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Jul 21, 2017 BY Andrew Buck Branding, Marketing

Brand Consistency in Higher Education: Challenges & Benefits

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.


On a recent podcast, sociologist and author Malcolm Gladwell was asked why Harvard University—which enjoys an endowment north of $40 billion and could easily accept 10x as many students as it currently does—chooses to remain small and insular instead.

Gladwell responded to the “Why doesn’t Harvard accept more students?” question this way:

Why doesn’t Louis Vuitton sell a $59 bag? Because they don’t want to be in the commodity bag business. They’d rather sell a small number of bags at $10,000 each…
These schools are in the luxury handbag business. They are interested in sustaining a certain brand equity. They see expanding the size of their schools as diluting their brand equity in exactly the same manner as Louis Vuitton does … They’re very conscious of maintaining that aura of exclusivity.

Every institution of higher education has a brand, whether they like it or not. Even if the notions of “brand” or “marketing” feel icky and counter-academic to schools, they have a brand. The most successful schools have begun to embrace not only their own brand, but the very notion that they can, through strategic investment, reshape their brand over time.

Brand Consistency, Defined

Here at Mighty Citizen, we think about brand as a mindset—a way of viewing the world and your organization’s place in it. But suffice to say, your brand is so much more than your logo, colors, and tagline.

The most succinct definition still comes from Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon:

Brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

For a university or college, brand consistency means that every interaction your school has with its audiences—students, parents, staff and faculty, etc.—springs from the same, agreed-upon set of messages. Every email, every lookbook, every letter, every call to the Registrar’s Office, every presentation at Freshman Orientation—they all, more less, say the same things in the same way.

But that’s easier said than done because universities face one huge challenge that most organizations don’t: Decentralization.

Why Colleges & Universities Have a Tough Time With Brand Consistency

Three factors contribute to higher education’s difficulty with brand consistency:

1. Colleges are Complicated

Even the smallest community colleges are startlingly complex institutions. And the organizational chart of a multi-campus, statewide university system could cover the Empire State Building.

With so many audiences, people, physical buildings, communications, and agendas at play, formulating a single brand identity is difficult enough—let alone trying to get all your faculty, staff, and vendors on the same page.

2. Decisions are Decentralized

In other words, a university is really just a collection of individual kingdoms: the Business School, the College of Liberal Arts, the Graduate Program in Architecture, the Doak M. McMillan Engineering Institute, the Division of Student Recreation Services, the Campus Health Community, and so on…

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Each group within a college has its own passions, goals, and strategies. Rolling all of them up into a single brand identity requires a great deal of research and compromise. And even if a school can put its brand identity into concrete language, pushing that language back down to the internal groups is a nonstop endeavor.

3. Academics Find Marketing Icky

Let’s face it: Many academics think marketing is gauche. For diehard academics, self-promotion might be seen as unnecessary and wasteful. Their interests lie in knowledge—discovering it, creating it, and sharing it. The notion of a school having a “brand” simply offends these people on principle. Education is its own reward, after all, right? Right?

The Benefits of Brand Consistency for Universities and Colleges

1. Brand Consistency Builds Trust

This is the big kahuna of brand consistency. Without trust, no organization can sustain success over the long term (except Spectrum!).

But audience trust may be especially important to colleges, which are (usually) asking for large sums of money in exchange for something rather … ethereal.

Yes, you graduate with a tangible degree to hang on your wall, but most of what higher ed offers isn’t concrete. It’s learning. It’s knowledge. It’s experience. To ask a student to pick your school over the hundreds of other options available is to say, “Trust us.”

Brand consistency helps bolster trust, because at every interaction, your audiences sense that you’re thoughtful, authentic, and buttoned-up. Consistency suggests professionalism and organization. It tells students and staff that you’ve spent the time, resources, and intellectual capital required to deliver a compelling message to the world.

Inconsistency, meanwhile, can quickly shatter your credibility. If what a student reads in a recruitment letter differs from what they read on a website, they grow confused. Confusion, in turn, produces a negative association with your brand. That association can cement quickly and be difficult (or impossible) to overcome.

Another example: You mail out a lookbook that uses your school’s official seal (instead of your newer logo). But when the student follows up online, they don’t see the seal anywhere, and suddenly—even if only subconsciously—the student senses some incongruence.

The Takeaway:

If your audience doesn’t trust your brand, they will not engage with it long term—no matter how enticing your incentives.

2. Brand Consistency Makes You Learnable

Especially for new students, the sheer amount of stuff at college can be overwhelming. The applications, the scholarship forms, the email addresses, the websites, the majors and minors and in-betweeners, and so on. The campus alone might be like walking blindfolded into a hedge maze.

Brand consistency makes your school more learnable. It reduces what we in the UX design world call “cognitive strain.” Cognitive strain is a big no-no, because we know when people are confused and having to think hard about something, their comprehension and affection tends to plummet. The easier you make an experience for someone, the more able you are to hook into their emotions (instead of their rational, logical selves).

Brand consistency helps demystify the higher education experience. It makes prospective students, parents, funders, etc. feel your brand more than think about it. They come to understand who you are, what you offer, and how you can help them.

Brand consistency helps demystify the higher education experience.

When cognitive strain disappears, you’re much more likely to influence the behaviors you want (e.g., more enrollment).

The Takeaway:

Brand consistency is important to making your audience understand you. Inconsistent messages increase cognitive strain, which is a needless roadblock.

3. Brand Consistency Makes Communication Work More Efficient

Universities and colleges have a ton of interactions with their audiences. Even students who don’t end up applying might encounter a particular school’s brand dozens of times in multiple ways before they decide against it.

Given the sheer number of complex interactions a university initiates, efficiency is an important goal. You want to make the process of applying, enrolling, registering, and connecting as resource-light as possible.

The Takeaway:

The more consistent your brand and messaging, the more quickly your users will be able to get stuff done. That ends up saving your school time and money.

The Not-So-Final Word on Brand Consistency for Higher Ed

“Brand consistency” is a big topic. We’ve just scratched the scratch of the scratch of the surface. Soon, we’ll offer specific ways you can begin to bolster your brand’s consistency.

Having designed brands and websites for multiple higher ed institutions, we know that lack of brand consistency is a serious (and fixable) blight on many schools. Without brand consistency, your university is missing opportunities. And without developing strategies for instituting schoolwide brand consistency, your school is sacrificing trust, connection, and efficiency.

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