The art, science, and profession of discovering what people think about you and trying to persuade them to have a different view, or reinforcing the one they already have, is called branding.
Sounds simple, but maybe that’s the problem. A branding consultant told me that when his firm was hired to do research and then apply a branding campaign to a particular college, its marketing people warned him that he should not use the words "brand" or "branding" on campus but rather talk about the college’s "image."
The caution was not unwarranted: Over the years, I have cataloged critiques by faculty members of college branding campaigns and have expressed them myself:
- The campaigns hawk dignified universities like commercial products.
- They reduce a complicated institution into simplistic pictures and slogans.
- They make unrealistic or outlandish claims.
- They are a product of higher administration and outsiders, not faculty.
- They divert money that could better be spent on pressing issues.
All of those are valid criticisms of some branding strategies and processes. On the other hand, for most colleges, good, thoughtful, and inclusive branding is not only useful but necessary for our survival.
Parents today—even the polite, nonconfrontational Southern, Midwestern, and Southwestern parents I have dealt with for most of my career—are asking tough questions that can be summed up as: "If I give you my child and my money, will she be unemployed and living in my basement in five years with lots of debt?" Now more than ever, family loyalty to the college within nearest driving distance is not automatic; students are comparison-shopping and need to be sold on any given institution.
To those parents and students, our answer can no longer be the one that higher education has given since the end of World War II: We’re college; trust us. Instead we must aggressively make the case to the public that we continue to be the best mechanism for advancing not only civilization but also their children’s future.
Branding does indeed create a "simple" set of images, words, attributes, and ideas that a college wants to propagate about itself. In good branding, however, the initial brand is an entry to learn more about complexity, an invitation to explore further and deeper.
Astute branding is also realistic: A high-cost, life-changing purchase and its description should match. Competent branders, rather than impose false images or overinflated claims, try to find out what makes one college special and attractive.
Another consideration is that branding is just a technical term for something faculty members already do. Many of us try to clarify and translate our expertise to make it understandable to different audiences: undergraduate and graduate students, majors and nonmajors, internal administrators and those at peer or aspirational institutions, and the public.
Capable branding professionals know that meaningful faculty consultation and involvement are vital. After all, the brand is meaningless if the people at the front line of the college don’t believe in it. Problems arise when marketing budgets are insufficient to conduct a full set of surveys and focus groups of faculty, and when many faculty members don’t participate because of their antipathy toward branding.
In addition, branding research can uncover negative or faulty impressions, which you should know about so you can address them. When the marketing team at my College of Media & Communication, at Texas Tech University, surveyed high-school students and guidance counselors, they found a concern among some families from small towns in western Texas that the university was "too big." On the other hand, they knew that graduating seniors and young alumni said that faculty and staff members "really cared about me" and "took the time to get to know me."
As a result, we now emphasize to local high schoolers and their parents that while Texas Tech allows students to get the benefits of a large university, our smaller academic home college is where "everybody knows your name." If we had not thought about our brand image, we would not be managing that issue.
So what should faculty members do to encourage good branding of their institution?
First, get in the game. Faculty leaders should not just accept service on the committee to select a branding firm. They should meet with administrators, offer enthusiastic support for good branding, and volunteer to take an active role. Showing and telling that you want to help lead, not just serve, will register that you want to be a principal, not a distraction or obstacle.
Second, if you care enough to critique, develop some expertise yourself. Scholars and professionals have studied branding and published on it at length and depth. You would not express strong opinions on Sanskrit to a Sanskrit scholar without having learned something about it. Likewise, branding professionals will take you seriously if you have taken their craft seriously and know what you are talking about.
Third, be realistic and think broadly. A branding professional described to me an awkward moment when he was conducting a focus group of faculty members. One passionately argued that his area—in which he was the only instructor and had just a handful of majors—should be among the focuses of the recruiting video.
When getting involved in branding efforts at the institutional level, see your role not as fighting for your turf but rather as creating an attractive brand for the audience you want to reach. Simultaneously, you should plan how your area can help attract your own subset of the audience.
The faculty response should not be to reject the vital enterprise but to make branding better through positive engagement. That is an old point but a familiar one to a student of the classical humanities. The poet Horace noted 2,000 years ago that "many heroes lived before Agamemnon, but all are buried in endless night because they lacked a dedicated poet." I have joked that colleges should announce that they are hiring dedicated poets to compose epics and panegyrics to sing faculty members’ praises. Branding professionals would then show up on campus in Homeric robes, strumming lyres.
Jests aside, I think good branding is the modern equivalent of the ode to the heroes and the heroic among us. We have everything to gain from good branding, and the stakes are too high to think we can ignore our image and our audience anymore.
David D. Perlmutter is dean and a professor at the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" column in The Chronicle.