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Let Go to Let It Grow
Let Go to Let It Grow

How to create a culture of branding on campus

By Tony Proudfoot


University of Arizona

Building a university brand is not like painting a house, but both pursuits require similar preparation.

I have done both, so I write from experience. Nearly every weekend during the summer of 2000, my wife and I scraped and sanded, filled holes, removed and reattached gutters, and replaced sheets of weather-damaged siding. The work was hot and unrewarding. We often had to nudge each other outside in the Indiana humidity to continue. By August, the project looked worse than ever, but our fear of becoming the bane of the neighborhood motivated us. Finally, early on a September Saturday morning, we opened a 5-gallon bucket of Olympic’s Sea Mist paint and applied the first brushstroke. It was gorgeous. Three days and two coats later, we were done. The paint came with a 10-year warranty, but it still looks new more than 16 years later. Our work has endured not because of the paint job but because of the summer’s worth of labor beneath it.

How long will your university’s brand endure? Will it thrive and produce value long after a leadership transition? Or will it disintegrate during a crisis? Are higher education marketers doing enough of the painstaking foundational work to ensure that their institutional brand will not only survive but thrive?

At the University of Arizona, we asked ourselves these questions as we entered the second phase of the university’s first brand strategy: weaving the brand into the fabric of the institution to produce long-term value. Our answers led us to an approach designed to build a brand that will last.

Dig deeper to build long-term value

The traditional higher education branding project generally starts with research and discovery gathered from surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The marketing team, and often its consultants, takes the volumes of information and begins its work, usually behind closed doors. A few months later, the team presents two or three creative platforms to leadership. One is chosen, audience-tested, refined, and launched. Campus marketers attend a training session to learn how to comply with the new brand. Then the institution moves forward with an improved and more compelling market position. I’ve participated in and led such a process many times. It works, often producing immediate, appreciable outcomes. It’s beautiful paint. But building a brand is about creating long-term value, not just rapid results. We need to dig deeper to create an enduring brand strategy. Two cautionary tales illustrate why:

  • One university combined the traditional branding process with institutional strategic planning and accomplished incredible goals in less than a decade, including record giving, enrollment growth, state legislative support, and increased visibility. Then the president left, and the bottom fell out of the brand. Today, that institution is adrift and searching for a president, chief marketing officer, and more than half of its deans. The brand positioning didn’t last, because it was viewed as the president’s pet project rather than a university asset.
  • After successfully launching a new brand strategy, another university’s chief marketing officer (the first in its history) moved to another institution. Soon afterward, the deans began to ask: “Does this mean we don’t have to do branding anymore?” They regarded branding as the CMO’s parochial interest instead of a project to tackle the challenges the institution and its colleges faced.

I wish these examples were exceptions, but ample evidence suggests that they are the rule. Branding is misunderstood at many institutions. According to “Higher Ed Marketing Comes of Age,” a 2014 CMO survey from The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted by SimpsonScarborough, the perceived role of nearly half of college and university marketing and branding shops is to produce brochures, and visual identity work passes for branding at one-third of universities.

An administration ally at my own institution recently described marketing and branding as manipulative, slick, and tricky when trying to express support for my team’s efforts. We have a lot of work to do as advancement practitioners and as a sector.

Stop pushback before it starts

Brand implementations follow a predictable path. They kick off with enthusiasm fueled by clear goals and novel ideas. The creative work invigorates the campus, delivering a sense of immediate impact. But the honeymoon period often ends just as people across campus are expected to adopt and carry out the brand strategy and marketers are aligning the institution’s colleges and units with the master brand. Brand fatigue sets in just as the university begins asking stakeholders to invest more time, talent, and energy into driving change by embracing the brand. The frequent result? Brand growth slows and pushback begins.

After the initial launch of UA’s brand strategy, we found ourselves in this familiar situation. Rather than forge ahead with typical interventions, such as asking university leadership to mandate compliance, we stepped back and posed a fundamental question: Why is brand acceptance a perennial and widespread challenge in higher education? We developed three hypotheses and arrived at conclusions that have produced a new approach.

Marketers hold the brand too tightly. The traditional brand-building process is usually a closed system that limits people’s involvement. Campus participation in the branding process is generally transactional rather than collaborative. But brand-building is also an exercise in change management, which requires the involvement of more people to adopt a new direction and new ideas. Testing creative work with a group of faculty and presenting results to the deans is not enough. You can’t expect people to be excited and get onboard with work that didn’t include them. Conclusion: The brand needs to be co-created under a big tent.

Education branding needs a new mindset. From the beginning, most UA units upheld the most noticeable aspect of the brand platform—the visual direction. But their positioning, messaging, tone, character, and copy remained largely undifferentiated. The mindset on campus was one of visual compliance rather than authentic brand expression. We know that expressive and emotional brands move audiences, but people at UA weren’t feeling it. How could the UA brand inspire our audiences if we were simply asking people to follow new rules that they had no part in creating? Conclusion: We needed people to identify with the brand and to see themselves and their work in it.

We assume too much (and we get defensive about our work). Marketers often assume people understand and value branding. We view any holdup in adoption as defiance. But I’ve never heard an attendee at a campus brand launch say: “I don’t really know what you’re talking about, and I’m not personally prepared to act on your request, but I do want to help.” Professionals don’t like to appear out of the loop or as if they don’t “get it,” so their comments at such events are typically superficial and unedifying. Even worse, the marketers who create the new brand too often interpret questions as opposition. We need to create space for everyone to connect the university’s brand with their work. Conclusion: We must encourage people to participate and understand the brand from their vantage point within the institution rather than only from a central marketing perspective.

We were initially overwhelmed by the possible implications of our hypotheses. What if no one wanted to participate? How would we manage deliverables in an uncertain process? What if involving more people led to terrible ideas?

A strategic shift

Despite our concerns, the senior leadership and senior marketing staff embraced this new vision for growing brand value. A marketing colleague informed me that our approach dovetails with a different branding framework for the nonprofit sector proposed by Nathalie Laidler-Kylander and Julia Shepard Stenzel in their book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity (see sidebar).

In writing the book, the authors spoke with nonprofit leaders across many causes, not including higher education, and exposed familiar-sounding criticisms: concern that branding signals a move toward for-profit values, assumptions that it’s about vanity instead of substance, and worries that concentrating on competitiveness will diminish an organization’s focus on social responsibility. Laidler-Kylander and Stenzel also determine that marketing is too often used as a tool to meet immediate fund­raising goals rather than building brand value among nonprofit stakeholders. The first two components of the authors’ IDEA model—brand integrity and brand democracy—resonated with our hypotheses.

Considering a valuable outside perspective as well as our assumptions about the failures of branding efforts led to four strategies that changed our approach to building UA’s brand. We decided to:

  • Relax our grip on the brand and engage the campus to refine and enhance the university’s positioning, especially the tools that support it;
  • Change the brand mindset on campus from fixed and compliant to iterative and expressive;
  • Develop positioning platforms that differentiate colleges and units from their competitors while remaining aligned with the university brand; and
  • Increase resources available for digital content strategy through a decentralized yet participatory process.
From theory to practice

Three projects demonstrate how our approach is changing the way we are building UA’s brand.

UA Creative. A cross-campus team of more than 50 marketing directors, faculty members, writers, designers, videographers, and other creative staff are honing the university’s brand promise, curating its best stories and proof points, honing visual expression, and establishing guidance for marketing research. Early on, participants thought about the brand deeply and differently. Involving so many people means the endeavor has not always been efficient. It has been effective, however, in changing how people think about what they do. Now, clear brand expression lies not with one person or office but with a broad group of colleagues, as well as with campus leaders. The UA brand is growing stronger because staff are taking ownership and possess the nuanced understanding they need to express the brand clearly and with greater focus and finesse.

College- and Unit-Level Positioning. UA’s marketing and brand management team members are leading each college through the development of individual positioning platforms, eventually working to the departmental level. We function as expert facilitators, responsible for ensuring that all positioning work is effective and consistent with the master brand, while communications and marketing directors at each college guide the process.

While not perfect, we are moving past the usual tension of colleges and units feeling they need to develop a “special” brand outside the university’s, because we have affirmed their unique place in the world while still adhering to the master brand. More faculty members are deeply engaged, and deans are increasingly invested in this work. We’re talking about how recruiters speak with prospective students about what differentiates UA from other institutions, how development officers shape conversations with donors, and how alumni relations staff engage graduates.

UA Digital. Our central web team creates tools for units to easily design responsive, brand-aligned, and conversion-driven sites. UA Sites, for instance, functions like the website-building service SquareSpace, but the platform is tailored for our campus. Our central repository of developer tools includes web elements and code that anyone on campus can use. Developers from across the university meet every Friday afternoon to produce tools that units will find irresistible. When participants build functionality or features for any campus project, they share the finished code on UA Sites.

These tools have given units the ability to quickly make improvements on their websites and reflect the brand. Requests for standalone web projects are diminishing while conversations about metrics, conversions, and expressing the brand through content are growing.

These examples illustrate a departure from the traditional process. Central marketing and units are working together to create, clarify, and express the brand. Questions, confusion, and objections are discussed and addressed as people develop strategies and tools. The result: Everyone understands the final product.

No one owns the brand, but everyone must believe

Rather than the marketing and brand management team being solely responsible for the brand, we have hundreds of voices—senior leaders, deans, faculty, and staff—working to build, clarify, and express it.

We believe UA’s brand strategy will endure because our university community, not a small group of marketers, is building it and guiding how it evolves. The collective effort is a shared vision that is strengthening our work and producing value. We haven’t tried to answer every question or solve every problem before executing, but the process has elevated the effectiveness of our work because people understand and believe in the why and the how of the brand strategy. It is built on a deep belief in who we are and what we stand for—just like all strong brands. 

About the Author Tony Proudfoot Tony Proudfoot

Tony Proudfoot is the associate vice president of marketing and brand management at the University of Arizona. He has been building higher education brands for 20 years, previously serving at Indiana and Ball State universities.




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