By Dr. Sean Carton, Andres Zapata, and Pete Meacham
Edited by Matt McDermott

Remember the old TV commercials for laundry detergents? The ones where the name brand would go up against the nefarious Brand X. The faceless, nameless, thoroughly unappealing Brand X. It served as the foil for the hero product. Everything it could do, our name brand detergent could do brighter, whiter, better. Unfortunately, higher ed is filled with its fair share of Brand X’s.

Brand X was the patron saint of average. The iconic patsy for the unimpressive. A boring, underwhelming control against which every name brand came out on top. Really, Brand X’s biggest sin wasn’t its lack of quality. It was its inherent lack of impact. In a crowded market, that’s a death sentence. Unfortunately, higher ed is filled with its fair share of Brand X’s, schools that have failed to craft a message that sets them apart from their competition. Schools that haven’t figured out how to reach students and spark action. Schools anchored by inertia—whether unknowingly or through internal politics—unable to keep up with the quickly changing trends and attitudes in higher ed.

They’re University X’s. The educational marketplace is filled with them. And with the growing popularity of online and for-profit education, it’s getting even fuller. In today’s increasingly competitive world of higher education, any institutional communications or admissions professional who isn’t fighting every day—heck, every minute—against the prospect of their institution becoming the next University X is surrendering to a bleak future indeed.

Wondering if your school may already be venturing into University X territory? Try the Thumb Test. Place your thumb over the logo on an ad, a website, a poster—anything that you use to market your school. Now ask yourself honestly, “Would our target audiences know without a doubt that this is promoting our school?” If you can’t answer “Yes”, then it’s time to get to work. A word of warning: It won’t be as straightforward as you might think.

A school’s brand is more than just branding.

“Branding” is one of those words that many use. But few agree on its definition. To some, branding means a mark or a visual representation of an organization, a logo or a typeface. To others, branding is that ineffable feeling you get from an organization—whether good or bad. Other folks see branding as something that has to do with building awareness for a product or company.

The reality is that none of these are entirely right. Just about everyone agrees that a brand has personality, emotion, experience; it has characteristics, values and attributes that need to be defined, honored and protected.

But we want you to view your brand beyond the conventional definition. For too long, schools have relied on the marketing department to nurture and protect the brand. But there’s a problem with that. The marketing folks aren’t the ones responding to a student’s request for more information. They’re not the ones responsible for guiding how a professor interacts with students. They’re not the one’s working to create new platforms for distance learning. Every encounter a student or stakeholder has with the school beyond marketing initiatives plays just as important a role in brand perception as the marketing effort itself.

To survive, college brands must exist beyond the marketing department. Beyond the admissions department. Beyond even the administration. It has to be an all-encompassing commitment to look at every student touch point, every faculty interaction, and every stakeholder conversation as a larger part of the total brand. And while many universities have wonderful brands in the traditional sense, they’re shortsighted; many are unable to see their brand as more than the marketing they use to promote student enrollment. While they may not look like University X, these universities sure act like University X.

Wondering how your school can break out of the University X vortex, or avoid becoming a University X in the first place? We have a few ideas. Based on our decades of experience marketing, managing and teaching in the higher education marketplace, this book approaches the greatest challenges facing colleges today from a variety of angles, melding art and science, emotion and data. We propose that a school’s brand will live or die based on the ability to find new allies inside the university—and new inspiration outside the industry.

Easy to say. Much harder to do. We have to face reality: if you can’t look at your brand as being something bigger than branding, it will flop. Worse yet, no one will even pay enough attention to notice it has flopped.

So here’s our effort to expand your idea of what brand really means. We’ve centered our extended definition of brand in these chapters:

Strategy: This chapter covers marketing approaches that support your brand in the more traditional and tactical sense. Along with design and media, you’ll have the most control over this. It’s essential you get it right.

Design: Yes, this is the visual side of your brand, but we dive deeper. We tackle the idea of design from multiple perspectives: brand perception, consumer action, credibility-building, interactive best practices, and more.

Media: This is as much about the choice of media channels you use as it is how you use them. And while it might not seem obvious, how you use and manage your media directly impacts your brand. Schools that use media in new or more efficient ways tend to have a strong brand to match. How you approach your media is as much a barometer of your brand’s health as it is a contributor to its success.

Data: It’s no surprise. Data is driving more and more of our decisions. How we collect it, how we use it, and how we protect it have a greater impact on how a brand is perceived, internally and externally, than even a decade ago. And with continual emphasis on online transactions and education, its role will only get bigger.

Recruitment: Brand is threaded throughout the recruitment process, particularly from the promotional side. But it’s just as contingent on the responsiveness, flexibility and cooperation of the various departments tasked with handling the student relationship as it is with the marketing materials themselves. Brand perception can break down at any point in the student decision process if everyone isn’t on the same page.

Big Ideas: These are our ruminations not only on the state of higher ed marketing, but on business in general. We’ll explore some of the latest evolutions in how people are pursuing advanced educations—and offer some suggestions for how to prepare your school (and by extension, its brand) for a future that brings the most disruptive changes our industry has ever seen.

This book is meant to be the vaccine for University X. Within these pages you’ll find strategies and tactics for smart, integrated marketing, sound recruitment strategies, and the information you’ll need to guide the ongoing choreography of data and emotion. We hope these ideas, strategies, and techniques will catalyze your efforts to better identify your audience, improve awareness, drive admissions, and enhance the world’s perception of your institution.

Welcome! And say goodbye to University X.