Can (or Should) an Academic Program Be Branded: An Open Letter to Chief Academic Officers

Your school's academic experience must align with your institutional brand in ways that surprise, inspire and delight your audiences.

December 19, 2019

In a prior “Call to Action” blog post directed to college and university presidents, I wrote, “Exercising leadership discipline in the management of your college’s brand is the best way to help prospective stakeholders know your institution as you want them to know it, and to encourage them to act in ways you’d like them to act: inquire, apply, enroll, persist to completion, donate to, and advocate for your college.”

While some faculty members may bristle at the mention of “academic program” and “marketing” in the same breath, the brutal truth is that every college and university’s academic experience is at the core of the school’s branding ecosystem. Alumni, student and employee satisfaction hinges on it. Institutional images and reputations are built around it. And every potential revenue stream -- from tuition to federal research grants -- considers it first among a number of other criteria.

While an institution’s laser-focused attention to the detail of its academic program is nonnegotiable, most colleges and universities miss the extraordinarily low-hanging potential of leveraging and merchandising the persuasive power of their brand foundations in the delivery of their students’ academic experiences.

There is great synergy to be realized when campus academic planners and leaders envision how their institution can significantly differentiate itself from competing schools by imagining the compelling and memorable ways its academic experience can demonstrate alignment with the institutional brand foundation.

If this concept sounds far-fetched, let me demonstrate -- by way of just a few examples -- just how easy this might be introduced on your campus:

  • Let your school’s brand promise and pillars inspire the designation of themes to guide:
    • Institutional academic planning
    • Annual fine arts or speaker/lecture series
    • Annual convocations and other types of academic/scholarly traditions
    • Thematic honors program activities
    • Community-based learning programming
    • Expectations and measures of student success for internship and fellowship experiences
    • A student portfolio program that demonstrates each of your graduates’ accomplishments and achievements
  • For faculty committee work, integrate your school’s brand foundation alignment into discussions of:
    • Adding new academic programs
    • Sustaining and enriching existing academic programs
    • Sunsetting struggling academic programs
    • Common/shared readings for new incoming students (or the entire campus community) can focus on literature that demonstrates alignment with, or directly supports, your school’s brand pillars, promise, idea and/or character

Faculty tenure and promotion-review processes incorporate consideration of brand alignment and evidence of demonstrated support for it. Central College in Iowa is a shining example of an institution whose performance-review protocols consider demonstrated evidence of brand alignment.

Build faculty professional development programming around themes consistent with your school’s brand foundation.

One tip worth mentioning … not all academic divisions and departments will be receptive to the idea of weaving brand-centric consideration into their planning and delivery activities. In my experience, good places to start this kind of conversation are in the disciplines related to marketing, communications and business. Education program leaders might also be receptive to the idea.

If you’d like to bounce around ideas about how you and your team might breathe life into this approach on your campus, I’d love to hear from you.

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and elevate their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.

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