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3 Ways to Hobble Your Higher Ed Brand

Colleges and universities typically make one of 3 mistakes with their brand:

1. They “nerf” it.

In an online multiplayer game, when a weapon is too powerful sometimes the game creators will soften its impact so one player doesn’t have an unfair advantage over others. Players call it “nerfing.” A school does this when it starts with a powerful core idea, then weakens it to make sure it doesn’t offend or turn anyone away. If you’re not turning some people off, you’re not turning anyone on.


2. They stop short.

So often a brand strategy is launched but it only lives in the viewbook or admissions site. It never finds expression in the rest of the website or print communications, can’t be seen in the day-to-day experience of the school or heard in the voices of people on campus. Michigan State University launched a strong brand campaign around the action-oriented theme “Spartans Will.” The campaign was brilliant, but it never went beyond the admissions website.


3. They say everything, thereby saying nothing.

Hemingway knew how to choose carefully what to leave out in order to intensify what he did put on the page. Academia loves to be thorough, to say everything that can be said. But when that mindset drives your brand communication your uniqueness gets lost in the noise. For example, small liberal arts colleges almost all have excellent academics, close relationships with faculty, and a strong sense of community (and a beautiful campus). These are expected. What is unexpected?

The one I didn’t mention is creating a powerful brand message that doesn’t jive with the reality of the brand experience. Wireless carriers seem particularly adept at this, but we haven’t seen it as much in higher education.


A powerful higher ed brand:

  • expresses the deepest character of the school

  • points forward to what the school is becoming

  • promises a distinct quality or strength that attracts the students and faculty who want that quality or strength for themselves.

  • instills pride in those who are already connected to the brand

For example, my own alma mater Virginia Tech has always had an entrepreneurial, roll up your sleeves, hardworking, “can do” spirit. Their tagline used to be “Putting knowledge to work.” That was solid and quite appropriate for a school with a strong engineering and technical focus, but the more challenging “Invent the Future” is the perfect embodiment of the Virginia Tech brand – not just for the applied sciences but for the full spectrum of human pursuits. They make me proud to be an alumnus.

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