Conversations with college presidents on branding in higher education

June 20, 2016  

Twenty years ago, the average college president spent little time worrying about the brand. Applications were up. Budgets were stable. And leading a university can be as complex as running a small city – why focus on the window dressing? But as higher ed has evolved, so have the prevailing views on branding. Today, “best-fit” students are hard to find, and branding is a necessary good. Many institutions are now taking the first steps of developing a single, compelling story to rally around and share with the world. We spoke with several college presidents about these topics, and others.

Our contributors hail from all corners of higher education: public universities, private schools, smaller liberal arts colleges and trade schools. What follows are a few of the big-picture takeaways from these conversations.

The University of Arizona President Ann Weaver Hart

Tapping into the spirit of athletics.

If I say “Bear Down” in Arizona, you will say “Go ‘Cats.” And to most people, that was our brand. Before I came here, the academics brand meant only two things: science and Old Main. That’s all we communicated, outside of athletics.

The big question for us as we began the branding process was, “How do we establish an institutional or academic brand without diluting the athletic or spirit brand?”

In the end, the athletics department has embraced the brand as well — in a big way. They are great partners who see the value of strong academics.

Hartwick College President Margaret L. Drugovich

Stay relevant. Be flexible. 

The brand needs to be relevant and flexible — relevant for students and flexible for alumni.

With students, as new generations arrive on campus, we need to stay relevant to them and their needs. With alumni, these folks had a moment in time with us, so it’s different, so we have to keep that experience fresh.

Delivering on a promise is another way to think about branding. If we are mission-driven enterprises, then we have to deliver on what we say we will do. I sometimes wish we could have a Chief Promise Officer. You need to be careful with language. Alumni can get upset when they hear about new things on campus because it doesn’t match their experience. For Hartwick, it was our switch from the Warriors to the Hawks. Even 20 years later, I hear from alumni at reunions about the fact that we made that change. The Warriors name symbolized something in their experience, and they can’t connect anymore.

So we need to ask, “What will people pull out from their experience that will keep them grounded?” And that’s a hard question to answer.

West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee

The bolder, the better. 

Now more than ever, universities need to differentiate themselves from other institutions. How? We have to create academic experiences that are unlike others anywhere else in the country. We need to tell our story in a way that differentiates, but also inspires—one that motivates a young person to come to our university. If your institution looks like every other, what’s the point?

We need to be bold in the way we convey our message and mission. That means telling our story in a simple, direct way—with a sense of seriousness and playfulness at the same time. Be surprising. Be interesting. Just don’t lose sight of your institution’s core values.

Western State Colorado President Greg Salsbury

Execute, execute, execute. 

Here’s the dirty little secret about brand: People often think it’s akin to strategy. I don’t really think it is. Execution trumps strategy—every time. And it’s harder.

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. Execution builds brand.

Otterbein University President Kathy Krendl

Connecting to your heritage. 

During our brand discussions, much of the staff felt that the school could use an affirmation of its history. It’s a remarkable history, and it’s worth sharing. We were the first school founded as a coeducational institution. Our founders saw education as an opportunity for betterment and social mobility, and they wanted to create an educational opportunity for those in need. Otterbein admitted African Americans before the Civil War, and was heavily involved in the suffrage and temperance movements. These are all parts of our past that are still very relevant.

The key is making our history relevant today: touching on those parts of history that we do well and that people care about.

At Otterbein, this typically means emphasizing our interdisciplinary approach—an approach to education we’ve taken since our founding. It’s true to us, and it’s valuable to students, who get an infinite number of educational experiences.

These excerpts were taken from Ologie’s Peer to Peer, Volume 3. To read the full interviews, click here for the PDF.