Why don’t colleges brand?

October 22, 2007

The first thing I need to point out before I get too far into this post is that I borrow my ideas here liberally from David Aaker and Michael Porter. Of course I always do, so this is nothing new.

There are four main reasons.

1. They don’t understand what “branding” is: Like many non-academic organizations most colleges and universities think branding is something garish. Branding is about defining what an organization stands for, not a brightly colored logo.
2. They are “above” branding – Some even give the impression that they think branding is a little dirty and that an institution of higher learning should be above that sort of thing.
3. The college is trying to define their brand (or more likely just trying to market themselves), but they don’t know how: There is no shame in this. An effort is being made, but they are not trained marketers. Many times college administrators know they need to improve their marketing efforts, but they simply don’t know how. They are people trained in running colleges and running admissions departments. There isn’t any reason that they would automatically be great at branding.
4. They choose the wrong message: This is the next stage for college branding misfires. They know they need better branding. They make a plan. And it fails because they choose the wrong message. A very high percentage of marketing messages from colleges and universities center around one of the following themes: We have great professors; We have great students; We have a great campus. As I always tell clients those thing may all be true, but they are branding differentiators. The don’t end up leaving an impression in the mind of potential students because all college say the same thing.

Now, how colleges and universities should start the branding process will be the subject of my next post.



2 Responses to “Why don’t colleges brand?”

  1. Seth, thank you for your very interesting article. I, too, leverage Michael E. Porter’s ideas.

    I believe Porter would say most universities compete in many businesses. For example, Harvard University competes in: Four-year Undergraduate Liberal Arts Education Services; MBA school services; and many other academic businesses – as well as the Business Magazine industry. Its Harvard Business Review magazine, I believe, is great at branding. And college football teams are masters at branding. Maybe the business units within a college that are profit-driven businesses are very good at branding, while other college businesses, mostly the academic business units, are not. College branding, in general, is more difficult because the profit incentive of the professors is more aligned with self branding as individual consultants and authors, rather than business unit promotion and joint branding. For example, you mentioned that you borrow your ideas liberally from David Aaker and Michael Porter, rather than from the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business and Harvard University.

  2. Guy Says:


    As you correctly point a typical university has many different venues they are competing in. In general the business divisions often times are more advanced in their branding efforts, but not necessarily better at it. Much of time the business unit will be in stage 3 or 4 and the rest of the college will still be stuck in stage 1 or 2.


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