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Branding: Connecting Identity to Markets

December 4, 2013

ivory towerAt the end of day two at the American Marketing Association Symposium on the Marketing of Higher Education held last month in Boston, I joined about 15 marketing leaders at a roundtable group thoughtfully discussing marketing at faith-based colleges and universities. What I heard sounded familiar.

There were a number of marketing leaders struggling with their institution’s desire to have the religious identity of their institution used prominently in branding even though they know it isn’t important to their target markets.

Branding at an identity-driven institution is a challenge because sometimes it’s seemingly not possible to reconcile the goals of making data-based decisions with emphasizing religious identity.

It’s a tough spot to be in for a marketing leader. Deciding not to base brand messaging decisions on market data is not wise, but neither is choosing not to emphasize religious identity at an identity-driven institution.

Some thoughts as I’ve reflected on the discussion…

Question the data. Never take data at face value. In this case, just because prospective students and students say they don’t care about the religious identity of your institution, it doesn’t mean that they don’t desire the academic life, campus life, culture, and values that flow out of your religious identity. Remember that we’re talking about Millennials, who, generally speaking, value spirituality over organized religion.

Think student experience, not identity. Thus find a way to connect the dots between the student experience you offer and your faith tradition. Identity shouts from the ivory tower, “this is who we are!” Branding connects that identity to markets.

In other words, don’t just talk about who you are. Tell prospective students how it will make a difference to their college experience.

I’ve worked for two identity-driven Protestant universities. Both institutions have a Christian identity, but the student experience at each institution is vastly different from the other. Concordia University Irvine, my present employer, has a heritage of Lutheran theological thought that strongly influences its approach to both academics and campus life.

It’s my job as Concordia’s chief marketing officer to brand our identity in such a way that prospective students understand what we bring to the student experience, thus making it clear how Concordia is different from other universities.

For traditional undergraduates, we’ve branded our identity and positioned our university with our undergraduate viewbook and our admissions microsite, both of which talk about helping our students develop their gifts through our core curriculum, and their major, in a campus culture that invites their participation in the faith rather than requiring it.

All three of these brand message points–vocational calling/core curriculum/Grace Alone, Faith Alone theology–rise out of our identity as a Lutheran university. Talking about our identity means something to prospective students because we’ve branded it and connected it to the student experience we offer.

Words don’t hold meaning. People do. As you work to brand your identity, keep in mind and educate leadership that words hold no meaning. People hold the meanings of words.

Therefore, know your audience. Your identity may carry with it very positive meaning to your target markets, or not. Or your target markets may not understand your identity language whatsoever. Use care in how you wordsmith your brand messaging.

Educate leadership. It’s vital that the CMO at an identity-driven institution has a voice in the identity conversations on campus, and educates leadership on the need to brand identity. If you do so, they’ll understand your branding decisions, and trust will grow if they see how you’re authentically branding your institution’s identity.

I’ve written other posts on the subject if you’re interested in exploring this topic further, and as always, I’m available to talk.

The Roles of Brand, Branding, and Identity

Lead with Brand, Not Identity

Branding Identity

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