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When chief marketing officer Dan Dillon came to Arizona State University in 2013, determining whether the university was going to be a branded house or a house of brands was among the first fundamental questions he addressed. “Were we going to be the W. P. Carey School of Business, or were we going to be the Arizona State University W. P. Carey School of Business?,” he said. The Arizona State leadership decided that a branded house would be the better approach.

Many higher ed brand strategists grapple with this issue, as mStoner’s Joel Pattison nicely outlined in this space last year, because universities are inherently complex. A single institution can comprise multiple campuses, academic schools, departments, centers, institutes, athletics programs, and more – a seemingly inevitable house of brands. Yet, this scope of impact and diversity of mission make our colleges and universities great.

For a better understanding of brand architecture, it is enlightening to look back at the origin of the terms branded house and house of brands.

In 2000, David Aaker and Eric Joachimsthaler introduced a brand architecture tool called the brand relationship spectrum, which involves four basic strategies and nine sub-strategies to help organizations create a “coherent and effective” brand architecture. A branded house (with a single master brand that spans multiple offerings) sits at one extreme of the spectrum, and a house of brands (with a set of stand-alone brands) is at the other.

Two insights from the brand relationship spectrum are particularly relevant for its application to higher education.

  • The brand relationship spectrum is a continuum, not the either/or proposition (branded house versus house of brands) that we often make of it. Organizations typically use of a mixture of strategies on the spectrum. As Aaker and Joachimsthaler have explained, a pure branded house is rare, and that is certainly the case in higher education.
  • The spectrum was developed primarily with the consumer goods sector in mind. While there is much to learn from the authors’ work, the brand relationship spectrum does not translate perfectly to higher education.

When it comes to brand architecture for colleges and universities, ideally the question should be not “which” but “how.” In nearly all cases, a branded house is the preferred architecture.

It is simply more efficient to build and maintain a master brand to leverage across an entire institution – enhancing clarity and synergy – than it is to build a house of separate brands. In a house of brands, a more significant investment is necessary to build the individual brands, because they are independent and do not benefit from the overarching master brand. And efficiency is critical for higher education where marketing expenditures represent a very small percentage of an institution’s overall operating budget and are markedly lower compared to other sectors.

Achieving a branded house in higher ed is much easier said than done.

While a branded house is the desired strategy, everything does not fit neatly under one roof at our institutions. Furthermore, the control required to execute an optimal branded house does not mesh with higher ed organizational culture and structures. Perhaps then we should develop our own framework for brand architecture.

Rather than being confined to a branded house, can we establish a preferred architecture that still positions the university brand as the primary driver as much as possible and at the same time acknowledges the multidimensional nature of our dynamic institutions? There’s much to learn from corporate best practices in brand strategy, but let’s innovate in our own space.

Rob Zinkan is associate vice president, marketing, at Indiana University. In his 14 years there, he has also served as vice chancellor for external affairs and assistant dean for advancement at two different IU campuses.


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