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Brand architecture is a complex topic in higher education and one that elicits passionate responses -- every constituent group has an opinion, and they’re usually not shy about sharing.

The traditional question an institution must first answer when defining brand architecture is: are we a branded house or a house of brands?

First, some background. A branded house uses the parent (or master) brand in all of its individual lines. The Virgin Group is a branded house -- everything shares the Virgin brand, from Virgin Galactic (which is trying to send consumers into outer space) to Virgin Money (a financial services firm in the UK).

Conversely, in a house of brands, each product line has its own brand identity. Proctor & Gamble is the perfect house of brands -- few consumers would guess that Charmin toilet paper and Gucci cosmetics are sold by the same company.

Most higher education institutions use their parent brand in their individual “product lines” (that is, schools, institutes, centers, divisions, etc.), but there are exceptions. Some for-profit colleges and universities are part of a larger holding company that doesn’t use the parent brand when marketing the institution. And some universities with large endowments own shopping malls, hotels, and office buildings through their foundations; often they (wisely) keep their parent brand separate from these endeavors that are so removed from their core mission.

In reality, choosing between a branded house and a house of brands is not a binary decision; it’s really a spectrum. Each institution must figure out where they currently fall and where they should ideally fall on that spectrum.

Even that is not an easy question to answer—institutions are often competing in a variety of distinct markets and their audiences are not discrete. I witnessed this firsthand when I worked at the University of Virginia: the university has a top ten law school, a school of continuing studies (appealing to adult learners without undergraduate degrees), and a hospital that competes with national healthcare chains like Sentara. Creating a logical brand architecture that allows each of these divisions to compete in their respective markets and simultaneously share common elements of the UVa brand is complicated.

How do you tackle a problem like this? You start with research. You can’t begin the work of influencing how people will feel about your brand tomorrow until you understand how they feel about your brand today. It’s also critically important to understand the markets in which you’re competing and the actions of your competitors.

With solid market research and analysis in hand, institutions can begin the process of defining a brand architecture and portfolio structure. At this stage it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that brand architecture is only one or two layers deep—e.g., a parent brand (Toyota) and a sub-brand (Camry). In reality, Camry has its own set of sub-brands (LE, SE, XLE, and Hybrid). And Toyota also owns Lexus and Scion—so even the Toyota brand is part of a larger stable of brands.

The same is true in higher education: we often believe brand architecture relationships between the parent brand and sub-brands only applies to top-level schools and divisions. But each individual graduate program inside of an individual school is really another sub-brand (e.g., an MBA is a sub-brand of the business school which is a sub-brand of the university). When institutions are investing resources into positioning these programs in the marketplace its important to consider the sibling sub-brands, the school-level brand they fall under, and the university's master brand.

It’s a lot to think about, but brand is a powerful thing and it’s worth the effort. Companies on Interbrand’s list of most valuable brands would agree that there is no substitute for a well-defined brand architecture.

Don’t get too tangled up in the branded house or house of brands question. What really matters is being intentional about how you define your brands in relationship to one another. And that requires research, analysis, careful positioning, and a dash of institutional courage.

Joel Pattison is a senior strategist at mStoner, Inc.

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