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It happened again last week. We received an RFP from a college seeking a marketing partner to “lead a rebranding effort.” We hear the word “rebrand” all too frequently. Left unchallenged among well-intentioned non-marketer administrators and influencers, the notion of rebranding a college or university is often a short-sighted—if not just plain dangerous and wasteful—construct.

Most higher education brands have an undeniably robust trajectory and momentum, not unlike a roaring northbound train. And it’s no small feat to alter the path and speed of a roaring train, right? It takes a significant investment of planning, careful and strategic execution, and time. More time than most would think.

There are a handful of exceptions to the northbound train analogy, such as one of the nation’s newest schools, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. But even UTRGV’s “new” brand pays diplomatic homage to the heritage of the two institutions, both with their own respective brand trajectories and momentums, that merged to create the new university.

Oftentimes, a new senior leader will examine the challenges facing her newly acquired institution and come to the conclusion that the image of the place needs a fresh start, a new coat of promotional paint, a snappy new logo and tagline, or a wholesale rebranding initiative that could quickly reset the course of student recruitment and fundraising into new and more prosperous waters. Sometimes, these kinds of presidential diagnoses and prescriptions represent a new leader’s desire to place a prominent fingerprint on the place in a hurry.

As professional marketers, we share a responsibility to help our non-marketer colleagues understand that our schools’ brands have significant and worthy equity that we should feel obligated to protect, primarily because of the significant investments our institutions have made over the years to establish it.

Are brand course-corrections possible and useful? Absolutely yes. So are efforts toward “refreshing” and “reinvigorating” long-standing brands. And these delicate, diplomatic undertakings are most effectively executed only after the campus community has engaged in a thoughtful assessment of the core values and centering ideas that have, over the years, provided nurture, strength and stability to the brand as it exists today.

More often than not, an honest assessment of brand equity is best accomplished by trusted external counsel. The objectivity they bring to a brand “discovery” process (actually, it’s more a task of “uncovery” in that they are identifying the fruits of the brand in its roots) simply can’t be fully realized by individuals who are living deep in the school’s brand trenches.

So the next time someone within earshot suggests that your school needs to rebrand itself, step into the conversation and help them use language that more accurately describes the kind of nuanced exercise that respects and leverages the elements of brand equity that deserve to be nourished.

Words matter, especially on college and university campuses. And managing expectations with carefully curated nomenclature can spell the difference between a successful brand refresh, and a rebranding effort gone sadly wrong.

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

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