Building Your Brand Honestly and Coherently

In a guest post today, John M. Baworowsky writes about how to authentically market a college—something he says will help attract students who are a good fit. Mr. Baworowsky, vice president for enrollment management at Dominican University of California, is one of several professionals writing occasional guest posts on Head Count this year.

American campuses have been investing a lot in branding and marketing efforts these days. This is evident in the proliferation of staff members with new titles, such as a “vice president for marketing,” who are hired to work in partnership with the institution’s vice president for enrollment management. I believe campuses are having important discussions about marketing and branding, not because they lead to the creation of new cabinet-level positions, but because conversations are occurring about accurately conveying the student experience.

Enrollment and marketing professionals strive to understand the student experience on their campuses so that they can encapsulate that experience into a set of bullet points or a narrative that can be used to attract future students. I have seen this firsthand—as a consultant working with colleges to define their brands and as an official working on a branding project on my own campus, Dominican University of California.

In addition, retention officers want to understand the student experience so that they can lead efforts to improve the outcomes of those experiences. “Reselling the customer” is a common theme across American campuses—just look at the number of programs for sophomores and juniors designed to add value and keep upper-class students enrolled.

I recently read a book simply titled Coherence, by Richard H. Bailey (Third Satellite Communications). The subtitle caught my eye: How Telling the Truth Will Advance Your Cause. It made me think about my own efforts to effectively market my school. I define “effective” not in terms of recruiting a specific number of students, but rather by attracting the right students by accurately portraying my institution’s features and benefits.

In his book, Bailey puts an interesting twist on the discussion by writing that our brands are defined by our students and other stakeholders. He writes that customer experience is our brand. I think this is an interesting way to approach the idea. It requires an understanding that a brand is not a marketing slogan or theme but rather the collective experiences of our students and alumni.

Bailey further postulates that social networking has allowed students, prospective students, alumni, and others to instantly comment on their individual experiences with the institution. So social media and the Web allow our customers greater voice in telling others about our brand.

While I would agree that consumers can influence the perception of our brand, I would argue that it is our responsibility to market our institutions in such a way that prospective students can quickly understand the values they represent, the key benefits of our educational and extracurricular programs, and, ultimately, the value our students get for their investment of time and money.

In other words, I’m not ready to abdicate my responsibilities to market and build our institutional image.

It is no surprise that research by Noel-Levitz and others shows that students use the Web to determine if an institution meets their particular interests and needs. This begins with our institutional Web sites and continues to social-networking sites such as Facebook. As someone who wants to effectively market to students, I think it is important to present our institution in a way easily understood by prospective students.

Further, using Bailey’s terminology, we want to have coherence between what we say about ourselves and the students’ actual experiences.

This is really hard and important work, as both the ethical and financial stakes are high. I think it is really hard work because in building a brand, we want that brand to be unique enough to set us apart from our competition. It is important work because we want a student to accurately determine if the institution is a good match to his or her own academic preparedness, interests, and desires.

The financial implications are high because we want a marketing campaign that encourages students to enroll as well as to continue on to graduation.

For example, Dominican’s brand is built on consumers’ confidence that we will offer personal attention, small classes, great professors, and a beautiful campus environment. We learned that this is our brand from careful conversations with our students, faculty,  and administrators. I am using these brand identifiers as the raw materials to build an honest and effective marketing effort.

What is an effective way to build that marketing campaign? I liken it to creating a sandbox. I want to develop an overall theme and physical design where everyone at the institution can coherently and uniformly include information about their programs. Inside the sandbox we create the Web site, social media, print materials, and advertising. Like a real sandbox, there should be lots of room for creativity, and it should be fun.

As marketers, we can’t know everything about our institutions—but we can build a platform or template that our internal colleagues, such as admission staff and faculty members, can use to help us build a brand image.

Once built, the sandbox should be inviting to prospective students and their influencers, too. They should find it an interesting place to learn about our institution. They should be able to bring big and important questions to us and have them answered by our words and images.

The sandbox should be intentionally designed to provide context and guide readers or viewers as they form opinions about our brand. And finally, the way we convey ourselves should be both unique and true to ourselves. In Bailey’s terms, there should be coherence.

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