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What brand loyalty opportunities are higher education institutions still missing? H. Rao Unnava, dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, has more than 30 years of research experience focusing on the topic of brand loyalty. In a recent interview, he shared advice with a group of higher education communicators on concepts from existing research that institutions can use to improve student recruitment and alumni and donor engagement.

The following is a summary of the tips taken from the interview. To learn more about the underlying research, watch the interview with Unnava.

  1. Don’t miss the many opportunities to build loyalty.

Brand loyalty is crucial to getting results in higher education, according to Unnava. Someone who feels an emotional attachment to the institution is much more likely to make an admissions commitment, donate, make a referral, or take some other positive action.

Consumer brands have limited touchpoints to build brand loyalty. Customers buy a product and use it a certain number of times, or visit a restaurant and each time decide whether or not to return. In contrast, higher education institutions have experiential brands and long-term relationships. As Unnava says, “It’s an experience on campus for a student, for a recruiter who comes hoping to find talent, for the parents who come because they’re letting go of a child they have brought up for 18 years and they want to make sure it’s a safe place for them. So it’s also an experience that’s longitudinal.”

This paradigm creates access to many different types of touchpoints—from student experiences to alumni communications—and therefore many opportunities to build loyalty. The more institutions take advantage of these opportunities to build meaningful engagement, the more loyal and committed their constituents will become.

  1. Pursue the rankings, but develop a distinct brand experience.

“Rankings get you into the consideration set,” Unnava says, “but it’s actually what happens after that determines what brand people choose.”

What you deliver and how it aligns to your constituents’ values matters. A memorable brand experience that reaches people’s emotions and resonates in their memories can be essential to success. This begins with getting prospective students, donors and others to visit the campus so they receive firsthand experiences and the feeling of ownership that occurs just from being physically present.

When prospective students and their parents visit, they should feel at home and personally connected. Enrolled students should feel inspired by the institution as they pursue their degree. And when alumni and donors have touchpoints or visits with the institution, they should feel like they are part of the community. Everyone should have their imaginations stimulated, since education is about possibility. These brand experiences will build customer loyalty and be returned as positive actions on behalf of the institution.

  1. Set high expectations, then exceed them.

Prospective students, alumni, and donors should all have high expectations of the institution, and it’s important to encourage those expectations because it means that the brand is held in high esteem.

However, it’s also important to exceed those expectations. Remember that higher education institutions have deeper relationships with their customers than consumer brands have, and so there may be a higher level of emotional investment that must be met. Institutions need to research their constituents’ value systems and expectations, then provide quality experiences that are consistent with them. By achieving what Warren Buffet has called “customer delight,” institutions build even more commitment among their constituents. “As formal and simple as that system is,” Unnava says, “it seems to work wonders.”

  1. Keep constituents involved in branding decisions.

Although there are some notable rebranding disasters with commercial companies, higher education institutions seem to have a knack for them. There’s a reason for that: it’s a phenomenon called “implicit contracts” that is especially strong with committed consumers, such as those often found in higher education. Students, alumni and parents all seem to develop a set of implicit contracts in their minds, things that an institution never promised them, but they believe it did. And when those contracts are violated by some element of the brand not being taken care of, Unnava says, someone can “actually change from being a brand ambassador to a brand terrorist!” That is, not only will they stop helping the school, but some of them may actively undermine the school as well. That is one of the dangers of having highly committed consumers.

Fortunately, there is a way to address the danger of implicit contracts: to involve the constituents. Being asked to express their views appears to be generally enough, because they know that the institution considered them. However, it is important to listen. If the institution comes out with a new identity that is against the values of most of the constituents, then there is still going to be an issue.

  1. If a crisis comes, use it to increase your constituents’ commitment to your brand.

“Negative information is a very difficult thing to deal with,” Unnava says, “especially in this age where people can Tweet and post on websites irresponsibly.” Yet higher education institutions all face public crises at one time or another that must be addressed. Research on belief persistence has shown that, true or not, negative information out in the marketplace can have a very long life in consumers’ minds. To prevent this, Unnava says, “you need to respond, you need to take care of it.”

However, that does not mean that anyone should deny or attempt to cover up information that is negative but true, because that will cause even more damage in the long term. Studies have shown that, after a crisis, customers’ loyalty to a brand can actually increase if they approve of the way an institution handled the crisis. If a mistake was made, owning up to it promptly and providing a resolution shows respect to customers, and in return, increases their respect for the institution.

In short, the keys to brand loyalty are in our hands. Setting high expectations, informing and involving constituents, and creating a strong brand identity can make the difference toward getting passionate advocates for your institution.

Tom Hinds is the director of marketing and branding for UC Davis.