When prospective students think about your institution, what’s the first word that comes to mind? What about their parents? What about current students? Alumni? You might have some educated guesses based on anecdotal evidence, but how reliable are those guesses?
As over two decades of research and consulting in Canadian higher ed has taught us, institutions get one—maybe two—words to be associated with in the imaginations of any given person, especially a prospective student. This speaks to the importance of top-of-mind associations when it comes to your institution’s brand. The question then becomes: what word do you want to “own”?
“That’s easy,” say countless higher ed professionals across the country. “We want to own (no, we already own) the word Excellence and beyond that, Excellence in teaching and research.” There’s no doubting the importance of these top-of-mind associations in higher ed, but the tough reality is that your school probably doesn’t own these terms in the minds of students, and it isn’t going to start owning them any time soon, because nearly every institution strives for these associations. They’re powerful, but not unique.
What now? We can start by looking at an institution like Simon Fraser University, which has focused on the word “Engagement” and set out with a clear plan of branding itself around the strategic repetition of that word. By doing so, SFU has turned itself not only into an engaged university, but the engaged university.
To be clear, SFU’s concentration on the word “engagement” is informed by an overall institutional mission and a promise that the school is willing to make to every one of its students. A robust, meaningful mission is key to any institution. However, schools must also work with the understanding that in order for a prospective student to want to learn more about this mission, an institution must also learn to shape that split-second moment of recognition that can define its identity in many students’ minds.
So how can your institution work to foster a clear, committed, and unique top-of-mind association as part of its identity? To start, you need to understand where you already stand in the minds of your key audiences. That’s where it’s important to perform research that can help you get to the crux of how your school is already perceived.
The trap of the good
In our many years of performing branding research in Canadian higher ed, we’ve learned a key lesson about top-of-mind associations:
If you don’t work strategically to choose a word and commit to owning it,
you will have one assigned to you.
Our research has also taught us that the word institutions get stuck with tends to be the same one every time. And based on the title of this article, you can probably guess what it is, in all its blandness.
The following images are taken from real branding studies and are representative of a larger trend. You will probably be able to spot the common theme right away. To create these word clouds, we asked real students to tell us the first word that came to mind when they thought of a particular institution, and here’s what we found.
You might also notice that for each example, the size of “Good” gets smaller as other, more preferable words grow to match or exceed it. And while “Good” might look slightly smaller for institution #3 compared to #4, it is also worth noting that the more prominent associations found in #4 are more specific and concrete (arts, animation, and creative) than those of institution #3 (beautiful, welcoming, great).
Which brings us to our final point, which is:
When managing your brand’s top-of-mind association,
do it for the lesser good!
For these reasons and more, we recommend that your school work to escape the “trap of the good” that awaits any institution that doesn’t manage its top-of-mind association in an intentional, strategic way. That means having the research to tell you the truth about where you currently stand, and a strategy that clearly spells out what you’d like to be—instead of just good.
What To Do
Take time to meet with you colleagues to discuss how you can work together to improve your school’s brand in an evidence-based way. Talk about where you might already be in the eyes of prospective students, and where you might want to go in the future. Just as importantly, ask yourself (and your colleagues), “If there’s one word we’d like to ‘own,’ what would it be?” This can be a very challenging and engaging exercise, because you need to keep the term not only broad enough to encompass your entire school community, but also focused enough to be meaningful to your target audiences.