Conversations with college presidents on branding in higher education.

March 09, 2015  

Twenty years ago, branding was a new concept in higher education. Today, the entire landscape has evolved. Leaders at colleges and universities compete for best-fit students, and work tirelessly to draw the support of their alumni. Many institutions no longer see branding as a luxury; they view it as a necessity. 

We recently sat down with college presidents to get their perspectives, and we walked away with some profound insights about branding in higher education today.

Here are a few of the big ideas we gathered from these leaders, in their own words.

Translate the experience.

One of the challenges is that a brand is so open to interpretation. People see it through their own eyes, through whatever experience they’ve had. Whether it’s fundraising or an admissions campaign, the message comes down to making today’s experience accessible to someone else.

Margaret DrugovichMargaret Drugovich, Hartwick College


Go beyond the message.

Any strong brand in higher education does more than convey a message. It engages the entire campus community—faculty, staff, and students alike—through conversations, discussions about living the brand. I want everyone to own the brand, not just me or a select group within the administration.

Kathy KrendlKathy Krendl, Otterbein University


Challenge the naysayers.

People on campus fear that branding is reductionist or anti-intellectual. That said, there are 3,000 institutions in this country, all vying for attention. So unless you distill your character in an easily understandable way, you’ll never get noticed.

Brian CaseyBrian Casey, DePauw University


Execution matters.

Here’s the dirty little secret about brand: People often think it’s akin to strategy. I don’t really think it is. A good strategy will not save you if you have bad execution. You can have a poor strategy, but through phenomenal execution, you can save the day. Not the reverse.

Greg SalsburyGreg Salsbury, Western State Colorado University


Focus on faculty.

The faculty members need to own the brand. At the end of the day, they carry the educational mission of the institution. To become carriers of the brand, faculty need to feel like they’re working with folks who really do believe that they, the faculty, are at the heart of the enterprise.

Thayne McCullohThayne McCulloh, Gonzaga University


Embrace athletics.

I will never persuade 70,000 people to fit into a chemistry lecture, even if I try. But they will show up to a football game. Athletics can be a powerful megaphone for the quality of our education and the unique culture of the institution. Your athletic program allows you to tell your story in a large setting.

Gordon GeeGordon Gee, West Virginia University


You can’t make everyone happy.

No brand will resonate with everyone, and that’s okay. In fact, a strong brand should be a filter for decision-making. It helps us make the hard decisions we have to make that hold all parts of the university to the same standard.

nn Weaver HartAnn Weaver Hart, University of Arizona

Tell a single, compelling story. Rally your community around the message. And find new ways to share your statement with the world. These were just some of the big insights we gained from talking with some of the biggest names in higher education.

To read the full interview series, download the PDF.