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Image courtesy of Dr. David Peck

Brand Perceptions Matter

EMG Guest

We asked Dr. David Peck, the 2014 International Brand Master, for his insight into his unique experience regarding education brand marketing and his outstanding work at Azusa Pacific University. Here are his thoughts…

Colleges and universities have held a position of status throughout the world by providing a substantive educational and developmental value. With increased competition, increased noise in the marketplace, increased options for degree programs, and uncertainty around perceptions of price and value – Colleges and universities need to understand who they are, and how they serve their communities.

This is a brand platform.

While Warren Buffet famously posited, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get,” colleges and universities have struggled to present the value of a college degree. The perceptions that a college owns, and the promises they make help define what is true, meaningful, and different about their brand. This is the beginning of a brand promise.

Brand platforms and promises need to serve both as inspirational and aspirational value propositions that are owned by the faculty and staff, and then extend to the students. These value propositions serve as the foundation of lived experiences that shape perception.

What are the changes in brand development over the past twenty years?
At Azusa Pacific, we have seen significant changes over the past twenty years in our image and brand. In 1997, President Richard Felix hired a firm to evaluate our logo and university colors. Through committees and conversations, Felix and the university adopted the cornerstone logo, focused on the four elements of Christ, Scholarship, Community and Service, and transitioned the colors from black and orange, to brick (red) and black. This was a substantive change for the university at that time.

The university underwent a transformational image overhaul, changing colors and logos from the vehicles to gateway signage. This change shaped our perceptions, and the perceptions of others.

As significant as these changes were, they pale in comparison to the hard work required for colleges and universities to develop and inculcate an institutional brand promise today. As Azusa Pacific began to center on our brand promise, we identified tools (the brand book) and a presentation that we took on the road, internally. We presented to more than 700 faculty and staff within the university, in small and large groups to talk about the university’s brand promise, and to provide a pocket guide for the university brand. It was more than a two-year process, simply to present to various colleagues throughout the university.

What advice would you give for those aiming to develop an enduring brand?
Developing a brand promise that has inspirational and aspirational characteristics requires a commitment from the university’s leadership, and ownership from the university’s marketing team. In many ways, the marketing team transitioned from acting occasionally as the logo police, to the brand propagators who “lived the brand.” We were aggressive in finding places to provide tools and training for teams within APU, and highlight members of our community who were “living the brand.”

What would you suggest the first step be for marketing officers at similar universities who want to establish a unique brand?
The first step in establishing a unique brand begins by having exploratory conversations with various members of the community, asking and documenting their perceptions of what is true, meaningful and different. This process provides an internal assessment around the community’s perceptions about the brand. Next steps include a formal brand audit, and then hiring a company to facilitate research around internal, external and aspirational brand perceptions. Important in this facilitation process includes a review of the competition, and insights from various internal and external stakeholders.

Do you have a story of an unexpected obstacle in your branding efforts? How did you overcome it?
There were many unexpected obstacles, most surrounding community members’ perceptions around not being included in the discussion, and not being aware of the university’s brand initiative. Occasionally we would get push-back during a meeting from a faculty or staff member in a position of authority, but whom simply missed (due to schedules), or who did not pay attention during the presentation. Because we had given so many presentations (including 700 brand books), other faculty and staff would jump in and defend the process, and the outcomes. While few and far in between, those were rewarding opportunities to have others defend our brand process.

Where is your focus now that the “Cultivating Difference Makers” brand is in place?
We are now focused on developing sub-brand promises for each of our colleges and schools looking at “What kind of difference making” do they provide within their areas of graduate and professional education. These conversations help us to create a shared understanding with faculty and leaders so that we move forward with consistency and continuity in promoting the sub-brand, and thus brand of Azusa Pacific University.

“Living the brand” seems incredibly important at Azusa Pacific University. How do you approach internal branding?
Branding is an internal process that helps shape external perceptions. We have to model and then hold each other accountable to “living the brand,” understanding that part of the process includes making adjustments in how we treat each other, and thus how we treat others. This is an aspirational process that can sometimes lead to important and yet difficult questions.

What techniques do you use to illustrate your brand elements?
Telling stories of faculty and staff within our community, and stories about our alumni and students are critical to illustrating the brand promise, and the different brand elements for APU. These visual stories become part of the narrative as well as presentations that we use at APU to talk about who we are, and the outcome of “Cultivating Difference Makers.” 

What brand elements were placed in the “brick book,” APU’s brand book? Did you find the book helpful in brand education and implementation? What elements do you feel should have been included or excluded? Have any other channels been used to encourage brand implementation and buy-in?
The brand elements placed in the brick book (or brand book) include the “why” of the brand, and the brand promise, comments from various community members, and then the “what” or “how” of the brand elements tied to the use of fonts, logo, colors and values. The book provides a pocket-guide for community members to carry in their pocket, take notes with, and personalize their responsibility to “live the brand.” We have made several adjustments to the brand book (version 1.0, 2.0, etc.) and have made updates. One of the critical elements included in the second version was an image that visually presented how the mission, vision, values, brand platform and cornerstones for the university work together. This “at a glance” chart provided a quick overview of how things all fit together. The best channel for implementing brand changes were “old-fashioned face-to-face” meetings.

If you could change one thing about higher education marketing today, what would it be?
Over the last ten years, the perceived value of higher education diminished as for-profit university business models eroded trust and the long-standing university value-proposition. In 2014, Ivory Tower emerged as a documentary about the value of a university. In one scene, a father – engaged with a Harvard admissions counselor says, “I just want to know… when my daughter graduates, will she get a job?” We all shuttered as we heard that question from that father as we internally wrestled with this question. Instead of confidently responding with facts and stories stating, “Of course she will get a job” (based on the long-standing graduation statistics), we paused and let the media and others create a narrative of confusion around the value higher education provides. Given this context, Higher Education marketing has a responsibility to own a narrative that demonstrates the unique value that each of us provide to not only our students, but also to the communities that we help flourish. We have to own our narrative and redefine the value of a college degree, moving forward.

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