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It’s been nearly 15 years since I was quoted on the front page of The New York Times declaring, “All I hear in higher education is brand, brand, brand.” That statement is still true. However, competitiveness, disruption, product substitutes, new financial realities, relentless change and challenge in higher education have fundamentally changed the brand game. Brands are struggling to catch up.

Having worked extensively with major university brands and business school brand types—from “global top ten” ranked institutions to major state universities, well-ranked private schools, and international business school brands—I’ve seen nearly every institution go through stages of brand evolution.

First, there is the “practical stage,” i.e. let’s get the nuts and bolts things we need done – program publications, the website looking good, our web ads looking professionally developed, our media releases and tweets going out. At this stage, the brand is defined at a level I call “descriptive,” i.e. we have these kinds of programs, we are this type of institution, these are the important credentials and accomplishments of our students, these are our programs, alumni and faculty, etc. The “brand” is, essentially, “We believe we are a high-quality institution.”

Schools eventually find that the practical stage is not differentiating in the marketplace and that internal stakeholders (alumni, donors, faculty, current students, corporate advisory board members) don’t feel it “does justice to the uniqueness and quality of the institution,” and push for a “branding exercise.” That’s when a certain type of market research study usually gets commissioned, involving institutional stakeholders defining what makes the institution distinctive. From this a few “big ideas,” consistent attributes, and phrases emerge. This is typically then used as the foundation of beautifully executed brand creative and, often, a tagline. This is then (often rather expensively and with very few metrics) expressed through at least some marketing channels.

This defines how higher education branding has existed for a very long time. Frankly, in different times this approach to brands was sufficient. The reasons that target markets (prospects, employers, alumni, etc.) choose to affiliate with any particular institution mostly had to do with student demand exceeding supply, historic academic reputation, employer recruiting needs, price points desirable to the targeted student type (and financial aid/discount rate), the energy put into the sales and recruiting process, word of mouth reputation and a variety of other factors. Objectively, how truly target-aligned or distinctively or not a brand was articulated through marketing communications played a limited role in institutional success.

Over time the higher education sector has grown exponentially more complex and competitive, product substitutes have arisen, the nature of demand has shifted, ROI has become a primary driver of choice and technology has remade expectations around flexibility, learning models and access to learning. In this context, the brand (and marketing communications generally) plays a different role. From my experience at Eduvantis, it is when the “business performance” of the institution begins to suffer – the top of the funnel starts shrinking, program enrollments in several or all programs decline, market share retreats, rankings drop, budgets get cut, employer recruiting slows, etc., is when the discussion around the role and nature of brand changes. Or, at the least, it is when the institution begins to realize that it is not growing to the degree it expects and the need emerges to rethink the institution’s competitive strategy.

At Eduvantis, we help institutions reflect the view that higher education brands – and business school brands in particular – are about more than institutions “self-defining” their essence and distinctions and then expressing them through creative communications.

We believe effective business school brands in today’s environment:

  1. Communicate their relevance throughout the entire customer lifecycle (from awareness generation and lead nurturing to point-of-sale and beyond), expressing a commitment to meeting the needs (fundamental quality, relevant content, delivery model, flexibility, format, price, placement, valuable alumni network, ROI) of individuals in well-defined target markets.
  2. Reflect well-researched and defined customer-centric values, rather than via predominantly institutional attributes, values, self-defining beliefs.
  3. Express these values in a compelling manner (on a spectrum ranging from the abstract to the concrete) that positions the institution and its products purposefully against well-defined competitors.
  4. Carries this “product positioning, value proposition and brand” through to brand-consistent institutional behaviors across the enterprise—ultimately, to the level of culture.

In order to accomplish this, certain conditions and mindsets need to be present and marketing needs to be viewed as a “system” that, yes, includes “brand communications,” but doesn’t confuse brand communications with a sophisticated, integrated marketing system.

It also requires:

  • The right kinds of market research, focused on the needs of customers, inquirers, decliners and prospect markets, not so much on the institution itself. (Eduvantis is taking this to a new level through insights gained from massive search data sets we maintain through our work at Eduvantis Digital).
  • A recognition that the product itself—and its effectiveness at meeting the needs of target markets in a manner that is different and better than competitors—is actually the foundation of a valuable brand.
  • An institutional willingness to extend the brand into behaviors and choices that create an authentic, brand-aligned experience for stakeholders.
  • A belief in metrics—the willingness to define and measure the specific work the brand is intended to do and to make marketing investment choices based on effectiveness, not on preferences alone.

My hope is that eventually, all I hear in higher education is “sophisticated marketing systems.”