Brand marketing is so much more than just a catchy slogan or a stunning logo. It’s a holistic, living process to help your college stand out from the competition and attract more prospects. But the art, science, and philosophy of brand marketing are all too easy to get wrong.
“Our founder, Dr. Pam Cox-Otto, always says you don’t want your brand to be the emperor’s new clothes,” says Alana Villemez, Vice President of Business Development.
You know the folktale: A vain emperor gets tricked by unscrupulous tailors who make him “invisible clothes.” By the end of the story, the foolish ruler parades in front of the entire city stark naked!
“People will say, ‘Oh, we’re going to do a new brand; let’s just say what we think is going to sound great.’ And if that brand statement is not actually true, it will hurt you more than it helps you,” says Villemez.
Instead, it’s important to build your brand from a solid foundation of research. That way, you can showcase your true strengths, deliver on your branding promises, and create a message from the bottom up that resonates with your audiences.
Your College’s Brand, Defined
Remember, your brand is the image that your audience has of your college, your identity that you declare to the world that defines your purpose. It’s your vision, it’s what you communicate, and it’s how you are perceived.
According to our VP, brands are based on missions, and the community college mission upholds three pillars:
“If you zoom out, these are the three things that community colleges promise,” says Villemez. “But how you take those pillars and apply them to your own community college’s vision, mission, and messaging is unique.”
How can you make your college brand shine? Keep reading for six steps from our VP Villemez and our Strategic Director James Wiseman for the dos and don’ts of brand marketing and how your college can build a stronger brand.
1. Don’t Try to Be Something You’re Not
Watch out for brand messages that won’t ring true!
“We often say that the brand should be halfway between who you are and who you want to be,” says Strategic Director James Wiseman. “You really can’t fake that.
“If you try to be something you’re not, people will call you on it.”
Your brand is like a seesaw: You need to find the perfect balance between your strengths and your vision for the future to keep your brand marketing strong.
For instance, we recently saw a college that based its branding on diversity, equity, and inclusion. But the institution received significant pushback from its students, who pointed out that its faculty and staff were not diverse. It’s a perfect example of what can happen when you show off your new clothes and realize that your tailor might have missed something!
“It’s a mistake we see with many colleges,” says Villemez. Similarly, she says, “We don’t want to say you have a commitment to comprehensive support if less than 50 percent of your students receive financial aid. That means you’re only meeting the needs of 50 percent of your students, which will misalign your brand pillars.”
Most importantly, make sure what you think you stand for is echoed by your community and student perceptions. There is an art to investigating your research to find that sweet spot between what your stakeholders think about you and your vision of where you want to be.
“You want your brand to be aspirational enough to drive your college toward the future, but not so much that you’re getting away from the truth of your core strengths,” says Villemez. “Achieving the perfect balance takes strategic thinking backed by research into how your audiences perceive your institution.”
2. Avoid “Vanilla” Brand Marketing
“Build your future here.”
“We’re the state’s hidden gem!”
“Where your dreams become reality.”
And, of course, the ever-popular “Start here, go anywhere.”
Do those sound familiar? We bet these taglines seem all too common! Inside Higher Ed poked fun at cliched word marks like these in its article on college brand marketing, “Your Future Starts Here. Or Here. Or Here.” Generic statements like these are not your true strengths and won’t resonate with students.
“‘Start here, go anywhere’ could be the national slogan for community colleges everywhere,” says Villemez. “It doesn’t really show why your college is unique or resonate with your particular community because it’s just a vanilla brand.”
Nonspecific brand marketing won’t strike the necessary emotional resonance to inspire target audiences to take action. To hit the bullseye, your brand must be unique to your institution.
3. Example of Bold Brand Marketing “Done Right”: How Bismarck State College’s New Brand Helped Skyrocket Enrollment
Interact helped Bismarck State College (BSC) change its whole brand from a regional transfer university to an international polytechnic institution. Says Villemez, “That was a huge shift.”
According to BSC’s Marketing and Design Manager Holly Schaeffer, “Through their research, Interact created a brand for our school that reflects and resonates with our stakeholders, community, and future students.”
In fact, Bismarck’s new brand was so on target that it helped the college launch successful campaigns that achieved the highest enrollment increases in the state out of all two- and four-year colleges and universities!
The first step was full-funnel research, including a deep dive into the college’s competitors and understanding perceptions of the institution. BSC’s new brand and tagline were born after building a solid groundwork of research and garnering wide alignment and agreement throughout the college. “Done Right” forged new recognition for the college, capturing the rugged, indomitable spirit of North Dakotans.
“Done Right” speaks to the pride inherent in being connected to Bismarck State College and is accessible, unpretentious, and even a bit defiant, allowing for bold, powerful messaging.
“When Pam came to campus with her team and said we were ‘Done Right,’ we were like, ‘Yeah! We’re Done Right!’” recalls Schaeffer. “It just clicked with everybody.”
“You want a brand that is not only unique but also has legs,” says Villemez.
Take BSC’s wizard mascot, Merlin the Mystic. Villemez says, “The mascot adds a nice juxtaposition to the seriousness of the BSC brand and shows how much space there was in the branding philosophy to extend that messaging.”
Another example is the Gogebic Community College’s classic brand, “Go Bold,” which has been going strong in Northern Michigan since 2015. The secret to the brand’s longevity is a base of solid research, which helped distill a message that would continue to resonate for years.
“Gogebic Community College has a singular identity as an outdoorsy, adventurous place,” says Wiseman. “So, both ‘Go’ and ‘Bold’ lend themselves to going forward.”
Our strategic director says each part of the word mark can hold its own in algorithms, with plenty of room for new campaigns to proclaim “Go ____” or “____ Bold.”
5. Beware! Brand Marketing Is Much More than Just a Word Mark.
“The mistake many colleges and agencies have is making a clever word mark the entirety of the brand,” says Wiseman. “A word mark is an expression of the larger philosophy of the brand, so it’s fundamental to have the actual brand philosophy nailed down to give it longevity.”
So many colleges cook up word marks without enough substance to back them up. That’s why their brand marketing efforts run out of gas after just a year or two. When we talk about giving a brand “legs,” we mean a brand can keep walking, running, and jumping for a long time.
“Having legs is really about making sure that the first step of your brand philosophy is steady, based on a solid foundation of research,” says our strategic director.
Remember: Nike doesn’t stamp “Just Do It” on every ad, and Apple’s “Think Different” doesn’t flash like a neon sign in every commercial. It’s about drawing on the underlying philosophy behind the word mark to inform your marketing, and that’s your brand — a lived manifesto built to last.
“Sometimes marketers get stuck on the logo or the brand rollout or the style guide,” says Villemez. “But if your college doesn’t own your message and mission, it won’t stick. It won’t have legs.”
6. Build Your Brand Marketing from the Bottom Up
Strong brand marketing can’t happen in silos or come from the top down. A robust brand needs roots to grow from the ground up.
“We see a lot of new college leadership arrive at the college and say, ‘This brand doesn’t resonate with my vision for the college,’” says Villemez. “That’s understandable. But at the same time, you are not the community, the students — you are not the college’s target market.”
When an internal team works in a silo to build a brand, thinking they know what is best for the college without researching and gaining alignment and agreement between all key stakeholders, the emperor may be donning his invisible clothes again.
“If you’re having brand perception issues, it’s probably because your community doesn’t see you the way you see yourself,” says Villemez. “You have to understand where you’re missing the mark.”
It’s all about research, research, research — and then having the keen perception to analyze that data and boil down your philosophy into the perfect word mark. In perfumery, it takes about 50 roses to make just one drop of fragrance. Brands are no different: There is an art and a science to distilling your philosophy into a message that really “pops.”
“With our expertise in working with community colleges across the country, we know which words and power concepts are true of every college and which are unique to the individual institution,” says Wiseman. “The trick is to see what pops, which are always the branding messages that distinguish you from the competition.”
Even More Brand Marketing Tips and Tricks
Do you need help making your brand pop? Come to our helpful presentation on college brand marketing at the upcoming NCMPR district conferences! We’ll dive into brand marketing, where you can ask our experts your burning questions.