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Last week, Bill Faust’s well-crafted blog, “Is There an ROI for Branding in Higher Education?” again scrolled through my LinkedIn feed. I remembered reading it when it was freshly minted in 2015, and resonating with each of Faust’s points. His counsel is as sage and useful today as it was three years ago.

In his closing paragraph, Faust offers some very good advice about building a strong case to help campus CEOs, CMOs and presidents understand the mission-critical importance of tending to — and elevating — your school’s brand. “If your target audience can’t identify with who you are or what you stand for, you’ll likely spend more time, energy, and money spinning your wheels with fragmented messaging that won’t show any return - either in awareness or investment – in the long term,” he warns.

Fortunately, higher education continues the steady march toward understanding the significant influence of brand inspiration, activation and elevation on institutional success across a broad array of campus operating units (recruitment, advancement, academics, etc.) charged with moving target audiences toward taking desired actions.

Even with this progress, however, I regularly encounter campus communities whose senior leaders remain skeptical about committing significant resources to brand clarification and management. In our current economy, this kind of investment is usually funded by reallocating existing dollars. So it’s no surprise that cobbling together a “branding budget” is a tall and complicated order for any institution that doesn’t already have one in place.

One of my favorite clients happens to be my undergraduate alma mater and former employer. Beyond my deep emotional affinity for Central College (IA) based on personal experience, I’m extraordinarily proud of the work Central’s leadership team has championed in the name of institutional brand clarification and elevation over the past few years.

Central’s president, Dr. Mark Putnam, led the process with a small-but-mighty senior-level internal working group. And he’s the first one to admit having a bit of an epiphany about the notion of brand as (to borrow Faust’s words again) “… the total experience that an institution provides to its stakeholders, including the story it tells to convey that experience.”

As Central College wrapped up the foundational phase of its brand clarification exercise, I sat down with Dr. Putnam to record his observations about the process from a president’s perspective. A few of his key take-aways included:

  • Robust market research helped members of his campus comunity identify perceptions they believed about the college that, while true, were not relevant to external audiences.
  • Brand clarification and elevation takes time. Central embraced a “manage through“ approach over four or five years to make improvements gradually as the process unfolded, giving those involved the time and room they needed to be creative and to think openly among themselves.
  • Branding is not about being clever; it’s about uncovering the essence of an institution and expressing it authentically in the marketplace.

We’ve extracted a 10-minute clip from that interview that several college-based marketers have used to encourage their senior leaders to support making a significant brand marketing investment. I’m sharing the clip with you today along with encouragement for you to view and share it with your own colleagues who may need some convincing that your institutional brand deserves more attention. And I’ll also take this opportunity to publicly thank Dr. Putnam and his Central College team for doing—and sharing via their story—some really outstanding higher education brand marketing thinking.

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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