Ideas, insights and inspirations.

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 … Continue reading

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Communicating before, during and after a capital campaign requires the kind of symphonic thinking that author Daniel Pink explores in A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Strategic visions and campaign priorities can quickly deconstruct into campaign inventory and itemization — losing all connection to a larger and more compelling story about why a college matters and to the invitation for how donors might connect their singular sense of purpose to something larger. It’s not a matter of longer versus shorter content, but a question of what Pink calls the “relationship between relationships.” Pink talks of the three types of people that thrive when asked to overlay little and big pictures. Boundary Crossers: comfortable with abstraction, they understand how a concept like regulation can inspire donors to support the training of future financial accountants who will police insider trading and osteopathic doctors equipped to ease an epidemic of diabetes. Inventors: able to project new … Continue reading

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A familiar Chinese proverb instructs: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” The current situation in higher education defies that enduring wisdom. Change arrived suddenly, with little regard for institutional history or might. In this respect, all colleges stand on relatively common ground. All college presidents, to a degree, have become new college presidents. It might be tempting in this moment of great uncertainty to think that successful colleges/presidents will be those that summon deeper reserves of managerial will or command with greater “corporate turnaround” intensity. More likely, how you and your college navigates this public health crisis and its aftermath will come down to something as fundamental — albeit elusive — as how effectively and artfully you communicate. Every college has crisis communications plans in place, and these plans have served everyone — especially students — well through the initial weeks and months of this crisis. We know that eventually, the urgency of this moment will give way … Continue reading

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The golden age of print magazines long ago expired (Time once reached 20 million readers a week at peak circulation). Still, writers, editors and photographers charged with producing a college or university magazine juggle the same risk/reward choices as their predecessors when it comes to creating memorable cover art.   Whether your college magazine comes in print, responsive or hybrid formats, your cover competes for precious reader bandwidth in an era of continuous partial attention. And if you only have one or two occasions a year to plan, design and deliver a great cover, all the more reason to be very intentional in your approach. Some university magazines approach the task with zeal and gusto. Findings from the University of Michigan School of Public Health comes to mind for its persistent good faith attempts to deliver a perfect summary of the cover story, magazine and school itself in one image/headline pairing. The team understands some overall gestalt, and consistently advances mission, reputation … Continue reading

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As revenue pressures grow across higher education, so do board- and cabinet-level imperatives to “define the brand.” Easier said than done, true. But also worth every ounce of effort. At its best, a brand discovery should yield an authentic and durable brand position (with a 10-year shelf life). Better yet, a brand discovery (well planned and executed) should liberate your institutional voice — a bright new vocabulary that establishes an emotional connection with prospects and other stakeholders; a way to articulate, with clarity, verve and imagination why you matter. Getting the brand and voice right can test any school and potential partner. Brand discovery is where you begin to look more closely at hidden assumptions and unexamined bias — on your way to a clearing where new light allows something fresh and unforeseen to emerge. Choose quality over quantity How you approach brand discovery, especially the rationing of scarce time on campus, will have a big impact on results. A … Continue reading

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After serving 100 colleges over 25 years, we have learned that the college and university brands that have become schools of consequence embody these best practices: 1. Set a far horizon. It’s about a quiet, steady and ongoing care and feeding of the brand. It’s about cultivating new and better habits. It’s about embodying the mindset of a marathon runner, not a sprinter. 2. Infuse brand essence into every aspect of the institution. Enhancing enrollment operations, student services, career placement, advancement, alumni relations, and community outreach. 3. Bring the campus community along, ensuring a buy-in at every step. Not taking any short cuts. 4. Invest in first impressions. Paying attention to detail at every touch point – tours, website, viewbooks, social media, classrooms, housing, help desk and more. 5. Tell a better story. Telling smart, authentic, real, honest, surprising, and delightful stories — with students, faculty and alumni as heroes. 6. Go long on proofs, short on claims. Putting your … Continue reading

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There isn’t an algorithm for defining brand architecture for higher education. However, some heuristics or common patterns exist that will help colleges and universities frame their specific situation. Here is a start: I. Branded House: This model applies to most private colleges. Harvard is a great example of this. Note how Harvard’s parent brand has great equity and visually plays a dominant role for all its graduate schools. Most private schools are quite protective of their parent brand name, which is wise, but certain situations demand exceptions. II. Branded House with some exceptions: Though Harvard, the oldest university in the US, isn’t willing to give up its primacy for anyone, University of Pennsylvania is willing to let wealthy donors get primacy in naming rights. For most of us, Wharton comes to mind. Interestingly, Wharton at UPenn was named in 1881. Kellogg at Northwestern was named in 1908. In an expanding world of university choices, Universities ought to turn their business, … Continue reading

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A colleague of mine spoke a phrase several months ago that won’t stop ringing a clear and undeniable truth in my ear. After I showed him video from a flash mob brand launch, he said, “I hate that kind of fake energy.” That bell rang again for me this week as imposter birthday greetings between dropping through my apartment door mail slot. Nice to hear from you, chiropractor I saw once and then ran from in horror. You too, hair stylist who binges a little too hard on caffeine and can’t stop her scissors from shaking. Welcome, dentist who bought one of my best friend’s once-thriving practice only to run it into the ground with incompetence. And let’s not forget you good neighbor State Farm agent who ceaselessly tries to upsell me renters insurance no matter how often I refuse. Anyone with access to a birthdate now feels emboldened to enter your private space without so much as the courtesy of knocking; to pose as a kind of trusted, intimate friend knowing full well … Continue reading

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Stop what you’re doing and take a look around. How many brands do you see? Chances are that your morning coffee, handbag, phone, car and computer all have clear logos and identifiable brands. Branding is so pervasive that the average three-year-old can identify literally hundreds of companies by their logos. Just drive past a McDonalds or Toys “ R” Us with your favorite toddler in tow as proof. As consumers, we may not understand the complex branding process in a forensic sense, but we sure understand the power of a great branding. Without much thought, we get the essence of Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola and Google because they tell their stories with religious consistency. The payoff? We engage. We connect. We buy. Like their corporate counterparts, colleges need to leverage strong branding in their higher education marketing initiatives. Homogenized brands that are interchangeable with hundreds of other colleges are no longer adequate. With over 4,000 schools across the country, the explosion … Continue reading

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I enjoyed a rare two-hour sit down recently with an entire marketing and communications team at a major university — and we never once talked about story. They, like many of you, spoke of feeling beleaguered by the demands of an unending news cycle, a tumbleweed website and the torture drip of “next in line” requests for this event press release or that event poster. I realized that as much as I believe in the power of good story telling, many in house departments have lost control of the conditions that might allow it to happen. In the spirit of giving, let’s all take a few minutes and give ourselves the gift of a good story.  I found a couple of recent examples from higher education — reminders that the mission of our college and university communications efforts is not to meet every trumped-up deadline, but to help make a lasting difference. As TV writer Steven Moffat says: “We’re all stories, in the end.” … Continue reading

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