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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.”

Years of market research and focus group experience suggest that satisfied stakeholders are among every college and university’s most trusted and most influential ambassadors. Casual conversations between prospective students and current students, between prospective parents and current parents, between prospective donors and current donors, and even between prospective employees and current employees are almost always valued more highly than any barrage of promotional messaging served up by the institution itself.

So it stands to reason that institutional leaders should be extraordinarily purposeful about making sure that every “touchpoint” current students, parents, donors and employees have with their college or university is aligned with -- and demonstrating support for -- the school’s brand promise, pillars, character and centering idea.

This is the fundamental guiding principle of institutional brand management.

In my experience, however, few student life operations across the nation are charged by senior campus leaders to consider brand alignment when crafting and executing the dizzying array of programs and activities they manage every day of every year. This is a missed opportunity that packs great potential to set your school apart from your competitors.

More important, purposefully and aggressively aligning student life programming with the college or university’s brand foundation provides current stakeholders with clear evidence that a school is “walking the talk” they heard when they were being recruited to enroll, to contribute or to sign an employment contract.

Walking your school’s promotional talk is a clear indication that your school has its act together. This can create satisfied and confident stakeholders who will serve as remarkably influential (and mercifully unpaid) ambassadors who can support your school’s recruitment and fundraising efforts.

So how does a student life team align its strategic thinking and tactical execution around the institutional brand foundation? Here’s a very brief sampling of ideas that might help get your creative juices flowing.

  • Rewrite all standard or regularly used student life information sheets, brochures, booklets, handbooks and high-visibility communication tools to reflect the ideas and language of your brand foundation.
  • Integrate an introduction to your brand foundation into new student and new employee orientation activities
  • Ensure that all student leaders (elected student government office holders, organizational leadership teams, fraternity and sorority leaders, athletic team captains, etc.) are briefed and fully cognizant of the college’s commitment to living your brand foundation; challenge student leaders to let your school’s promise, pillars, character and centering idea inspire organizational programming
  • Integrate dimensions and expressions of your brand foundation into residential life programming in dormitories, student lounge areas, public gathering spaces, restrooms, parking areas, etc.
  • Create and install prominent signage in high-traffic campus areas that remind students (and employees) of the foundational elements of your brand foundation
  • Create a campuswide poster or table tent series featuring students, alumni and employees who are shining examples of living your brand foundation; rotate posters around the campus to extend the life of the campaign (different posters in different places all year long) at no additional cost
  • Collaborate with dining services and external partner vendors/suppliers on ways to integrate the expression of your brand foundation into annual planning (themed meals and special dining events, local sourcing protocols, performance recognition/appreciation protocols, etc.)
  • Rescript campus messaging systems (video feeds, daily announcements, newsletters, message boards, signage, etc.) to incorporate and demonstrate your brand foundation language.

Hands down, the most rewarding part of my job is ideating and brainstorming with teams like yours to clarify, elevate and breathe life into college and university brand foundations. If you’re reading this and aren’t sure where or how to start, let’s chat. No cost, no obligation, lots of fun.

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