A Sustainable Brand

Some thoughts about how institutions can establish brands that out-last a CMO or CEO.

July 21, 2016

How do you build a brand that can last? Many attributes characterize long-lasting brands, but one good indication that you have a sustainable brand is when it can transcend a change in CEO and/or CMO.

How often do we hear about colleges or universities who began rebranding shortly after a new CEO arrived on campus? Or a CMO whose first initiative is to initiate rebranding? I’m a cynic: these cases read to me as a new hire seeking to make a mark quickly.

To be fair, many institutions need to do serious brand strategy or at least need to creatively refresh what they have. Plus, not all colleges and university brands are built on a strong foundation in the first place. But there are institutions like Gettysburg College where, as Paul Redfern, its CMO, noted, “… Our brand has thrived for more than a decade: it’s well into a third Presidency and second CMO.”

Here are some thoughts about how to create a sustainable brand for your institution:

  1. Rebranding shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Institutions should be wary of making sweeping changes very early in the tenure of a new CEO or CMO. Sometimes it’s necessary, of course, and executives are often hired to address critical needs like a flagging brand. But even if you’ve worked in higher ed before — and especially if you haven’t — it’s tempting to be glib or clever. But great brands have deep roots and it takes time to get to know an institution and its culture. Resist the temptation to do it too quickly.
  2. While executive support is essential to successful rebranding, it’s not sufficient for success. The understanding and support of the community is, though. Successful brands emerge from close knowledge and careful, nuanced listening (Redfern notes that this was the case at Gettysburg) and become rooted through continuing conscious-raising and training with the community at large. When a community has embraced a brand and its language, you know that the brand is rooted in place. It can evolve, but sweeping changes are difficult.
  3. Data is essential in making a case for evolution or change of brand imagery or substance. Data should guide evolution or change, not whims or an individual’s personal taste. That’s why research to determine how the brand is working and whether or how it needs to change is so important. Furthermore, data indicating that a brand is effective helps to quell calls for a major change, even if they’re coming from an executive or a board.
  4. Make sure the board of trustees understands the brand, the rationale for choosing it, and the data supporting it. This understanding can be essential for ensuring that a brand can endure beyond a few years. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a CMO at a university where there’s a presidential search in progress. She developed a successful, widely known brand that was controversial in its early years but has been shown by ongoing research to be effective in meeting the university’s business goals. At this university, undergraduate recruitment is strong, giving is up, and alumni are happy. While there’s anxiety in any executive transition, one of the ways in which this CMO has helped to ensure that her institution’s brand will outlive its president is by ensuring that the board and especially the marketing committee with whom she’s worked closely, understand the rationale for developing the brand and see the data supporting the choices that the institution’s marketing team has made.

Don’t interpret these observations as a call to inaction, but as a recognition that higher ed brands need to be developed carefully and thoughtfully to make the most of all an institution’s resources, including its financial ones.


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