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Branding Institutional Identity

December 7, 2011

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on a conference of enrollment management and mission officers from Catholic colleges and universities designed to explore how Catholic institutions market themselves.

DePaul University hosted the conference. Its senior vice president for enrollment management, David Kalsbeek, is quoted in the article: “Mission officers often complain that their college’s viewbook looks like it could just as easily belong to a public or a Protestant college. What they forget, he said, is that a viewbook is not a mission statement.”

I couldn’t agree more that a viewbook is not a mission statement. But mission officers are also correct–the pendulum seems to swing the other way much of the time.

Is it because institutional leadership doesn’t care enough to find ways to brand their identity? Or, is it because they think their market segments just don’t care? Perhaps it’s both.

DePaul’s experience with exploring how to brand its identity is described in the article:

“DePaul also studied how various groups view it, and neither its Catholic nor its Vincentian identity made the top 10, said Deborah Maue, associate vice president for marketing strategy. The university debated explaining what its Vincentian identity meant as part of its branding, she said, but decided that this would be too big a challenge.

“For most organizations, a brand is the external representation of the mission, said Ms. Maue, whose background is in corporate marketing. DePaul defines its mission as Catholic, urban, and Vincentian, she said, but that doesn’t mean those are the messages its audience is looking for.”

That’s an interesting insight into why some colleges and universities of faith may fail to successfully brand their institutions in a way that connects their identity to the market.

While branding by definition is tied to market research, most of your market segments you survey won’t be talking about identity. They’ll be talking about your brand–what they’ve experienced or heard you to be.

And if your brand experience is not explicitly tied to your identity, the only market segments you’ll find citing your institutional identity as being very important are those whose lives are all about your identity (e.g., clergy, faculty, administrators, and perhaps older donors who experienced the brand when it was tied more closely to identity).

Furthermore, if most of your prospective students are not from your theological heritage, how would they be looking for it?

But even if market segments are not looking for your identity, does that mean the institution shouldn’t be communicating the key takeaways about how its institutional identity uniquely influences the student educational experience? 

The role of branding is to strategically communicate identity, brand, product, culture, etc. to market segments based on what is important to each market segment. While research tells you what’s important, it won’t necessarily tell you the connection between your identity and what the market is looking for. That’s going to take some digging and a good dose of creativity.

Branding institutional identity requires an institution to find out and communicate in relevant terms how its institutional identity shapes its educational experience in ways that meet market needs. As you do so, you may find that your branding of your institutional identity provides for you a market position that will be advantageous as you compete against institutions that lack an identity focus. 

In the coming posts, I’ll be sharing how we’ve been doing it at Concordia University Irvine.

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