Adrienne Nazon

Adrienne Nazon

Vice President of Marketing; Chief Marketing Officer

Why brand matters in higher ed

Adrienne Nazon

Apr 03, 2018

Quick: Think about Amazon. Apple. Coca Cola. Google. Disney. Nike.

If you’re like me, you didn’t think of what these companies sell, or what you know about their net worth, or who their CEOs are. Your reaction was likely more about how they make you feel: where these brands fit into your life, when you first encountered each one, what that experience was like. You didn’t recite business facts; you considered experience.

Each of these companies offers commodities that many other companies produce: computers, soda, movies, yoga pants and sneakers. They are successful not because of the quality of their tangible products, but because of their place in the market. Disney, for instance, offers magic that spans generations. Apple, a sleek, hip experience. Google, cutting-edge innovation.

They stand out because of their brands. These companies’ power lies not in telling consumers what to think, but rather in showing consumers how the companies fit into their lives.

Brand has long been recognized as a key to business success in the private sector. But higher ed hasn’t taken note until recently.

Historically, higher ed brands have been limited to logo, color palettes, taglines and campaigns. We have stopped short of defining experience and emotional connections with our audiences, inspiring continued choice and close connection.

As Ohio State works to enhance reputation and inspire choice, we must define, understand and articulate our solid, authentic brand.

Here are four things a clearly articulated brand will help us accomplish:

Brand will help us answer, “What makes Ohio State different?”

Historically, colleges and universities have offered very little to help our audiences distinguish what makes us each distinct.

Like private sector companies, colleges and universities offer commodities. (Ours include degrees, faculty research, internships, student groups, alumni networks, health care, etc.). And like those companies, we must stand out on the basis of experience: how we do things differently and what makes us distinct.

But higher education has often focused on what we do (the business of education and research), not how individual institutions do it differently (brand differentiation).

A brand promise is powerful: It can carve out a true space of distinction, setting a college or university apart in the minds of the audiences with whom it seeks to build relationships.

Take Arizona State, which has commandeered the market around innovation — not in a technological sense but in redefining what it means to be an American public university. Or Babson College, which has adopted a posture that it’s better at entrepreneurship than any other university.

Why the trend? Competition for the best and brightest faculty, the best and brightest students in a declining high school graduate market, the most innovative partnerships, shrinking research dollars and philanthropic contributions are all in play and can be bolstered by an entity's ability to define, articulate and live a distinctive brand promise. The turmoil being faced by many institutions on many fronts is also a reason for strong brand building. The loyalty and trust that comes with strong affinity can act as a buffer during difficult times (see Blue Bell Listeria challenge). Commodities have a particular challenge because differentiation is harder and in many instances almost impossible on a “what basis.” Put your translation hat on and take a peek at this phenomenon in the banking industry (highly commoditized). The wisdom imparted here is analogous to the challenge higher ed faces. (The entire five-part series is worth a read.)

Brand will help us refine who we are – and who we want to be.

In addition to articulating a distinctive brand, we have to live it. Think of all the human experiences Ohio State creates for our audiences. A few examples: We ask people to take campus tours, apply for admission, interview for jobs, participate in orientation, graduate in the 'Shoe, support us financially, choose us to provide their health care. If our brand does not carry through in each of these experiences, we are not fulfilling our brand promise.

That means brand isn’t something that lives on a postcard or a web page or in talking points. For our brand to be authentic and real, it needs to be consistently and persistently reflected in all Ohio State experiences.

If every corner of Ohio State doesn’t reflect our brand, we can’t meet the expectations created by our brand promise.

Brand will clarify how we approach our work.

A strong brand isn’t going to tell us what research to do, what courses to offer or whether to add a new major. It’s not about the what but the how: how do we ensure our core strengths are represented in the ways we do business?

Each of Ohio State’s units — colleges, research centers, outreach initiatives and others — has important work to do and a story to tell. While our brand won’t dictate that story, it will help marketers and communicators understand and determine the best lens through which to tell it. Many of our peers will educate students, perform research and provide medical care. Our brand will help us consider how we approach that work differently from others.

Brand will give us room to grow.

Here’s a question I often hear about brand: “Is this supposed to reflect where we are today or where we’re going as an organization?”

The hard answer to this good question? The best brands are able to do both. They’re both authentic in a given moment and aspirational, showing audiences the promise that lies ahead.

Brand building is not quick. To be effective, it requires much “invisible” work: audience research, competitive benchmarking, tone and voice work, strategies and roadmaps.

The promise, though, is worth that hard work.

Strong brands do something else that allows them to succeed where others don’t: They articulate why they exist in ways that represent a shared belief system with its audiences. They leverage this resonance to help their audiences pursue their dreams and achieve their goals. And doing so, they remain relevant over time by reflecting their audiences’ beliefs about themselves and the world, and affirming their personal identity.

Strong brands connect with their audiences in personal ways that turn them into loyal converts and strong advocates. That is the ultimate value of a brand. And I, for one, can’t wait to see where a strong brand can take Ohio State.

About the author