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March 13

Why You Need to Think of Your School as a Brand


Businesses understand the importance of establishing and cultivating a brand. In higher ed, we’re less often used to thinking in these terms. Like it or not, however, your school has a brand. Being intentional about it makes all the difference.

Higher ed marketer Matt McFadden points out that many colleges and universities have all the markings of what we might think of as big brands. Yet, they don’t often think of themselves that way. The problem is probably even more pronounced at smaller institutions. 

There is a way of thinking about who you are and how you connect with your audience that successful businesses get but colleges often miss. It has to do with understanding the power of a brand.

In this article, I want to look at what a brand is and explain why it matters.

What a Brand Is (and Isn’t)

What do you associate with the word ‘brand’? 

For many people, the first things that come to mind are the obvious visual markers of a company or school. In higher ed, that would include things like the school logo, colors, or perhaps an image of an important campus building. 

These things are part of a school’s brand, though a minor one. Your brand is something much less tangible — and much more important.

So what are we really talking about?

 Let’s consider Apple. Everyone knows Steve Jobs was a brilliant marketer. Yes, he helped ensure that Apple created innovative and high-quality products. But, arguably, the company’s success under his leadership had much more to do with the cultivation of a brand.

In a famous speech, he explains that the world is a noisy place and people aren’t going to hear or remember much about your products. Instead, they’ll remember what you’re about.

In other words, they will absorb an impression or picture of your brand. 

Apple positioned itself as a champion of originality, individuality, and creativity. That’s their brand; it’s what they’re about. The magic of branding is that these are things consumers respond to on an emotional level. When they buy Apple products, they are purchasing more than a product; they are purchasing a powerful package of positive associations. 

It is Apple’s brand that ultimately drives consumers to purchase its products and become fans of the company. 

So what is a brand? It is how people understand what you’re about. 

The example of Apple helps us to see two crucial things about how brands work:

Brands are built by showing more than telling 

Apple doesn’t say, “Buy our products and you’ll be unique and creative.” They use imagery to create that association. This is what all companies that focus on brand building do. Words matter and have their place, but what people see and experience is more impactful when it comes to establishing a brand.

Brands connect on an emotional level

A description of a company’s product or services speaks to my mind; its brand speaks to my heart. Plenty of laptops will do a perfectly adequate job of surfing the web, answering emails, and creating Office docs. 

A Macbook, however, promises to turn these mundane tasks into the intriguing work of an edgy entrepreneur or a mold-shattering creative who is going to think differently and change the world. 

In other words, the way brands work on consumers is much more a matter of what is felt than what is thought

Why does Your Brand Matter?  

So if you’re in higher ed marketing, why should you be thinking of your school in terms of its brand? There are two key reasons.

1. People buy your brand

We like to think of ourselves as making our decisions based upon purely rational considerations. That isn’t true, however. Our emotions play an important role.

When potential students are considering your school, the purely informational stuff is really important. You need to have the right program, it needs to be affordable, etc. 

But your brand also needs to be attractive. Students aren’t just buying academic training. They are buying the whole college experience and are looking for a school to present a compelling vision that connects with the things they care deeply about.

Let’s make this concrete. Compare these two different descriptions of the same program:

    1. In our cybersecurity program, you will learn the fundamentals of computer science as well as explore advanced topics in areas like ethical hacking and graduate qualified for an entry-level job in this industry.
    2. In our cybersecurity program, you’ll join a community of curious problem-solvers as you develop the skills and experience you’ll need to help today’s organizations face tomorrow’s threats.

The first simply gives a description. The second creates a picture and invites the potential student to imagine herself within it. The first is aimed at the head and the second at the heart.

The importance of the emotional impact of your brand extends well beyond its role in recruiting. The experiences your students have during their time of study will also build their image of your brand and determine whether, as alumni, they will be excited about supporting their alma mater and promoting it to others. 

A positive student experience is intimately connected to what we usually think of as school spirit. Look for ways to capture this in your promotional materials so potential students can also get a taste of that brand experience.

2. A brand gives coherence

The second reason your brand matters is that it can help bring unity to all your audience touchpoints. 

As marketers, we’re familiar with the use of personas to help focus our messaging. Your brand is sort of like a persona for your institution. It defines who you are, what you’re about, and how you operate. 

Being aware of the brand you are trying to cultivate allows you to ask yourself whether what you are doing is consistent with that brand. This is a standard question when it comes to marketing materials. 

It is just as important, however, to ask it when it comes to things like the campus visit experience. Does the impression you give on your website match the impression you give when people set foot on campus? 

Clarifying Your Brand

I just pointed out that one of the ways your brand matters is that it can give unity and consistency to the experiences you create for potential students, current students, alumni, and donors. 

But it can only play this role if you know what the brand is that you are trying to cultivate. So do you know what your brand is?

There are actually two ways to understand this question. On the one hand, whether your institution has given it any thought, you have a brand. In other words, your audience has an impression of who you are and what you’re about. We could call this your perceived brand. 

On the other hand, there is the brand that you hope to convey. Call this your intended brand. 

Clarity about both your perceived and intended brand is crucial.

The latter is what allows you to be intentional about what you are doing. It involves asking questions like what kinds of feelings you hope to inspire in others when they think about your institution and how the experiences you create can contribute to that goal. 

Knowing your perceived brand tells you how successfully you are doing this. If you want to be perceived as youthful, energetic, and innovative but people see you as old, lethargic, and traditional, you know you have some work to do. 

Read more: Brand Perception: 5 Survey Questions You Should Be Asking

Let me add an important qualification here. Your intended brand needs to be authentic. Presenting yourself as something you are not is both dishonest and counter-productive. You’ll end up with students who aren’t a good mission fit for your school. 

Instead, clarify your brand by identifying the things that make up your school’s unique selling proposition. Find your why and focus on communicating it clearly and consistently in everything you do. 


What’s the opposite of thinking of your school as a brand? Thinking of it as a provider of a service. It is that, of course. But conceiving your institution primarily in these terms ignores the fact that students (and donors) will make decisions about whether to enroll or support your school based at least in part on how it makes them feel. 

People want to be inspired. Thinking of your school as a brand means considering how to convey a vision of who you are in a way that gets others excited. It also means ensuring that everything from your marketing emails to your alumni events effectively reinforces that vision.

I would be the first to admit that this isn’t always easy. If you think you could use some help in either clarifying your brand or creating a consistent brand impression, let’s connect.

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Featured image by DCP via Adobe Stock

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