The ROI of Branding Isn’t an Oxymoron

June 25, 2015  


Over the past decade in the higher education industry, we’ve seen a dramatic upswing in the attention paid to branding. The evidence is overwhelming: more institutions appointing CMOs, larger marketing budgets, highly visible and sophisticated campaigns, more efforts to protect trademarks, and growing attendance at marketing conferences by higher ed practitioners.

In fact, this could be the golden age of marketing in higher education. Yet sometimes, certain higher ed leaders—usually a president or a provost, or a trustee who works in finance or accounting—ask us questions that betray a pervasive misunderstanding of branding and its importance. No matter how these questions are phrased, the intent is the same: “Is this effort worth it? Will it make a difference? Why should we invest in our brand? How will I know that we’ve made an impact?” Managing a brand can be a big investment, and it can be tough to pin down its direct influence on benchmarks like rankings, class size and quality, fundraising, and alumni engagement. But a mindset that says, “We just did our brand a few years ago!” or “How often do we need to do our brand?” is taking the wrong approach. A brand isn’t something that you “do.” It’s more than a logo, tagline, or short-term campaign; these are simply elements of a brand platform. A brand is the total experience that an organization provides to its stakeholders, including the story that it tells to convey that experience. It’s the promise that the institution makes to deliver that experience every day—a much bigger but more meaningful concept. Home Improvement You can think about the return on investment for branding like owning a house: it’s important to maintain the equity of your “property.” If you buy a house and live in it without investing in improvements and upkeep, then over time, it will lose value. At a minimum, you should tend to your home’s curb appeal with projects like paint and landscaping. These are analogous to taglines and campaigns—they can have a short-term impact but don’t necessarily affect the long-term value. Sometimes, just like a home, a brand will need a major renovation or structural repairs. But whether you lead a company, school, or nonprofit, you have a brand, and it’s your responsibility to invest in it regularly and manage it proactively. Keeping Score How do you measure the return on the investments you make in a new brand platform? This answer is less straightforward, and like many business problems, it depends on many variables. It helps to develop a dashboard for your brand: a balanced scorecard that can track many factors and offer an overall assessment of the brand’s health. When a scorekeeper manages the stats in a basketball game, he’s tallying things like points, assists, and rebounds. What’s being measured is clearly identified from the start, and in the end, you can see how the team performed as a whole. Continual brand management in higher ed should positively impact several of your organization’s metrics, including the following:

  • General: Brand awareness (aided and unaided), recall (of specific themes or messages), brand perceptions and associations (internal and external), reputation and image (trending favorable or unfavorable), external rankings, web traffic
  • Admissions: Inquiries, applications, applicant quality (academic or ability to pay), applicant diversity (if applicable), yield
  • Advancement: Alumni engagement (through giving or other means), gift size and frequency, campaign milestones and progress toward goals, other donor activity (non-alumni)

All of these variables are measurable—some through existing monitoring tools already in place (like social media), others through periodic research efforts. If you’re thinking about branding (or rebranding), it’s important to make the case to your CEO, CFO, or university president that it’s worth the investment. Defining your institution’s brand and developing a platform that engages and motivates your audiences is more important than ever. Otherwise, you’re bound to waste time, energy, and money on fragmented efforts that won’t show any return in the long term. *A version of this piece originally ran in the American Marketing Association’s blog, Elevate.