At the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education this past December, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher advised marketers to frame brand discussions with faculty and staff with the following question: What is our institution’s public narrative? Suggesting that the term “public narrative” is easier for others to grasp and support than “brand,” she outlined a brand theory based on vision, impact, and design aimed at reclaiming that narrative. It’s a smart approach that likely resonates with faculty, colleagues, and stakeholders.
But where does that leave the b-word, especially as brand strategy has become not just more accepted in higher education, but increasingly vital?
Stand in line at your campus coffee shop and ask 10 people what “brand” and “branding” mean, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. I use the word “brand” whenever possible, taking advantage of any opportunity to help educate colleagues, engage in discussion, and dispel myths. “Brand” is a fundamental part of our vocabulary; I want everyone to have a common understanding of what it is, why it’s important, and what role they play. We are all co-creators and co-consumers of the institutional brand, so these discussions should extend far beyond the marketing office.
Last year I conducted an analysis of marketing organizational structures across Big Ten Conference institutions. Among the various chief marketing officer positions (or their equivalent), only two had the word “brand” in the title: Vice President for Communications and Brand Strategy and Executive Director of Marketing and Brand Strategy. Interestingly, among the 14 universities, no two titles were the same for the CMO position. It’s a reflection of the organizational complexities of large public institutions, but it also reminds us that marketing is still finding its place organizationally in the academy. More consistency in our terminology can only help.
As we think about nomenclature in our sector, there are a few uses of “brand” that we should rethink.
This term is conducive to the many misperceptions that exist about brand-related work: that it’s something cosmetic that marketing people “do,” that it trivializes colleges and universities, or that it is a surface-level tactic. Unfortunately “branding,” more often than not, implies tactics rather than strategy. Let’s abolish the term and replace it with the consistent use of “brand strategy.” Brand strategy better conveys the disciplined, inclusive process that is required for an institution to build a compelling, differentiated, and enduring brand.
All of our institutions have brand guidelines. Yes, it’s important for our marketing and non-marketing colleagues to put these guidelines into practice, and it can be challenging when there are exceptions. But let’s shift the conversation away from policing the brand – which focuses on visual compliance – to deeper engagement around bringing the brand to life. As the University of Arizona’s Tony Proudfoot recently recommended, we need to move from brand compliance to brand expression in order to “change the brand mindset on campus from fixed and compliant to iterative and expressive.”
While we should consider eliminating “branding” and “brand compliance,” we may not be giving “brand experience” the attention it deserves. The experience, not the message, should be first and foremost. In the midst of our efforts targeting prospective students or alumni and donors, remember that current students are living and shaping your institution’s brand every day. How are we helping to ensure that students have the experiences they are promised? We are all in the student retention and success business, so identify more ways to drive the “brand experience” conversation on your campus.
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.