I’ll never forget how I first learned that higher education is congenitally afraid of sub-brands. A few years ago, I was acting as a branding consultant to one of the largest land-grant universities in the nation. I had just recommended to the director of one of the university’s satellite campuses that his unit should be positioned as a “sub-brand.” Huge mistake!
Fear the Sub-Brand
The strategy we outlined for this campus director was clear and compelling: sub-brand status would provide the campus with strong market differentiation, yet within a harmonious family of brands. It would allow the use of a unique set of competitive advantages, while at the same time lending to campus credibility and stature through unmistakable visual, graphic, and messaging linkages to the main campus, the same way that Diet Coke is visually and strategically linked to Coca-Cola.
But as soon as I uttered the word “sub-brand”, the campus director sprang from behind his desk and said firmly, “This campus will not be a “SUB” to anything, or anyone!” To this administrator, as to many in higher education, the term “sub-brand” carried overtones of inferiority. And misguided or not, he would have none of it.
Long story short: Despite the fact that sub-branding is a proven strategy and that “sub-brand” is a commonly accepted term in branding, we don’t use that designation anymore. Instead, we call them “differentiated brands” for our higher education clients. Same thing, different hat.
What’s Not to Like?
What’s a little more disturbing, though, is that the fundamental strategy of creating a congruent family of brands seems to be somehow threatening for higher education. The concept is so poorly understood that even experienced marketers sometimes fail to grasp how critical a “differentiated brand” can be to an overall marketing effort.
A differentiated brand can be the perfect solution when an institution is struggling with dissonant messaging sets, incongruent market positioning among different divisions or units, or multiple competing identities in the marketplace.
Here’s an example: Suppose that the hallmark of your high-quality educational product is an exceptional level of personal attention from dedicated, caring professors. Now suppose you also have a robust and fast-growing online education division that, to be competitive in the online space, says they are all about affordability, easy access, and convenient class times. And of course, to increase their marketplace credibility, the online division presents itself under the same name, logo, and graphic identity as your high-quality, selective bricks-and-mortar programs.
So I ask you: Does this organization stand for personal attention from dedicated, caring professors, or does it stand for low-cost, easy-access, convenient classes?
This is more than theoretical. A private university recently asked EMG to identify why the public image of their main campus was so weak, with low public perceptions of quality, and resulting static enrollments and low incoming SATs. Look no further, we told them after our research, than the university’s numerous satellite operations catering to part-time adult learners. These office-campuses were promoting affordable, convenient courses for working adults, and doing so under the core brand identity. No surprise that audiences began to equate the entire brand with low-cost, adult-oriented academic programs.
This kind of branding non-sequitur is the reason why a family of brands makes so much sense for colleges and universities today. It’s the same reason that Diet Coke is not the same as Coca-Cola; that Bud Light occupies a different market position than Budweiser; that the Hokies have an identity that is distinctly separate from Virginia Tech.
Something Old, Nothing New
It may come as a surprise, but most colleges already routinely use a classic “differentiated brand” – athletics. Intercollegiate sports teams are almost always positioned as differentiated brands. Why? To provide an awareness-building “umbrella” link to the core brand from which they were derived, yet with enough latitude to appeal effectively to their own target segments – their fans – in distinctly non-academic terms and platforms.
When done correctly, differentiated brands are a marketing win-win. By creating a differentiated (but linked!) identity for units that have their own distinct audiences and their own unique key messages, you allow both the core brand and the differentiated unit to occupy leadership positions within their own competitive arenas. The benefit of using a differentiated brand is that you’re able to acknowledge that the two entities are closely related, yet distinctly different in their own right.
So you should be looking at brand architecture solutions if your institution is grappling with any of the following:
- Discretely different target audience characteristics for specific units
- Dissonant key messaging being used by different units
- Incongruent market positions held by specific units
- Multiple identities that compete in the same marketplace
But just between you, me, and the fencepost, let’s not call them sub-brands, OK?