3 easy ways to avoid an institutional brand fail

You've heard it before:

We already know what our students think.
Our committee has already picked the brand strategy that will work best.
We know our school and our students. We don't need external consultation.

These statements go against three core principles of successful PSE brand positioning, which one can find in the following case studies.

No one knows students better than students themselves

Executives at College X, a major Canadian college with large enrolments, wanted to hone their branding to ensure that they could continue to attract the largest possible number of high-quality applicants. When deciding on a creative concept for the school’s viewbook, the steering committee split their votes evenly across three competing concepts and marketing firms.

Since a three-way split had never occurred before on the committee, the institution reached out to Academica Group for advice on how to proceed. We recommended that the school survey a large, representative group of prospective students to help decide which creative concept resonated most with students. The committee didn’t want to fuss with a long drawn out process this late in the game, but since we could give them actionable feedback in about a week, they agreed.

The StudentVu panel is comprised of nearly 5,000 students from across all Canadian provinces and territories and PSE institution types. It has been compiled and curated by a group of industry professionals with decades of combined experience, ensuring that the panel represents not just a small segment of Canada’s prospective students, but all of them.
— Bruce Thompson, Senior Vice President Operations, Academica Group

The panel survey was deployed and the best option stood out clearly. 

Where the committee had reached a deadlock, the StudentVu panel was ready to elect the winning creative concept with more than a 70% majority, giving the committee the clear and actionable information it needed to do what was best for its institution. The committee immediately selected the concept chosen by StudentVu and went on to use it to great success. 

LESSON LEARNED: While it’s tempting to think you know your students better than anyone, remember that you don’t know them better than they know themselves.

Building a great reputation means speaking to different interests through the right channels

Ultimately, it is the student who ends up putting her/his name on an application for your institution and who (hopefully) ends up enrolling in your institution. Yet parents, guidance counsellors, peers, alumni, and a host of other individuals often play major roles in molding public perception of your organization.

Take the example of the University of Y, a major Canadian university with over 25,000 students. This institution decided that it needed a full study of its reputation among both internal and external stakeholders. After being contacted by the university, Academica surveyed university faculty, staff, guidance counsellors, prospective students, and the parents of prospective students to track public awareness of the institution from every possible angle. Further, Academica used a study it had performed five years earlier to track if and how perceptions of the institution had changed over time. Just last year, Academica performed another project with this same university that maintained the ability to chart its progress over multiple years.

Ultimately, the study found that the effectiveness of awareness efforts varied considerably for different groups, and the university used this information to send targeted creative messaging that spoke to the interests of each group. In this instance, testing the effectiveness of different messaging channels was crucial to the success of the effort. While Maclean’s university rankings are important, for example, they tend to reach students primarily through their parents. Promotional materials sent to high schools, on the other hand, often filter through counsellors and teachers before reaching students, and Facebook advertisements are more likely to reach students directly.

What Academica has learned over its long engagement in Canadian PSE is that you should never underestimate the value of testing and understanding the effectiveness of different messaging channels and the stakeholders who most commonly use them. It is both possible and desirable for many different groups to support your institution for reasons that are near and dear to each of them. In the end, the University of Y received information and analysis on its public image that allowed it to attract better students, improve its reputation among the general public, and solicit increasing support from alumni and donors all in one concerted effort.

Professionals involved in marketing and communications and/or senior academic and administrative portfolios will almost certainly have come up against the “We’re not the McUniversity” argument, which implies that a PSE institution should not shift its mission in response to the changing needs and perceptions of incoming students. Indeed, the question of how much an institution should respond to student demand and how much it should work to guide that demand is an important PSE discussion point. We asked Rod Skinkle to comment on this, as he has likely been surveying applicants to PSE longer than any other individual in Canada[1].  When asked about the philosophical disagreement that might arise around branding in higher ed, he had the following to say:

Yes, this is an important discussion…one that goes right to the heart of what we do—to the purpose of higher education; and, it is too often positioned as a divisive point between academic and administrative values. I have never seen it that way. It is not about changing what we do, at all, or even about catering to applicant whims. It is about understanding your incoming cohorts so that we can position the institution’s strengths in the best possible way, to the largest and most appropriate number of people. It is also about old fashioned fiscal responsibility—where, when, and how are you getting the most bang for your communications buck?
— Rod Skinkle, President and CEO, Academica Group


LESSON LEARNED: Your institution’s reputation does not begin and end with any one group of stakeholders. It’s something being endlessly created and recreated through the interactions that these people have with your multi-channelled creative messaging and with each other. Fostering a positive conversation among these groups means using the right channels in the right way to build the overall conversation that will bring your institution the most success.

Benchmark, Benchmark, Benchmark

Let's say 80% of your regional community associates your institution with high quality and a supportive environment. This might feel like a good cause for celebration, but what happens when you learn that a competing institution not so far away has a 90% rating on these same factors? Understanding your institution’s reputation and perception among key stakeholders only takes on actionable meaning when it is informed by a broader context, because your institution exists in an ecosystem of both competing and supporting institutions. 

Just in the last few years, a major college undertook and enlarged its advertising campaign using television, radio, newspaper, magazine, and outdoor media. Competition was tight among other institutions operating in the region, and the college wanted to pursue a single branding initiative that could simultaneously stimulate enrolment growth, convince community leaders to look at the college as a key contributor to the local economy, increase pride within the institution itself, and help locate and repatriate alumni.

Following a rigorous RFP process, the college selected Academica to consult on its new initiative. It was clear from the outset that the institution’s efforts would not have maximum impact unless they were undertaken with a clear understanding of how the school’s brand positioning played out in an environment with competitors who targeted many of the same students. Our strategic branding study was able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the college’s current positioning in this environment. 12 months later, Academica returned to perform an ad recall study to help determine the exact impact that the college’s branding effort still had 12 months after its initial launch. In the end, the college used this information not only to create new creative messaging, but also to alter the strategy of messaging it already had in place.

LESSON LEARNED: Actionable knowledge about one’s institution does not arise in a vacuum. It requires benchmarking across both space and time, meaning that the institution must be able to measure its success against competing institutions and track its progress from year to year. 

Academica Group combines world-class market research with deep industry experience to provide strategic recruitment, reputation, and retention consulting for higher education.We've been studying what makes higher education tick for over 20 years, and during that time we've stayed ahead of the curve. We convert data into intelligence, and information into insight.


At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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