March 2

More Than a Campus Logo: The Education Branding Process


by | Mar 2, 2023 | Branding, Featured, Podcast

Too often, education branding is thought of as a series of design projects like a new logo, a refreshed color palette, or relaunching your education website.

But it’s better to think of education branding as an evolution over time rather than a one-time campaign. 

Branding has an abstract side and a tangible side to it. 

The tangible part of branding (like logos, colors, and taglines) should flow out of the abstract side. 

It’s much easier to understand how the tangible side of education branding works, but it’s a struggle for most of us to truly understand how to manage the abstract side of branding.

William Faust from Ologie shares insights from his years of success in educational branding. To get a better idea of what education branding is and how we can improve our education brands, Troy Singer and I spoke with William Faust, Senior Partner and Chief Strategy Officer at Ologie, a leading higher education marketing agency.

We were introduced through Ethan Braden, who’s been a podcast guest a couple times sharing wisdom from his role as CMO at Purdue University

William and Ethan have been working together on Purdue’s highly successful branding campaign, The Persistent Pursuit.

It’s been fascinating to watch Purdue craft such an inspirational array of messaging around their branding. 

The conversation with William brought out some incredible insights on brand management and how smaller schools can raise the stakes in their branding game through differentiation.

Here, I want to share with you all of those insights. 

But to get the most out of the content, please listen to the podcast itself!

Defining Brand

At the very beginning of our conversation, William helped us understand the contemporary definition of branding.

The contemporary definition of a brand is about a lot more than the traditional definition. 

The word branding derived from putting a brand on cattle. It was a logo, a stamp, or a mark. 

But today, it’s about an organization’s offer or the experience that they give to all their stakeholders. 

Then, it’s the story that you tell authentically to convey what that offer or the value proposition is. It’s a very nuanced and complex thing. 

With something so complicated and abstract, how can marketers get their minds wrapped around it?

How often should you be working on your education branding?

Managing a brand is a 24/7, 365-day year-long effort. 

Occasionally, someone will say to me, “Oh, we did our brand three years ago.” 

I don’t even understand that. You “did your brand”? 

What they’re saying is that they took a fresh look at it. They might have taken a deeper dive than normal. 

But if you manage your brand all the time, you don’t have to do that. 

It’s an evolutionary process. 

Emotive Educational Branding

It’s unfortunate that so many colleges and universities get confused on what branding really is, that it is just a logo or a color palette.

It is way more complicated than a logo.

However, it’s also as simple as this. Educational branding is a feeling.

What do you feel when you walk into class or the office from your car? 

What is the experience you’re having when you get frustrated finding a parking spot as a prospective student, or a donor, or an alumnus?

A brand is how it makes you feel. It sounds so simple, but it’s not. 

It is something that I think a lot of leaders in Higher Ed find a little too elusive to wrap their arms around. 

That’s why you have to have a discipline of answering the questions: 

How do we want students to feel? How do we want parents to feel? How do we want alumni to feel when they think about Purdue, or Nebraska, or whoever?

Things like logos and color palettes are symbols.

Those are tools that should be derived from what you stand for and how you want people to feel about [your school].

Understanding Marketing

How should people feel about our institutions when they think about us or when they come to visit us?

That’s a big question which needs a lot of time to think through. 

It leads us to the idea of marketing as it relates to education marketing. 

Branding is a big word. Marketing is kind of an even bigger word. 

I view marketing as sort of taking everything about the brand, the story, or the value proposition and putting it out there so that you’re driving some collection of results.

In higher ed, the marketing lights are burning brightest in enrollment right now. Probably just right behind enrollment is fundraising and advancement. Then we’re seeing a growing marketing effort in reputation building. Some people call it “brand marketing.” 

So all three of those are a little different because they focus on slightly different audiences. But they’re all starting to use the same approach or similar approach and techniques.

[Marketing] is about [crafting] a more differentiated message, and that comes from the brand.

It’s so important to have that differentiated message. 

[You don’t want your education branding] to just sit on the shelf alongside your brand standards.

[You want it to] be in the marketplace tied to a specific call to action. 

The Power of Differentiation

I can’t emphasize enough what William said about differentiating yourself from the rest.

Many of my clients are tempted to say, “We’re just another faith-based school just like that other faith-based school just up the road.” 

No, you’re not! 

There are differences. Your school is unique.

What is something you do that no one else can do as well or differently? 

Education branding is being able to lean into what is truly unique and different about your experience, your value proposition, everything about who you are. 

I know that small, specialized schools deal with this. But do the big schools as well or do they have it all figured out?

I would say no. I think all schools struggle with that. Bigger, smaller, highly-ranked, non-highly-ranked, I don’t think it matters. 

It’s because higher ed came from a place that was not competitive, relatively speaking. 

But I think today, especially in enrollment, you have to define what it is that authentically makes you. Every school is different. 

You have to dive deeper, layer after layer, to get to how you are different. 

Because on the surface, a lot of schools look the same.

For me, this conversation was full of new insights. 

It was also highly encouraging to know that no matter how big your school is (or isn’t), education branding is an ongoing evolutionary process.

So, no matter where you are at in your branding journey, don’t stop working on it. Don’t stop evolving.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with William Faust to get even more insights into:

  • Why branding is a constant evolutionary process (4:33)
  • Branding for a mission-fit audience (12:03)
  • Which KPIs actually matter for smaller schools (25:04)

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