Business Education: I've Got My Brand On You

Talk brand with someone and you think FMCG or fashion. However, the same concept of brand, identity, logo, and ethos goes into fueling the personality and the culture of an academic institution. Considering the fierce competition among business schools for qualified talent then you begin to get the bigger picture. Private or public, educational institutions strive to constantly differentiate themselves. When you add in how much it costs for an education today, it's no wonder these schools put so much into marketing their brand.

Clearly, the target audience for the most part are the parents who must either co-sign loans or cough up huge bags of cash. The alternatives to pedigree in our times are not for the weak hearted. You can go it alone as many entrepreneurs demonstrate. However, for the vast majority, education is the track to get you the credentials you need no matter what career path you choose to embark on.

Take the case of Babson College located just outside of Boston. Many pundits have never heard of this institution, and yet it fosters a strong identity and pull particularly for entrepreneurs. Listen to how they describe themselves: Immersed in business, engaged in liberal arts. Quite a mouthful don't you think?

With many people calling into question the high costs of education, parents are demanding that their offspring have salable skills upon graduation. Your classic humanities education has fallen victim to our very unequal times.

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.) uses another calling card: Why not change the world? Clearly, someone at this school has read Gandhi or at least remembers Steve Jobs. Will this quote resonate with the majority of high school seniors looking to apply? I think not. Students for the most part are not so high minded. Many are idealistic. Most are pragmatic and some are hustlers. With hi-tech and instant fame on the brain, certain students feel they can ride a wave to glory like Mark Zuckerberg.

To meet another educational niche, there has been another category of educational institutions. Enter the For-Profit category best exemplified by the University of Phoenix. This school carved out its path within the market by offering options other schools chose not to such as evening classes, flexible scheduling, a social network, and online classes. As a pioneer in its field, UP has been leading the For-Profit pack for 20 years. It also became a template for other savvy business people looking to make big bucks from education.

Education is clearly not seen today as it was in the past. It has become a commodity and in some cases a luxury brand must have. Europe for example offers many For-Profit institutions. They compete alongside the highly visible schools. Their drawing card? Integrate internships into the academic curriculum and just about promise everyone a job upon graduation. For anxious parents, this is a big attraction.

For The Love Of Ivy
The ultimate dream education for many Americans and even overseas students is to attend an Ivy League school. True the standards are tops, the curriculum compelling, and the schools in this group offer an unparalleled network of resources and opportunities. The odds for admitted applicants is steep. Even with the right credentials, grades, and extracurricular activities most applicants are denied admissions.

The harder it is to get in, the more people want to buy the brand. Despite their instant brand name recognition, even these top notch schools spend millions to promote their brand. There names are obvious: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. Attend one of these institutions, and you are set for life so each school claims. True, you certainly start off life on the right foot.

So You Want To Be A Designer
Another basket of academic institutions include fashion and design schools. Previously some of these institutions were seen as vocational schools. Not any longer. Some consider these schools the royal road to creative directors and designers. Considering the appeal of luxury brands and anything to do with fashion and glitz, these schools offer many attractive options to future students. These schools include Parson School For Design (NYC) and Saint Martin's (London).

The Issue Of Public Schools
Public schools in the American meaning of he term means a university funded by the individual states. In Europe, they are funded by their constituent governments. The quality of education varies from state to state and from country to country.

For example UC-Berkely, UCLA, University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia stand out as academic powerhouses. Their major attraction is the cost is less. In France, the university system is seen as worn out and chaotic. Students of means choose Prepa and then a Grande Ecole if they can get admitted. Others go the For-Profit route, if their parents can foot the bill.

Emotional Attachment
Brand management at any school revolves around establishing an esprit du corp. Alumni help foster the brand within corporations, and in the case of the USA, donate generously to their institutions later in life.

The Challenges
As the price of education continues to skyrocket, schools need to justify their purpose, fine tune their recruiting, and make every aspect of academic life, the faculty, and administration vibrate the brand. Top schools have no issue with this. Middling schools find this harder to accomplish, and For-Profits need to change their mentality that their faculty and staff are cheap labor and essentially cannon fodder.

Building and sustaining a brand, any brand, requires an innate understanding of human psychology, the actual market, and how you can make your institution stand apart from a highly saturated sector. Education for previous generations was first seen as a privilege. Then it was seen as a constitutional right. Now, it is seen in many circles as a luxury.

So what are the schools selling? What is the value proposition to coin a phrase? Is it knowledge? Is it an experience? Is it a right-of-passage? Or is it a paid systematic service to put their clients into decent and well paid paths to sustainable employment? (Notice, I did not use the term students. This should tell you something about how the price of education has morphed in the 21st century.)

Recently, The Guardian held a roundtable in association with Purpose, a brand communications consultancy. Their debate was conducted under Chatham House rules, which allows remarks to be reported without attribution to encourage a frank discussion, producing compelling recommendations. Here's what they concluded:

Focus on core values such as academic integrity that links teaching, research and scholarship. Offer business-friendly courses with employability appeal. Deliver a positive student experience.

Target communications at parents as well as students

Involve faculty as much as possible. Their enthusiasm can often bring big dividends when they are valued.

Highlight student testimonies in university marketing materials

Maximize social media influence and reach

The Case Of The 2 Ronnies

New Frontiers School Board Continuing Education
(Montreal, Canada)
NFSB wanted to bolster enrollment and student engagement. Over a period of 12 months, The Watershed Media conducted an extensive communications audit. They developed a blueprint for an online and offline marketing plan. Then, they executed a new digital and social media strategy with a invigorated brand. On the basis of their investigation, they recognized that success of the brand hinged on fostering intimacy and dialogue between the school and its students in an honest and authentic way.

TWM injected the brand with a personal narrative that celebrated the theme of overcoming adversity and breaking through.

I Choose Me and the Journey Begins With You were conversational brand elements that nurtured the empathetic quality that were the hallmarks of the school.

They also revitalized the website from the ground up, focusing on a modern image that gave its users clear information, helped them make informed decisions about their future, and then act on those decisions through online conversion tools. The Watershed complemented student tools with community resources that would make the NFSB a valued asset. Equally important was their work helping NFSB shift the marketing culture at the school and discover their shared capacity to influence change through everyday inter-actions.

  • Ramapo College of New Jersey (USA)
    The brand strategy was conceived and implemented by Words & Pictures Creative Service. The goal was to create an image campaign, featuring print and radio.

    The campaign harnessed successful, famous, and historical people who could have been Ramapo students. Welcome Shakespeare, Marie Curie, Andrew Carnegie, and Booker T. Washington. The chosen personalities represented the different schools at the College. This campaign elevated the College to a place where some of the greatest minds in history could have started their futures and where the great young minds of today could start their futures.

    Results: Ramapo College experienced direct benefits. The image building exercise worked wonders. Four years later, a follow-up survey was conducted by Eagleton. There was a dramatic increase in public awareness and improved perception of the school:

  • Ranked No.1 public comprehensive college by USNews in consecutive years. Combined SAT scores rose from 1120 to 1180
  • HS rankings moved from top 24% to top 17%
  • Full-time residential undergrads increased from 52% to 60%. Retention rate: first to second year increased from 82.4% to 89.4%
  • Retention rate: second to third year increased from 68% to 74.8% (currently,80%) Graduation rate: 42.75 to 62.3% (well over national average)
  • First-time donors increased by 35%
    (The advertising campaign received industry and CASE awards for its ingeniousness and creativity.)

    Educational institutions to survive and prosper need to channel their efforts where their strengths lie. Differentiation should be more than hollow words, slogans, and the usual dead leaf catalogues. As the tools of the trade change so must the communications strategy to make the brand stay true to its real mission. In this way, a unique vision can be marketing via authenticity.

    Article Title: Business Education: I've Got My Brand On You
    Photographs: curated by ES

    About The Author
    James D. Roumeliotis is a regular contributor to CAREO. He is a brand management specialist and lives in Montreal.

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