McDonald’s Golden Arches, the Nike swoosh and Coca-Cola's contour bottle are all examples of globally recognized branding. What organization wouldn’t want to have a brand as strong and instantly recognizable?
When it comes to the importance of having a strong brand, the higher education sector is like any other. Recognizability is not the only important factor, reputation and positive emotional response matter too.
Before trying to emulate world famous brands to develop an identity, it is worth spending time considering the value and unique selling propositions of your educational institution along with customer pain points and drivers.
So how can colleges, universities, and training companies create and maintain a powerful brand that helps them stand out from competitors and attract students - at home and on an international scale?
When considering a new logo, color or any other aspect of branding, your institution needs to understand how your existing brand is perceived.
One way to do this is by directly asking staff, students and others how they would describe the brand in three words. These can be grouped into related words and moods. Doing this kind of discovery research can identify any ways in which existing branding may be misaligned to public perception or failing to meet student expectations.
Even where existing branding is perceived in positive terms it may not align with future strategic goals. Therefore, reconsideration needs to be re-branding or developing more discipline about how the brand is used throughout your educational institution. This kind of research, while time-consuming, may help to identify areas related to identity that aren't currently reflected could be in the future.
Often branding is taken for granted instead of leveraging its value to promote a unique value proposition, stand out from the competition and promote courses and certification programs. Branding should be considered as part of any organization’s strategic development as it will have an impact on reputation. As a crucial part of organizational identity, branding should be unified across all departments.
Consistency is an important part and requires rules on the use of color, logos and taglines. Failing to have a unified brand can lead to confusion in public perception. Doing an audit of aspects of public-facing communication to search out rogue old logos, wrong colors or taglines could help develop a unified branding approach.
Doing this does not mean taking control from individual departments rather it means ensuring that they understand the brand strategy and match public-facing communications accordingly. Having a dedicated webpage and email address where staff members can download the pantone colors, the logos and can send queries about the correct usage of taglines and logos.
Communicating your institution's brand takes place through more than just the logo and tagline, it's also in the photographs and images used so think about how these live up to aspirations.
Even parts of communication that may not be considered branding, such as fonts used in publications and online, are an important aspect of telling a brand story.
Even if a college or training company is small with aspirations to grow, developing and following a branding strategy and branding guidelines from early on will save time and confusion in the long run.
“Brand is the promise, the big idea, the expectations that reside in each customer’s mind about a product, service or company. Branding is about making an emotional connection.” - Alina Wheeler, Designing Brand Identity
Once a core message is identified along with the promotional channels, ensure your institution is maximizing it online and on social media platforms. For example, is there a banner photo being used on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn? What image is being used and how does it reflect the brand?
While some institutions might play it safe with a horizontal logo across the banner, it is a space that can be exploited to communicate some of your brand values. For a traditional educational institute such as a university, this might mean a photograph of library shelves, graduation ceremonies of famous alumni or landmark buildings. On the other hand, if highlighting a vibrant and diverse student body is key then photographs of events might add value.
Excelsior College’s tagline and website reflect the audience they appeal to: “Life happens. Keep learning”. As an organization offering online courses, it is clearly aiming to attract mature learners in niche subject areas who are focused on gaining professional qualifications, inviting them to “Complete your degree while balancing work/family/budget/life.”
With strong calls to action on their website and options to transfer credit from prior learning to speed the path to graduation, its brand reflects the pain points of its target demographics, goal driven with limited time and budgets. The photographs and stories on the website are reflective of their students, diverse, older and already in the workforce or raising families.
It's important to bear in mind that students may be your best brand ambassadors online. Using hashtags on social media communities is a great way to spread awareness, but it’s not the only way. Encouraging students to use your logo alongside their qualifications on LinkedIn or on their resume can also spread brand awareness.
As well as communicating the modus operandi, your brand can also set itself apart from what your competitors are doing by telling the story of what it is not.
At its core, branding is about authenticity and making emotional connections. Simply stamping a logo and tagline across all forms of communication is meaningless unless those values are embedded in your company.
The brand communicated should be a true reflection of an institution's identity and one which existing staff and students can unite behind. Failure to deliver on the promise of your brand could create cognitive dissonance which could damage reputation instead of attracting students from competitors.
Big brands have had made big-budget branding mistakes in the past which have had negative impacts on their reputations and bottom line. Kendall Jenner’s much mocked Pepsi advertisement is just one example.
Focusing on branding strategy as part of your institution's strategic planning is vital to avoiding branding missteps. While it may be time-consuming to develop a branding message, it will be time well spent and could pay dividends in terms of standing out in a crowded market.
Concentrating on your core values and how your brand can transmit those on and offline can help you to stand out from the competition and attract the right student demographic.