unilaterally and seamlessly by the marketing team, with a glitzy marketing campaign rolled out to the marketplace quickly and efficiently.

But higher education is different.

We have a history of involving faculty in decision-making. At many institutions, this protocol extends to making sure staff, students, and alumni input is in the mix, too. Our heritage also honors a certain level of decentralized control over the implementation of each unit’s messaging, graphic identity, and creative framework.

We ignore these honored protocols at our peril: Witness the brouhahas that have surrounded several university campaign launches recently.

They are why a consensus-based brand platform needs to be an essential positioning tool for every college and university.

The brand platform is a strategic document that defines your market position and the essence of your brand. It identifies the niche leadership position that your organization occupies or wants to occupy in the competitive marketplace. It outlines your points of differentiation and how you want to be perceived by your most important audiences. It defines what you stand for and the outcomes you enable for graduates.

And it has to be developed with broad, meaningful campus input.

Done well, a brand platform energizes and mobilizes your most important marketing asset – faculty, staff, students, and alumni. It infuses the campus community with purpose. It galvanizes faculty and staff to improve their individual performance based on a set of core values. And it guides the application of human and economic resources to constantly improve on a shared expression of excellence.

The brand platform isn’t ad copy. It’s not a tagline, a campaign headline, or a marketing slogan. Like the framework of a building, it is the foundational support for your identity even though it may not yet reflect the institution’s full character or personality. It is a thorough and enduring brand strategy that changes glacially, if at all.

For those institutions that do have a brand platform, there is a surprising number of institutions that overlook the need to disseminate the brand platform across their organizations. Administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and trustees are the ones who will be called upon to deliver and personify the brand promise and brand drivers. To do that, they have to know what it is. They have to understand and believe in the tenets expressed in it.

We’re talking about the actual brand platform itself, not the glitzy creative marketing materials and catchy headlines meant to grab public attention.

Internal stakeholders need to be able to personalize how they communicate the brand promise and drivers. While the essential attributes should stay the same, the emphasis, language, proof points, and benefits should be tailored according to each individual, each unit, and each audience being addressed. The brand promise and drivers are meant to be internalized, not memorized.

The platform should be on your intranet and should be the subject of articles in the faculty/staff and student newspapers and alumni magazine. It should become the center of an internal communications efforts using posters, tabletops, and banners.

The goal is to help all internal stakeholders “own” the brand platform in a personal and meaningful way, and to inculcate it into the institutional culture. That’s when you’ll finally have a brand.

7 Replies to “You Can’t Brand Without It…”

  1. We went through an extensive positioning development process at Ole Miss the moment I arrived as CMO. It’s what I’ve done for 25 years for over 170 brands via my consulting group CenterBrain Partners ( To say it’s a core competency is an understatement. Your points are certainly well-taken, but positioning is part consensus and part tradeoff, just like everything else in marketing. Yes in higher-ed we have a tradition of including a number of groups in the process of developing positioning, and because we don’t march to any real metric of success or haven’t taken the time to develop them (something we have underway now at Ole Miss) we are willing to let lots of “opinions” drive our decision making. Most “retail” positioning is driven by the important metric of “I have to eat”. The processes to develop these positionings use the customer to drive to a strategic and creative outcome that contains three things.
    1. A Tangible Benefit
    2. Offers some truth (attributes) that support the benefit.
    3. Connects to a universal insight in a way that gets them to say, “Hey That’s Me.”

    I call this the three T’s, which I outlined in my book about positioning, “CenterBrain Thinking”.

    My belief is that in higher ed, because we don’t define or prioritize target audiences, we end trying to be all things to all people, and as a mentor once told me end up “being nothing to no one.” That’s why most university positioning sounds like a tagline or a esoteric, generic statement about “opening doors, inspiring minds….blah, blah, blah.”

    Yes you have to engage a wide range of constituencies and use processes that until recently have been pretty foreign to higher ed. But, ultimately if you are the CMO you have to make a decision using your experience in the art of positioning and marketing. You then have to sell your methodology and explain your outcome campus wide. And, you have to be willing to push the positioning fast down through the organization with the realization that nothing in marketing is a 100% market share proposition. There will be naysayers, there will be some people who are outwardly defiant, and yes a lot of them will be faculty members. But I believe that when positioning is rooted in a solid universal insight (a belief or behavior with the best being a belief backed up by a behavior), it will catch on quickly.

    I appreciate your thought provoking post. I am starting work on a new book, “CenterBrain.Edu”, which will drill down into this subject. As you can surmise I have some passion for positioning. I believe that it is the guidepost (not guideline) for all marketing execution.

  2. Jim: Your insights are always incredible! Thanks for this outstanding perspective. Can’t wait to read the new book! We should get together sometime to compare notes!

  3. Thanks for writing. I believe the requirement for buy-in is greater in higher education because of its non-profit nature. People who teach and work at a university do so (for the most part) because they believe in higher education. They aren’t here to get rich, meaning the personal investment is high. And if you’re going to rely upon these highly-invested stakeholders to carry out the brand, they better understand and embrace it from the beginning.

  4. Thanks to Patrick and Andrew! Appreciate the thoughtful comments – you guys really get it!

    After 15 years of counseling colleges and universities on the branding process, I know this to be true, despite the fact that it sounds counter-intuitive: Getting internal stakeholders to believe in and internalize a differentiating brand promise/platform is – by orders of magnitude – the single most effective thing you can do to increase public awareness and perceptions of quality.

    Thanks for the input!

  5. Bob,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and starting an interesting discussion. I am glad Patrick provided his valuable insights too. As we are involved in Higher Ed marketing, I can confirm that most of the non-profit and many for-profit schools do not have much of originality in their positioning (besides maybe nice logo). What I am wondering about is the differences in the branding (positioning) process for the higher education institutions and other consumer oriented trades. And also, what is different in the positioning of non-for-profit schools vs. for-profit schools.

    Thank you again for a thought provoking input.



  6. Leo:
    Thanks for the shout out. And really insightful questions, too!

    Biggest difference in branding higher ed and product positioning: Product positioning is driven by consumer preferences, while university brands must be driven by internal core values (informed by audience needs/preferences) because of the substantive mission of educational institutions. However, many higher ed administrators don’t get this! Differentiation on core values can still be quite sharp!

    Interesting question about different positioning for non-profits and for-profits! What we’ve seen recently is for-profits trying to position as close as they can to the non-profits (for greater credibility), and the non-profits trying to be more like for-profits (for greater market impact)!

    I’d encourage Patrick, Andrew, Jim, and others to tackle these questions, as well. Thanks!

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