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The Changing Relationship Between College Presidents and Their Brands

How to best leverage your institution’s chief officer.

November 15, 2019
 
 

As higher education faces more and more pressure from different forces -- such as shifting demographics, changes in public sentiment and declining government support -- one thing is abundantly clear: marketing and branding have become more accepted as tools for facing these challenges. One of the most obvious signs of this change is a steady increase in marketing investment over the past decade, as institutions look to proactively strengthen their brands.

Another indicator is the growing number of chief marketing officer positions that have been created over the same period, many of which report directly to the president and are often filled by marketing executives from outside the industry.

Conventional wisdom might imply that, with greater marketing spend, more cabinet-level marketing officers, larger in-house marketing teams and the use of advertising agencies, the role of a university president or chancellor in promoting the brand would diminish, with more shouldered by these arguably more qualified people as part of more focused initiatives. But if other competitive categories like health care, retail and financial services are a reliable guide, the opposite is true. The more an institution invests in marketing and promotion, the more the leader of that institution must do to support and amplify those efforts. Yes, that leader’s role must change in various ways, based on the specific needs and challenges of the institution. But some college presidents are likely to be more visible rather than less.

That’s not to imply that university presidents and chancellors have been invisible or unwilling to promote their brands -- quite the contrary. But it’s generally been a more campus-centered endeavor, with a focus on faculty, staff, students and alumni, not the marketplace. Seeing institutional leaders involved with athletic events, fundraising campaigns, student experiences and strategic planning efforts has been fairly common, as an expected part of any CEO’s duties. But here are some of the new ways that higher ed’s chief executives are promoting their brands, now that branding and marketing play a bigger role in advancing the institution.

Chief Storyteller: Many chancellors and presidents are now taking the helm in advancing their institution’s story: Who are we? What makes us different? Why do we matter? And they’re taking to the podium, social media, television and other venues to expand their audience. This role isn’t for every institutional leader, but one of the best examples might be Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, an HBCU in Dallas. Sorrell has spoken at SXSW and has been interviewed countless times on television about the transformation he’s leading at Paul Quinn, turning a once-dying college into a vibrant urban laboratory.

Chief Spokesperson: This role goes beyond that of storyteller, and makes the president a staple in the institution’s advertising and other efforts, instead of just participating in third-party forums. Some might use the pejorative label “pitchman,” but when this is done well, it’s much more than that. There are risks: the leader can become so prominent that they overshadow the institutional brand. (And of course, what happens when such a leader leaves the university?) One brand that has successfully pursued this strategy is Southern New Hampshire University, with its prominent president, Paul LeBlanc. LeBlanc has appeared in numerous TV ads over the years, always extolling the brand’s virtues of accessibility, convenience and flexibility.

Chief Recruiter: College presidents have always been engaged in the process of recruiting new students. But historically, this has been limited to campus visits and a few well-timed phone calls. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, takes this role to heart by actually engaging with prospective students via social media during the recruiting process. Granted, there’s a limit to how many students he can realistically reach. But the social media value of these interactions is really the point, as he reinforces the Mountaineer brand personality as caring, grounded and passionate.

Chief Thought Leader: Many college presidents have research backgrounds or deep expertise in a specific area that ties authentically to the institution’s brand. But as they climb the administrative ladder, these areas become secondary to their general responsibilities as chief executive. However, some institutions are starting to embrace and promote their leaders’ academic backgrounds to reinforce their own brands. Take Barnard College’s Sian Beilock, a leading cognitive scientist who was named president in 2017. Two years into her tenure as president, she has published research on test-taking anxiety for students, along with insights on how to close the gap in this area between higher- and lower-income students.

These higher ed leaders and others like them aren’t just embracing marketing and branding as a necessary element of running their institution. They’re actually shifting their roles and becoming an integral part of the process -- a trend that’s likely to continue as higher education becomes even more competitive in the years to come.

Bill Faust is senior partner and chief strategy officer at Ologie, a branding and marketing agency located in Columbus, Ohio.

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