The High Cost of College Branding

May 29, 2016

A few months ago, the University at Buffalo contacted their alumni because they wanted to share their new branding campaign. As one of these alumni and also as an employee who has taken part in another institution’s branding and rebranding, I was interested. How does one brand the flagship school of the SUNY system?

My initial interest in this new campaign quickly turned to disappointment. This is not the way I have come to known and grow with UB. This is not the way I would portray UB to prospective students. I would go so far as to say this one ad even sends out a false message about what the college experience is truly like. Here where? How what? Though it wasn’t this message that made me start questioning, the message is pretty consistent, and not really unique, compared to other branding campaigns of higher education institutions. As a former graphic designer, I believe that the accent font chosen for the word ‘Here’ is not representative of UB. Even as a fine art major, I know that UB isn’t known for its music, theater, and art programs. I also don’t think the historic South Campus, as is pictured in the ad, is the campus more people think of when they think of UB. As unappealing as the architecture is, the North Campus is the one most Buffalonians think of.

I later found out that this rebranding campaign cost UB more than $300K and, worse, it wasn’t even unique.

Inside HigherEd used UB as an example to kick off a discussion about college branding, including the issues of cost, brand recycling, and success. Although UB had hoped to work together with the firms Ologie and Marshall Strategy to create a distinctive campaign, journalist Ellen Wexler pointed out that “Here” is also found 8,000 miles away at the University at Sydney. See the similarities in the ad below. Could the different firms representing the universities of Buffalo and Sydney innocently have stumbled upon similar fonts, same font sizes, ridiculously similar H’s in the word Here, and similar messages? Maybe, but my own experiences lead me to think that there was a bad case of branding plagiarism going on here. When contacted, Ologie declined to comment for the Wexler article so we may never truly know.

A few years ago, the institution I work for chose the firm 160over90 to lead their branding campaign. We didn’t pay nearly as much as UB, but we did pay what would be proportionate to our small institution size. All colleges do when they choose to work with a firm. Although there were focus groups made up of students, alumni, faculty and staff, it seemed as if the firm and marketing unit chose not to listen to the resounding message of the campus- the campaign is not representative of how we think of the campus or how we want others to think of the campus. With messages like ‘Go Exploring, Turn off the Computer’ and ‘Don’t go to College’, as well as neon colors and wispy photos of students frolicking, many college stakeholders were as upset as this person:

What didn’t help the disappointment was a story circulating about an institution located in the U.S. that had a campaign nearly identical to ours, also done by 160over90. College stakeholders were obviously crushed. The debacle was swiftly handled by our college leaders, however. After a nearly complete turnover in the marketing and communications office and a change of mindset, we have a brand new campaign. We are working with a firm, but it is clear that the new voices in our marketing and communications space are driving the conversations. Now, we have a brand that I couldn’t be prouder of. It features an appropriate color scheme, font, and messages. The best part is that it is based on the college name and tradition, so it is incredibly unique.

 

I think the big question is why colleges spend so much money trying to look like everyone else? As the many comments indicate to the Wexler article, colleges suffer from isomorphism. Many higher education scholars have criticized institutions of isomorphism, “Harvardization”, filiopietism, and the like (Christensen and Eyring, 2011, Crow and Dabars, 2015). Crow and Debars (2015) describe this situation in depth; where “institutions have become so highly selective that the vast majority of academically qualified applicants are routinely excluded” (p. 99), “an uncritical approach to the sort of “great books” survey of knowledge advocated by Robert Maynard Hutchins” (pp. 116-117) is promoted, institutions align with “institutional rankings, such as those offered by U.S. News & World Report” (p. 121), and a there is a constant aim to climb the “Carnegie Ladder”. Sometimes it can help to turn to other institutions for strategies so that you don’t have to recreate the wheel. It’s important to stick to one’s differentiating factors, however, and it is certainly hard to be innovative when you are trying to look like everyone else. A few days after the Wexler article appeared on Inside HigherEd, another article written by Michael Stoner was published. The title was, “Differentiation and College Marketing”, and the key message was “differentiation isn’t easy” in the historical world of higher education. 

There is the argument that branding campaigns are too costly. Perhaps, large Research I and state institutions have the money to invest in branding campaigns. Small institutions do not. A decrease in state funding, donor dollars, and low enrollments have propelled many small institutions to look for a lifeline out of continuous decline. Some are turning to “rebranding”. Others are turning to development by building a high-tech or green buildings. Rebranding can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and buildings cost millions, yet as Docking and Curton (2015) point out, neither make a difference in a high schooler’s mind (p. 24, p. 28). Although “many panels, articles, and academic conferences promote the success of rebranding campaigns” (p. 24), they actually fall short on statistics that connect graduates to these campaigns. For small institutions, it doesn’t make sense to spend limited funds on these piecemeal bandaids.

Another key question is why institutions don’t look internally for brand development. Why don’t they trust their own internal marketing teams to know their college best and develop their own campaign strategy? Nearly every college has a marketing major and yet very few colleges create real-world opportunities for students to assist in the marketing process. Both of these groups are filled with people who live and breath the college mission and message every day. Yet, colleges turn toward outside groups to ‘create’ a brand that is usually disconnected from the institutional culture, academics, and scholarship. What makes an institution unique should always be the campaign. If the institution wants to go in a new direction, that needs to emerge from the inside and there needs to be a culture shift over time before the shift is reflected in new branding.

Higher education branding firms have been largely successful in attracting clients because they have been able to capitalize on a market bubble. That bubble is bursting, however, and small institutions simply won’t be able to afford the rising costs of vendors that have catered to higher education for years. Additionally, with the issues this country now faces because of student debt, is it fair to add to that debt because institutions are trying to keep up with the Jones’? These conversations and experiences make me conclude that the results of such spending are unproven and are unnecessary. Institutions, especially small ones, should look internally at the talent and dedication that is already present to develop a brand that represents them, instead of wasting energy and money on something that doesn’t.

References

  • Christensen, C. M., & Eyring, H. J. (2011). The innovative university: Changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Crow, M. M., & Dabars, W. B. (2015). Designing the new American university.
  • Docking, J. R., & Curton, C. C. (2015). Crisis in higher education: A plan to save small liberal arts colleges in America.