As one of the top higher education branding agencies, here is what have learned. Brands are not created. They already exist, and it’s just a matter of us discovering, defining and articulating them. As brand people, we execute a well-planned discovery that liberates your institutional voice. We create a bright new vocabulary that establishes an emotional connection with prospects and other stakeholders. For us, branding is a way to express, with clarity, verve and imagination why the institution matters.
But getting there requires us to bring the right mindsets, review the right information and interview the right people. Here is our recipe:
7 mindsets we bring to brand discovery
Two branding agencies tasked to develop a college brand will arrive at different brands. The difference between a successful, enduring brand and one that’s not is the mindsets that agencies bring to the process. Here are ours:
1. Beginner’s Mindset
Bringing the “beginner’s mind” is the essential skill for approaching a higher education brand exercise. We are quite comfortable in not knowing.
2. Investigative Mind
Applying a reporting and investigative mindset is the single most valuable skill and habit that we bring to brand discoveries. It’s our job to listen – without preconceptions – to what’s said and as much to what’s not being said. We gently challenge conventional wisdom. We ask better questions. We seek proof of our claims. We identify and collect important details — how biology students pin notes to a favorite professor’s door, or how a philosophy major became a nurse with a moral conscience at a major healthcare institution, or how an accounting major with a music minor created uncharted new futures in opera management.
3. Analysis and Synthesis Mindset
We don’t confuse analysis with synthesis and forward action. While data and analysis brings us to the edge of the chasm, its imagination and synthesis that carries us across.
4. Origin Story Mindset
Brand origin stories matter. The ancestors are gone, but their spirits and mythologies still live in the four walls of the institution. We understand our clients better when we understand their origin stories and the forces that gave birth to their institutions.
5. Curriculum Design Mindset
Many schools have invested in overhauling their curriculum and refining their core curriculum. Armed with a better understanding of the core, we can connect the dots more clearly between the student’s investment and eventual outcomes.
6. Brand as a Puzzle Mindset
A brand is akin to a picture puzzle. It is the sum of all voices, experiences and trends – be they virtual, experiential or architectural. For us, the art of branding is to weave all these together into an integrative, aspirational whole.
7. Urgent Mindset
As UCLA’s legendary Coach John Wooden famously said, “Be quick, don’t hurry.” We move with a sense of thoughtful, yet reflective urgency.
Understand macro and micro-trends
The prospect and buyer behavior is shaped by a broader set of societal forces and trends including:
1. Social and cultural trends
Such as women leading men in education, the browning of America, the rise of first generation college students.
2. Technological trends
Such as the rise of artificial intelligence.
3. Environmental trends
Such as climate change and the existential crisis students and their families are feeling.
4. Economic trends
Such as the skyrocketing cost of education, recession, inflation, the unemployment rate, income inequality and globalization.
5. Health and wellness trends
Such as changes in attitudes, practices and innovations in areas of the health and wellness sector, including alternative medicine, personalized medicine, mental health and fitness.
6. Urbanization and infrastructure trends
Such as in-sourcing, infrastructure investments, alternate means of transportation, housing and more.
These trends must be taken into consideration when shaping college brands.
Listening to brand ambassadors
Brand insights and cues often arrive as faint signals from unlikely sources. Many brand ambassadors fly under the radar, and thrive in the nooks and crannies of academics, service learning, and student affairs. As brand people, it’s our job to find and mine their stories. The following is the list of brand ambassadors and mechanisms:
1. Individual Students
We like to hold candid and crucial conversations that allow nuances to surface. How are students blending course work, majors and minors, for a changing world? What polarities are they holding? Are they learning how to secure their first job or life skills that will serve them for a lifetime? Are they naturally embodying the college’s origin story? How has their relationship with the professors changed over time? We interview a sufficient number of diverse students to get a cross-sectional view of the brand.
2. Student Pairs
Pairing up freshman and seniors or rising sophomores and seniors is a great way to tease insights. What expectations did the freshman bring about college-level teaching and learning? Where and how did the hard lessons and best surprises come? Grounding this format with details related to freshman seminar and senior capstone courses might yield insights for prospects (and parents) about the progression students make from knowledge seekers to critical thinkers in four years.
3. Individual Faculty
Once again, we like to hold candid and crucial conversations with faculty that allow nuances to surface. Who thrives? What’s their definition of right-fit? What polarities are they holding? We interview a sufficient number of them to get a cross-sectional view of the brand.
4. Individual Alumni
How are alumni revisiting the essential value of their degree as they mature into fully reflective professionals? Did they learn just enough to graduate in four years or start working in their first job, or is their education serving them across multiple careers and a lifetime?
5. Hallway Conversations
We routinely listen to hallway conversations for hidden gems.
6. Cabinet and Board Members
They can provide hints of the brand essence, but often their institutional voice is less aligned with the brand voice.
7. Tour Guides and Admissions Counselors
They are usually too wrapped up in talking points. Great ones translate stories of student-faculty engagement to the tour setting.
8. Quantitative Research
While quantitative data adds some value when defining a brand position and giving it voice, it’s the qualitative findings — real-time observation and institutional memory — that light the way.
9. Essential Analytics
In the early stages of a higher education brand discovery, we sift through reams of institutional data (enrollment, giving reputation, alumni appeals, faculty vitae and college publications) and external data (NSSE, IPEDS, college reviews). From this data, we extract a few essential insights that guide brand development.
10. Focus Groups
Focus groups are great for testing brand concepts but the biggest shortcomings of focus groups is that alphas tend to dominate the room, quiet ones tend to hold back and nuances are lost. Cognitive biases such as the cheerleader effect kick in i.e. the tendency for people to appear more appealing – happier, self-directed, ambitious, committed – in a group than in isolation.
Frankly, it’s better to have five quality conversations than to have fifty interchangeable interviews. As always, one great insight is better than a thousand good ideas.
Built right, great brands are real, authentic, singular, differentiable, resonant, community-minded and they transcend all aspects of the college. Ultimately, they merchandise hope, win hearts and minds of college stakeholders.