Stand By Your Brand

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“What’s unique about this university?” The focus group facilitator’s question seemed to hang in the air. Then a high school senior replied, “The only thing that comes to mind is that it’s a direction on a compass.” The response made those of us observing behind the glass wince.

With the value of higher education continuing to come under scrutiny, now more than ever, colleges and universities need to stand for something—a brand—that will underscore the importance of a college degree and engender a certain response from a prospective student, donor, or influencer upon hearing the institution’s name. Let’s be clear. Branding is not easy and can take years to accomplish.

Early in the millennium, I was working at Oakton Community College, a highly regarded institution—or so I thought—in the Chicago suburbs. During a College Fair, a guidance counselor approached our table and sniffed, “Oakton is the Kmart of higher education.” Immediately I saw a flashing blue light, accompanied by the adjectives “cheap” and “inferior.” After that encounter, we began focused conversations about the lack of an Oakton brand. (More about this later in the blog.)

Any discussion about brand begins with the question: What is branding? In other words, how do we differentiate our “cow” from other cattle on the range? First and foremost, a brand is a promise, providing a guarantee that the buyer will not be disappointed. For example, I know my Jeep will take me “over the river and through the woods” to my grandmother’s house, and Nordstrom will provide high-quality merchandise combined with attentive customer service. Such promises are important because they instill confidence and, in turn, loyalty.

A brand also underscores uniqueness: “No college is quite like ours.” Some colleges and universities are fortunate to have a solid niche carved out over a number of years such as Oberlin College (music), Wheaton College (Christian worldview), Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (engineering), or Baruch College/The City University of New York (business). Others have to determine a balance between core institutional strengths and what target audiences value. Remember that a brand is neither a logo nor a tagline, but a motivator for prospective students, donors, and employees as well. In other words, a brand is about being something special that will stand out, be noticed, and elicit a response.

In the case of Oakton Community College mentioned earlier, Institutional Advancement teamed up with Institutional Research and Effectiveness to identify core institutional strengths and ascertain audience response. While the college at the time offered many widely known programs such as business, computer information systems, fire science, law enforcement, marketing management, and nursing, to name just a few, research with target audiences revealed the college’s key strength was its people—faculty, staff, and alumni who tirelessly championed and encouraged students during their educational journey.

That revelation led to launching an aggressive integrated marketing campaign, We Are Oakton. Print, electronic, digital, and out-of-home advertisements showcased Oakton faculty, staff, and alumni. The college’s magazine, Outlook, along with the Educational Foundation’s Annual Report and President’s Report to the Community included feature stories focused on the people who made Oakton special. The college staged an employee breakfast and distributed buttons reading, “I Am Oakton.” People eagerly wore the pins and engaged in conversations with strangers about the importance of the college to the community.

Oakton also hosted a Saturday morning Open House for parents and other influencers that featured 12 faculty members who talked about their lives beyond the classroom. For example, a professor of theater discussed his life as a rabbi; a professor of management and supervision described relocating from the suburbs to an 8.5-acre farm where he raised Katahdin Hair Sheep; and a professor of psychology discussed his research comparing households with a stay-at-home dad to households with a stay-at-home mom. This campaign reinforced the caliber of faculty teaching at the community college—and began to erode the Kmart image.

After making a promise that people value and communicating that promise to target audiences, the next step is to live up to the promise—an effort that involves every employee in the institution. In particular, the president must be the cheerleader, providing inspired leadership and committing the necessary resources to keep the brand vibrant and focused. In other words, “Stand By Your Brand” and enjoy the benefits of securing a niche in the competitive marketplace, attracting more students, and galvanizing increased support from donors who value the institution’s mission.


Dr. Carlee Drummer is President of Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, Connecticut.

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