Ideas, musings and inspirations.

While your faculty and students may have taken the summer off from their college assignments, you know that the work of higher education brand building never ends.  Today, and every day, your college brand continues to do its daily work — on your website, social sites and across the continuum of digital and human conversation.

As new and returning students unpack in residence halls and faculty reclaim their offices, it’s a good time of the year to ask: What can we do to renew our college brand for the 2014-2015 academic year?

We offer five steps forward:

1. Begin investing in first impressions. That could mean redesigning an initial search mailing aimed at rising high school juniors, or rethinking training for new and returning student tour guides. First brand impressions hold great potential — but can also be overlooked. Given the number of campus visits that students (and parents) make, it’s worth preparing your student guides. Can they really translate stories of student-faculty engagement to the tour setting? Does their grasp of the brand drill deeper than a few surface catch phrases? First impressions linger.

2. Begin to open to change. A new academic year is a good time to make space for new inputs from students, alumni and faculty. Any higher education brand is a living, breathing expression — how long has it been since you listened to new voices? In our work as a higher education branding firm, I’m continually surprised and impressed by how students often know better than anyone how a college’s brand is finding new relevance. How are students blending course work, majors and minors, for a changing world? How are alumni revisiting the essential value of their degree as they mature into fully reflective professionals? These are the wellsprings of brand renewal.

3. Begin looking at essential analytics. Data rushes at higher education marketing professionals faster than ever before — teasing out a few essentials with regards to enrollment, advancement and reputation is key if you hope to avoid drowning in analysis without ever getting to actual synthesis and right action. Gather as a team and ask again — are we looking at the most important numbers? Can we adjust inbound and paid campaigns quickly — and with confidence — based on clear, hard facts about open rates and inquiries? Do annual giving numbers confirm or question anecdotal reports from the field? Most important, does the president have what she needs in the way of an easy to use analytics dashboard to steer the ship with confidence?

4. Begin to welcome polarity. One constant in the strategic heavy lifting we bring to higher education marketing and higher education branding work is the power of polarity. It’s a dynamic at work in nearly every aspect of life, from chemistry and physics, to Jungian psychology. Roger Martin’s work in integrative thinking builds upon a foundational understanding of polarity. Martin writes: Integrative Thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each. In our experience, the full potential and highest possible good of a higher education brand often lies within the interplay of these polarities. We favor a more qualitative approach to brand discovery for this reason — purely quantitative analysis tends to erase such tensions in favor of “brand by consensus,” effectively draining the vitality and life blood from the brand and rendering it trite, a campaign more than a true, lasting expression of why you matter.

5. Begin again with the basics. A few weeks back, our hometown of Pittsburgh lost of one its most revered citizens, former Steelers head coach Chuck Noll. As a teacher, Noll preached the basics, blocking and tackling. Day after day. Season after season. Never losing his gusto or glee. Likewise, those of us involved with higher education marketing can remember that the value of a college education really hinges on a couple of essentials. One is the ability to learn how to learn — which guides graduates not simply for four years or toward a first job, but across a lifetime. And the other is relational, learning to connect with people outside the realm of study. A young person’s emotional IQ.

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