Over time, most institutions of higher education, large and small, develop “sub-brands” within the institution. These entities arise in service to a specific mission and then develop identities and audiences that to one degree or another are different from those of the institution to which they’re attached. If properly managed, sub-brands add dimension and character to the core institution’s brand, enabling a deep focus on a specific area of expertise. But if a sub-brand is not managed properly the market can become confused about what the “parent brand” stands for.
Gettysburg College is a residential undergraduate college of the liberal arts and sciences, it has a clear institutional mission. In serving that mission, the College has, over time, developed significant sub-brands that are distinct from the central core liberal arts college but which in different ways support our institutional mission.
One of our strongest sub-brands is the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College, a legacy organization of President Dwight David Eisenhower, who lived in Gettysburg and was closely associated with the College for many decades. The Institute has its own leadership, its own mission, and its own compelling stories to tell.
The Institute offers Gettysburg College students interested in studying leadership in a global world the opportunity to engage with, work beside, and learn from policymakers at the highest levels. With offices in Washington, DC, and Gettysburg, PA., and with full financial and programmatic support from the College, the Eisenhower Institute provides Gettysburg students with access to global experts that are rarely available to undergraduates. The work of the Institute and our students in Washington and abroad elevates the College’s visibility and thereby strengthens our brand.
Last year we worked to refresh the Institute’s brand. Our goal was to ensure the perpetuation of a symbiotic relationship between the sub-brand and the College as the Institute continues to develop and evolve into the future.
Achieving an effective synergy between sub-brands and the "parent brand" requires focus and a disciplined effort to combat the natural tendency for a sub-brand to lose touch with the parent brand. Through this process, we discovered that the three core elements of a disciplined brand management system as it relates to sub-brands are:
1. Engage and build consensus
Engage stakeholders of both the parent institution and each of the sub-brands with one another. We had many meetings, updates, reports and discussions among members of the college community and the Eisenhower Institute leadership as we were developing the sub-brand refresh. Ultimately, we were able to establish consensus between the leadership of the Institute and the College itself about the common denominator purposes, ideas, and language that link the mission of the sub-brand to the mission of the parent brand.
2. Plan for the broader audience
Prepare a plan to establish and nurture the sub-brand in its own market, while paying attention to how the sub-brand will resonate with the institution's broader market. The brand refresh for the Eisenhower Institute was precipitated by the need to better position the sub-brand in Washington DC. But in presenting the solution to the Institute's leadership, we stayed sensitive to the need for the language of the sub-brand to resonate with the broader audience of prospective students of the College itself. While not every prospective student of Gettysburg College will choose Gettysburg because of interest in becoming personally engaged with the Eisenhower Institute, they are nevertheless likely to be proud of the Institute, and appreciate how it enhances their College’ overall reputation and brand.
3. Assess and monitor
In developing the brand refresh the Eisenhower Institute, we worked to ensure that everything the sub-brand was doing programmatically, and the messages it was delivering both implicitly and explicitly to its audiences, would be compatible with the work and the messaging of the parent brand. This meant doing more training on marketing strategies and messages, and developing a tighter relationship between the leadership and the communications and marketing staffs of both the Institute and the College.
There is no "one" ideal way to design a symbiotic relationship between a sub-brand and its parent brand. For example, the relationship of the Eastman School of Music's brand to that of the University of Rochester differs considerably from that which exists between Peabody Institute and its "parent brand," Johns Hopkins University. The point is to determine what the ideal relationship should be between your sub-brand and your parent institution, and why that is the case, and then seek to establish an appreciation for that relationship in the consciousness of both the sub-brand's specific audience and the parent institution's broader audience.
Peter Holloran is CEO, Cognitive Marketing Inc., a higher education brand development firm. He has worked with Gettysburg College on many institutional brand development projects since 1998.
Paul Redfern leads the communications and marketing team at Gettysburg College and is a frequent presenter on marketing and brand topics at national conferences. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP).