U for sale: branding in higher ed

As competition increases, colleges and universities are ramping up efforts to brand themselves.

by Emma Nelson

Minnesota’s largest advertising agency sits in the Ford Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Where Model Ts were once lowered from the ceiling and assembled piece-by-piece, advertising professionals now represent clients like Target Corp., Kraft Foods — and the University of Minnesota.

Employees at Olson developed the University’s Driven to Discover brand here in 2005 as part of an effort to increase awareness of the school’s mission.

Experts say universities began branding themselves 15 to 20 years ago, but it has only become crucial for universities to identify and sell themselves in the past five years.

“The [University] has done a great job of getting ahead of the curve compared to other universities,” said Ann Strong, an account director at Olson, who manages the University’s brand. “Really looking at the bigger picture and knowing who their community is. It’s not just recruiting students, but it’s the public. Public perception matters.”

In higher education, competition is increasing for everything from legislative dollars and research grants to top students and faculty. In response, many schools are thinking of themselves as businesses and of their stakeholders as customers. With the rise of for-profit colleges in the U.S. and strengthened higher education overseas, colleges and universities nationwide must make themselves heard in order to survive.

Building a brand

When Lisa Meyer came to the University of Minnesota Foundation in 2006, she noticed one thing was missing: branding.

Meyer, the University’s vice president for marketing and communications, said when approaching donors, it’s important to talk about more than need.

“They want to associate themselves with something bigger than themselves,” she said.

The $11.5 million Driven to Discover brand was developed by Ann Aronson, assistant vice president of marketing and communications, in partnership with Olson. Aronson worked in marketing at Target Corp. for 12 years before being hired by the University.

It was important for the University to develop a comprehensive brand to unite its disparate parts, Aronson said.

“Various entities can still have their unique messages and get those out,” she said. “But it’s a lot more powerful when there is one brand.”

Aronson said research to develop the brand included meeting with about 50 focus groups and 60 individuals across the University. In the end, she said, “driven” and “discovery” stood out.

“A brand is not a logo; it’s not a tagline,” she said. “A brand really has to be emotional; it has to express the ‘why’ of what we do.”

The University’s marketing department partners with the University of Minnesota Foundation, which manages private donations to the University, and other units and colleges on their own branding efforts, all of which fall under the University-wide brand.

The creative approach to the brand is tailored to a specific goal each year — this year it’s the University’s $1.2 billion legislative budget request.

The campaign, on print, online and social media platforms, often targets public opinion, which is crucial as state appropriations have declined in recent years.

Other schools have similar strategies of targeting community support.

“[You] work with those that are in your corner,” said Vince Sweeney, vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “… strengthen your bonds with the people that are with you and make sure that they’re with you through thick and thin.”

In order to accomplish this year’s goals, the Driven to Discover brand is receiving $2.5 million in funding, more than half from the Minnesota Foundation — more than ever before.

What’s in a name?

When the economy went down, so did 2009 funding for Driven to Discover.

The next year, overall perception of the University dropped.

“It showed marketing actually works,” Aronson said.

University marketing departments often look at public opinion of their institution to measure their brand’s success.

But Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, said while public opinion is crucial in legislative funding decisions, marketing has its downside.

“Marketing is kind of tricky because you don’t want higher ed to seem like any other commercial product,” she said. “You want to believe it is something wholly different and of a higher purpose and value.”

Nationwide, some institutions have literally renamed themselves in order to consolidate and build their brand.

In 2005, New York City’s New School University partnered with branding firm Siegel and Gale to unite its eight colleges under one name.

“All of those names, they had their own discreet audiences, and they were well-branded to a point,” said Peter Taback, vice president for communications and external affairs.

But then-university president Bob Kerrey, who arrived at the school in 2001, thought the central identity of the university was “somewhat lacking,” Taback said.

The institution became The New School, a name that was incorporated with the existing names of its colleges. For example, Parsons School of Design — the school’s flagship college — became Parsons The New School for Design.

As one of the top design schools in the nation, Parsons — and the Parsons brand — are valuable in the identity of the institution as a whole, Taback said.

“We want it to be clear that The New School is a design-led university. … Parsons is The New School.”

Trouble in paradise

Branding is one solution for the perfect storm colleges are finding themselves in today.

The convergence of technology, economic conditions, public criticism of tuition costs and global competition is a major threat to higher education, said Tim Westerbeck, president and founder of the higher education consulting firm Eduvantis.

These “big, disruptive forces,” he said, have made it necessary for schools to become more competitive and strategic.

Both public and private institutions have experienced funding losses in recent years, but at state-funded institutions, the outlook is especially grim.

Nationwide, state spending on higher education fell an average of 3.8 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to Illinois State University’s annual Grapevine Study. In Minnesota, funding dropped 8.3 percent.

Sweeney said cuts in state funding mean universities have had to change their overall funding models.

“We didn’t really have to worry too much about having great relationships with our legislators because 50 years ago the University was funded pretty much as part of the process,” he said.

At the same time, Westerbeck said, consumers nationwide have become more sophisticated. Higher education “customers” — employers, prospective students and donors, for example — have more information at their fingertips and have higher standards than ever before.

“Pity the university that puts out very big-sounding marketing, very grand promises and does not fulfill those with the day-to-day experience of the person who buys that product,” he said.

Taylor Williams, president of the Minnesota Student Association, said University branding didn’t affect his decision to attend the University. But now that he’s aware of the brand, he said, he wants it to continue improving.

“I think there’s a lot of want or need for the University to continue improving its brand, not only from students but also from alumni,” he said. “When I graduate from the University of Minnesota, I want them to continue to position themselves as a world-class university so the value of my degree increases or stays as valuable as it was when I graduated.”

Pieces of the pie

Institutions are competing in many different sectors, Meyer said, and resources everywhere are limited.

Different pools of competitors vie for state funding, research grants, donor gifts and top students and faculty. Other research universities compete for grants from the National Science Foundation, for example, and at the state level, universities compete with social programs, the K-12 system and others.

“We’re competing to try to get a larger piece of a shrinking pie,” Meyer said.

Hausman said she agreed that there’s fierce competition for state dollars but said the University is unique in presenting itself as a brand.

“I don’t think K-12 talks about marketing and branding. I don’t think wastewater infrastructure does,” she said. “They think of it more as educating and personal contact with legislators to tell their story.”

Marketing is also a way for universities to compete with each other — something that has become more pervasive, said Leigh Turner, an associate professor at the University.

“I think that this is something universities are engaged in, this kind of competitive exercise against one other,” he said. “Engaging in social positioning, trying to climb for status.”

Sweeney said American higher education has also experienced increased competition in recent years from institutions overseas. Countries like China and India are becoming more competitive for top U.S. faculty.

“If we don’t recognize that there’s competition out there. We’re going to wake up someday and realize we’re really not what it could have been,” he said, “and we failed to protect something that was pretty special.”

Brave new world

Branding, though on the rise, is just one part of a sea of change in the way universities are self-identified and managed.

By looking to the private sector, Sweeney said, institutions can learn about competing in the marketplace and dealing with financial concerns.

“Really, it’s a recognition that the world has changed for public research institutions,” he said. “And we need to take a more competitive approach to the way we do things.”

Meyer said “lessons from the for-profit marketplace” are increasingly being used in higher education. At the University, President Eric Kaler’s use of “operational excellence” is an example.

The term — which is typically used to describe organizational structures — is used by other institutions, including the University of California-Berkeley.

Driven to Discover began under former University President Bob Bruininks but has been developed further under Kaler, Meyer said.

“We’re using him in every way possible,” she said, “because he’s fabulous at talking about the great University.”

But corporatizing means a major shift for a field unaccustomed to it.

Westerbeck said working with university members to transition into a more business-like environment is part of his consulting work.

“The institution, like any modern business, has to make changes sometimes that go against people’s ideas of tradition or history or just how things are done in an academic environment,” he said.

Most people don’t think of large universities as businesses, he said, despite the fact that they often have multi-billion dollar operating budgets, manage large real estate portfolios and employ thousands of people.

One of the main concerns from faculty members, Meyer said, is the cost of the University’s brand. They can’t always see how the brand benefits them, she said.

Turner said he hasn’t heard much discussion about the brand by faculty members.

“I imagine faculty don’t use it and aren’t that enthusiastic about it just because it doesn’t do a great job of capturing what a university is and what it does,” he said. “It doesn’t really spark any imaginative fires.”

Turner said he does understand the need for universities to market themselves and the costs that can be associated with it. In a competitive hiring climate, for example, marketing can be useful to attract faculty members, he said.

But as universities become more business-like, there’s also a shift in what it means to work in academia.

In recent years, Turner said, he’s seen an increased emphasis on faculty productivity in research and publication rather than on teaching.

“It’s almost like a [tailored] workplace, like any kind of work environment, where there is this focus on quantity, on numbers, on maximizing productivity,” he said. “And things like substance go by the wayside.”