What Is a Brand?

Posted: September 8, 2022

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

At VisionPoint, we define an institution’s brand like this:

Your brand is what people collectively think, feel, and say about your institution.

When you understand brand that way, a few important considerations become clear, and these insights are fundamental to how we deliver our core brand service offerings:

  • An institution doesn’t own its brand. A brand isn’t a fixed or solid thing that can be “owned,” anyway. A brand is fluid by definition it’s an idea that exists in the minds of the institution’s stakeholders and audiences (students, faculty, staff, leadership, alumni, prospective students, prospective parents, donors, legislators, etc.). It’s their collective perception the feelings, hopes, expectations, concerns, and value judgments they associate with the institution that ultimately are the brand.
  • That means an institution cannot fully control its brand; it can only influence its brand by carefully and faithfully shaping people’s perceptions through words and actions.
  • Brand work requires commitment because a strong brand is a collection of coherent, consistent experiences with an institution over time. People sometimes talk about “brand equity,” or the value a strong brand has in the marketplace. Brand equity is the byproduct of an institution’s effort, over a long period of years, to make and then deliver on a clear set of compelling promises. When an institution consistently articulates its promises in compelling terms and then delivers on those promises consistently over time, earned confidence and enthusiasm gradually accumulates. That’s what brand equity is all about.
  • Brand equity goes hand in hand with brand integrity and authenticity. A brand isn’t just about rhetoric; it’s about substance. Unless institutions walk their talk, the talk falls flat.
  • If you understand all the above, then it’s also obvious the brand is not (just) a logo or even a set of creative guidelines. The brand is what that logo signifies in the minds of an institution’s audiences. It’s the perception we’re trying to shape and protect by use of those guidelines and resources. A visual mark is an important brand element, but it’s only as powerful as what it represents.
  • There is a deep relationship between brands and campaigns, but they are not the same thing. Brands are permanent and universal, while campaigns are temporary and specific. Campaigns are ways of expressing brand promises to particular audience segments at particular times. Think about the iconic consumer brand Coca-Cola. The Coke brand promises happiness – Coke makes you happy. That promise has timeless, universal appeal. But the campaigns Coke uses to promise happiness to its customers have changed frequently throughout the years, injecting new life into the “same old promise” in ways that keep the brand relevant, fresh, and alive.
  • Because the best brands are built on timeless, universal promises, they don’t need to change often (or ever) in order to be effective. Sadly, higher education institutions try to change their brands too often. Institutions tend to get tired of their brand efforts far faster than their audiences do – in fact, we would argue institutions tend to tire of their brand efforts long before any true brand identity has taken root. Campaigns are the instruments that should change periodically, combating fatigue and engaging with needs of the moment, but staying power is a signature characteristic of the strongest brands. For this reason, when asked to help “brand” an institution, we often tend to steer schools not toward characteristics that are “new” and “different” but toward characteristics that are rooted and resilient with lasting relevance. They’re likely the things institutions “already knew” about themselves but were failing, for whatever reason, to fully embrace.
  • An agency like VisionPoint can’t simply give an institution a “new brand.” We can draw the brand out into the open, clarify it, distill it, articulate it, validate it, influence it, and help cultivate enthusiasm for it in ways that an institution couldn’t do by itself. But an institution’s brand is deeply intertwined with its institutional identity: the things an institution is and does. For brand work to make any difference, people need to embody their defining characteristics with authenticity and deliver on a set of timeless, universal promises with consistency, creativity, and enthusiasm over a long period of time. And people tend to be more enthusiastic about things they themselves make and discover than about things they’re given by others. As we said above, an institution can’t own its brand, but unless it owns its effort to shape the brand over time, then a strong brand will never take root.

Lastly (and this might sound controversial), “branding” in higher education is not primarily about differentiation. There are certain things people just expect of quality educational offerings and institutions. For example, community colleges must be affordable. Small residential colleges are built to emphasize hands-on teaching and mentorship. Large public online offerings exist to be accessible and convenient. MBA programs exist to cultivate leaders with skills and perspectives relevant to today’s businesses. And every single institution believes it has exclusive rights to the promise of caring faculty and staff.

These qualities are important – institutions should speak to audiences’ expectations. The goal is not to find some unique characteristic or promise that no other institution can claim. Authenticity and creativity are much more important than differentiation. After all, how different are various automobiles, really? Yet we have different associations with BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, and the rest, not because their products are vastly different but because of their consistency of message and creativity over time. Or put another way, differentiation tends to be an effect or byproduct of strong branding, not the other way around.

The problem with most higher ed branding isn’t that schools tend to share traits and promises. It’s that most schools rely on cliches to express those promises and try to change their core promises too often. Our conviction is that brands work best when institutions reach beyond cliches to speak to audiences’ expectations with creativity and then deliver on those expectations in ways that surprise and delight. That’s our goal when helping institutions define and express their brands.

Why Does Branding Matter in Higher Education? 

Years ago, the “promise” of higher education wasn’t something that was really in question. It was generally accepted that a college education was an inherently valuable, life-changing pursuit. Institutions didn’t have to work too hard to recruit students. In fact, the idea that schools might need to “brand” themselves, to “sell themselves” to “customers,” was almost offensive. Shouldn’t prospective students be “selling” themselves to the schools in hopes of being admitted?

Times have changed. Today, the vast majority of institutions are forced to fight like never before for the attention of a dwindling number of college-bound prospective students at all degree levels. With the exception of the well-endowed privileged elites, most institutions depend on enrollments to fund institutional activity, but there simply aren’t enough students to go around. What’s more, the recognized value and importance of a traditional college education is no longer a given. There have never been more viable alternatives to college (at every degree level) and never more questions about whether institutional higher education is “worth it.”

That’s to say nothing of the goals most institutions have not just to recruit enough students to survive but to cultivate and nurture the diverse, thriving campus communities they believe are essential to a healthy educational endeavor. It’s become hard enough just to hit application and enrollment numbers, let alone to shape classes in ways that promote the values of justice, equity, inclusion, empathy, and global citizenship that most institutions hold as fundamental.

To succeed in the face of these challenges, institutions have to be more successful at enticing, attracting, and then serving their students exceptionally well. That is the reason we feel so strongly at VisionPoint about the importance of strong brands for our clients. Take, for example, our brand work with College of The Albemarle:

As we’ve established, defining and then committing to a foundational set of promises, conveyed with creativity and enthusiasm and delivered on with authenticity, is absolutely essential work for institutions who are determined to attract, yield, and serve students more successfully than their competitors. It’s critical for institutions not only to survive but to thrive.

Partner with Us

VisionPoint has had the pleasure of partnering with a variety of institutions for brand work, including University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Northern Virginia Community College.

Interested in having VisionPoint partner with your institution for brand work? Contact us or email us at info@visionpointmarketing.com.