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The legitimacy of an institution of higher education rests on the legitimacy of its brand -- right? Well, not exactly.

Branding is a mobilizing buzzword in the academy, and the notable surge in branding efforts is particularly palpable of late. Of the 76 percent of senior marketing leaders that have conducted a brand strategy project at their institutions, 73 percent of them have done it in the past five years. Yet, as we’ve seen in the past, branding efforts are often more of a symptom than a cure, suggestive of larger issues lurking beneath the surface.

From ad hoc to brand talk

Today’s clarion call for branding isn’t the first time higher ed has set its issues to this music. If we visit the higher ed institution of 20 years ago, we see the first wave of branding efforts sweeping colleges and universities across the nation. Ad agencies began focusing on higher ed in the mid-90s and early 2000s as colleges and universities took a hard look at the competing identities and brands located under their roofs. Institutions lacked a singular identity—programs, colleges, athletics departments, and myriad other divisions conceptualized and portrayed their identities differently with regard to the institution. Thus, the branding wave of yesteryear united under a common theme: dissolve the internal fracturing within institutions and unite as a branded house instead of a house of brands.

Interestingly, while institutions moved to unite their houses under a singular graphic and topline identity, a separate trend was developing in higher ed: the rise of the post-traditional student. From the mid-90s to the early 2000s, we saw the emergence of online education at the collegiate level, and players like Penn State and Western Governors University began staking their claim as leaders in online education. And this trend has only increased in the 20 years following its inception—the prominence of post-traditional students has remained salient in higher ed, and now over two million students are enrolled in fully online programs.

While these two trends—the focus on branding and the rise of the post-traditional student—might initially seem disparate and standalone, they are, in fact, converging in a really interesting way. The surge in online education has produced a flood to market, and now over 70 percent of academic leaders report that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. The reality is, however, that the overall demand for distance education has actually begun to slow a bit, and this at a time when higher ed enrollments in general are in decline. So what we have now is a situation in which demand is down, supply is up, and there frankly isn’t enough room for everyone in the higher ed space.

Return of the brand

To solve for this increasingly complicated business situation, one marked by slowing enrollments and increasing competition in the higher ed space, institutions are once again turning to branding. Of the 76 percent of higher ed marketers previously cited as engaging in branding efforts, 42 percent reported increased competition as a key motivating factor, and 38 percent referenced enrollment growth as the primary driver. Obviously, the changes in competition and demographics are particularly acute for colleges and universities, and institutions are looking to stand out and get ahead in this increasingly complex market. The problem is, however, that by turning to branding to solve an enrollment problem, institutions are ignoring many of the core issues standing in the way of enrollment growth. They’re simply spending a lot of time, effort, and resources on great branding work that doesn’t work.

There’s no doubt that the branding efforts of today’s higher ed institutions are producing work that looks great, sounds great, and has great messaging. But what we need today is more than an identity. When we’re facing enrollment growth challenges, when we have large goals, and when we’re trying to move into new spaces; we need to make sure that our marketing and communication efforts are working at the hardest working levels. When a branding project looks good and sounds good at a high level but doesn’t necessarily work for all of your programs and departments, it’s just a matter of time before those departments take control of their own marketing and revert to the fractured brand identity that institutions were trying to solve for two decades ago.

From branded house to brand direct

To move past first wave branding in higher ed, institutions must now build the bridge between brand and direct marketing. The hallmark of second wave branding, if you will, is strong strategy that goes far beyond the visual identity inherent within a logo or tagline—you need to understand your audience, understand your channels, and understand the challenges you’re facing and how to mitigate them. This strategy is multi-tiered and much more in-depth than overarching brand expression. “Brand-direct” efforts both honor and reinforce the brand identity while also changing depending on the audience segment you’re targeting and their position in the decision-making process. This way, efforts can work at both the brand level and the programmatic level, because truly, you can’t have one without the other.

The time for unification in higher ed has come and gone—now the name of the game is unity AND results. Thus, the legitimacy of today’s higher ed institution rests on the ability of its brand to reach its audience and increase enrollments.

Seth Odell is General Manager of Marketing Services at Helix Education

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