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Positioning Brand Culture in Higher Education

April 21, 2010

Your brand culture. It’s the essence of your higher education brand. It’s your brand’s DNA. It’s what makes you different from all others.

If your brand is what your consumers think it is, then it’s your brand culture that’s had a huge impact on their perception. It’s your institution’s version of the college experience. It’s what your students experience, and what your alumni experienced as your brand was being fully formed in their minds.

Your institution’s brand culture is the result of the unique mix of your students, faculty and staff. It’s how they all relate to each other (influenced by academic and corporate philosophy) that creates your unique culture as your students navigate academic life, your physical campus, your student affairs program, etc. Call it your institution’s personality.

Except, that’s not the extent of it. It’s all of that seasoned with your location’s culture. UC Berkeley would not have the same brand culture if it was located in Bakersfield (Bakersfield as well wouldn’t be the same for that matter).

Most colleges and universities have the same parts. It’s a challenge to differentiate one college from the other. Your brand culture stands out from the rest deep inside the admissions funnel, where prospective students are trying to decide whether or not to invest in their education at your institution, and deep inside the donor pyramid, where donors and donor suspects are deciding to commit major gifts to your institution.

At these phases, branding occurs by direct contact with the culture itself. Students visit the campus and experience a taste of the brand’s DNA. Donors get connected with faculty, students, and alumni.

The trick is to effectively communicate your brand culture to the public at large and throughout all phases of the funnel and pyramid. Obviously, getting a prospective student, donor suspect, or new friend on campus is the most effective way to communicate brand culture.

But how do you take your culture into marketing communications/media/public relations? Tell stories. Let them hear from your best brand advocates–your students, alumni, and enthusiastic faculty.

UCLA did this with their 30 second television spot (you may have seen this during a UCLA football or basketball game). Produced by the School of Theatre, Film and Television, and with what I’m assuming was major input from students, UCLA produced a wonderful example of how to communicate its brand culture.

The writing and diversity of student actors and scenes give you the feeling that UCLA, the university California owns, is a diverse big-time university near the beach in sunny, entertainment-rich southern California.

And then, there it is. Amidst the various scenes of the university and the So Cal vibe, UCLA communicates directly what positions it differently than at least one of its competitors: “Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are, they just want to see what you do.”

It’s a great example of communicating brand culture that is a part of the UCLA “Here. Now.” campaign. Currently, the quote in words is at the bottom of UCLA’s website home page. But the brand culture it communicates also consistently plays out in other media/PR/marketing communications, such as UCLA magazine, and their choice of commencement speakers.

What is your brand culture? What is compelling about it? Why should students buy into it, and why should donors invest in it? Determining your brand culture and communicating it effectively is not easy, but doing so will set you apart, and help you attract the students, donors, and friends most likely to fit at your institution.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. wonderingcounselor permalink
    January 14, 2013 10:24 AM

    This article is very clear concise Rick. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I’m imagining a bull’s eye radiating from the point of contact experience that passes through the community and surrounding areas wherein a college or university lives. Brand experience is that bulls eye, the hottest point, radiating out to everything that surrounds. That bull’s eye may shift depending on where the student intersects the University and we can shift it strategically. The important lesson is to remember to exercise wisdom and intentionality in how you create that intersection with your prospective students.

    • January 14, 2013 11:55 AM

      Thanks, Mark, for your comment. Interesting imagery regarding brand experience. I like it because if infers that as brand radiates out, it goes through the community before it goes to the external community, which means that brand is influenced and shaped further by those who communicate it and live it. Thus, a strong reason why brand and brand culture need to be recognized and embraced by the internal community–something that’s taken for granted by marketing leaders and teams, which sometimes leads to dysfunctional brand campaigns.


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