We get it: Branding can be a sensitive matter.
For some colleges and universities, any change to brand feels like a burden on an already lean budget and staff.
For others, a rebrand means the scary prospect of finally tackling the looming and nebulous conflicting interests of both carefully protecting the history and legacy of an institution – and simultaneously growing into the institution you need to to serve and attract an evolving student base. (All without knowing if it is absolutely necessary.)
For a different group, a rebrand is a potential administrative nightmare involving something that reaches across departments that may not be too keen on sharing ideas, much less time and budget.
And for a not-small portion of colleges and universities, it can be all of the above with a dash of a special ingredient unique to their school.
But, like anything else scary, when it’s faced with the right plan and the right support, it can work out well in the end.
Changes to your brand can be done in a way that matches the right strategy to the particular challenges and opportunities facing your school.
Branding vs. Brand Development
In a way, branding is hard because it should be: Your brand is an incredibly valuable part of what you have to offer. However, the marketing industry can make it even harder.
A big part of that is because there is an immense amount of confusion about the definition of a “brand” in our world.
Many agencies claim to be “brand development” experts, when in fact they might just be “branding” experts (they make logos). At Echo Delta, we are both brand development and branding experts by virtue of our expertise and the brand development process we follow.
Your logo is the center point of your brand. It must work across every possible touchpoint, from gateway signs to embroidered shirts. Your logo is the most widely used element of your brand and it must embody your culture and name in a simple, succinct, memorable way.
While your logo is critically important, a solid brand extends well beyond a logo.
What Makes a Good Higher Education Brand?
Brands are more than a great logo or even a solid website.
For a university, a brand can be in a packed athletics stadium and surrounded by sea of people wearing your school’s colors. A brand can be a handful of unifying elements on a lively and ever-changing bulletin board in a res life hall. A brand is that feeling you get when you’re driving far from home and see a bumper sticker from your alma mater.
Brands are the heart and soul of an organization.
Your brand is a combination of all the real-world acts that build and reinforce the ideas about your institution that exist in the minds of your prospects, students, faculty, staff and alumni.
To begin to assess your brand, ask yourself these questions:
- Who are you as a school? What do you offer your students? Why should students consider your school to attend? Does your brand clearly answer these core questions?
- Regardless of if you’re creating an ad, building a website, or posting to social media, your brand should consistently anchor all communications. Is everything from verbiage to visual design consistent across touchpoints? Does it accurately represent your college or university?
- Do you understand the unique place your school fits in the marketplace? If so, is your brand a clear, authentic, and unashamed representation of that?
So, what do you do if your brand doesn’t meet these standards?
It may be time to consider a brand evolution — or even a full rebrand.
When and How to Evolve an Existing Brand
Many colleges and universities have strong brand guidelines. They have a logo, color scheme, fonts and style.
But many are missing personality, ownable statements, or memorable executions.
Others have grown or evolved as an institution and their current brand doesn’t quite convey their new direction.
This is when it’s time for a brand evolution.
It’s time to reimagine the way your brand is brought to life. Many schools fear a brand evolution will result in a loss of historic brand equity, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Yes, it is a delicate balance between preserving the past and portraying growth and momentum into the future, but that is the magic of a well-done brand evolution.
Brand evolutions can take many forms. Most commonly, it’s simply pushing the core brand to provide more flexibility in execution, better tell the school’s story to core audiences, or simply bring it to life in a new way.
The first step is to identify any gaps, contradictions, constraints or distortions in the current brand to set the goal and scope of the brand evolution.
These projects can take many forms, but the most common we see are:
Sometimes a brand is trying to be everything to everyone. But, in reality, no school is everything to everyone.
Instead, each school has core programs, specific types of students who find the most success, and a unique culture that drives the institution forward.
In these cases, Echo Delta completes discovery to help our clients uncover who they really are and evolve their brand to become a reflection of this authentic story.
Expanding or Updating Brand Voice
One common mistake when it comes to writing content is using internal verbiage, such as a mission statement, as external marketing content.
Other times, a marketing team has been given a catchy tagline, but no guidance on how to create supporting or long-form content.
Brand voice projects work to clarify how you talk about your school.
We define your core messages, those things that set you apart from your competitors and resonate with core audiences. We then help you understand how to convey those messages in a relevant way to alumni, faculty and staff, parents, current students, and prospective students.
There is an amazing amount of freedom and confidence that comes from understanding how to present your brand through the words you choose.
Expanding or Updating Brand Visuals
When organizations undergo a brand project, they almost always walk away with a set of brand guidelines that outline fonts, colors, photography styles and sometimes design elements.
The problem with these guides is they are often restrictive by not fully exploring a variety of applications. Other times they are too vague, resulting in applications that are all over the map.
Maybe there is a need for a secondary color palette to avoid creating a sea of sameness across marketing materials. Maybe there is a need to provide additional guardrails by defining elements beyond the basics to give stakeholders the tools they need to apply the brand.
Carefully thinking through all possible use cases and clarifying how the brand works in each context goes a long way.
University of the Ozarks is a small private college with a 184-year history in the heart of rural Arkansas. Deep roots aside, the university was struggling to differentiate itself and drive more “right-fit” students to enroll. The admissions team was ready to step out of the box and build enrollment marketing materials and a new website that replaced the university’s generic marketing executions with an engaging experience that embraced the school’s location and tells the authentic Ozarks story.
When and How to Rebrand
Contrary to a brand evolution, a rebrand is a complete overhaul of an institution’s identity.
The need arises when an institution is at a point of strategic change to the institution’s structure, name, five-year-plan, or core audience. The need for a total rebrand occurs far less often than a need for a brand evolution, but when one is warranted, it’s imperative to get it right.
Developing and launching a new brand at a college or university is not a small undertaking. It requires input and buy-in from the president’s office all the way down to your newest students. It requires time, patience, and experience. It requires the willingness to accept that you can’t please everyone, but you can do what’s best for the future of your institution.
While this may sound daunting, at Echo Delta we have developed a process that has resulted in multiple successful branding of new universities and rebranding of existing schools over the past decade.
By giving each phase the care it deserves, a new brand is developed that all stakeholders are confident in and the marketing team is ready to roll-out across all communications.
Phase 1: Research, Discovery, and Brand Brief Development
The old adage, “you can’t know where you’re going without knowing where you’ve been” rings true here.
It’s vitally important for our team of brand strategists to understand the current brand, the historical evolution of your brand, and where your institution wants to head in the future.
We do this through interviews with key stakeholders, focus groups with students and alumni, competitor research, enrollment data reviews, market reviews, surveys, and more. This deep dive into the heart and soul of your institution and its current brand allows us to create a brand brief document that will serve as a foundation for all messaging and design work in future phases.
The document outlines key challenges, competitor sets, target audiences, competitive advantages, category drivers, brand differentiators, and all the spaces where the brand will need to live.
Phase 2: Brand Platform Development
Never losing sight of the research and strategic foundation developed in Phase 1, our creative team goes to work to create a series of core brand deliverables.
These include internal and external summaries of the functional and emotional aspects of your brand, the unique value you offer your target audiences relative to your competition, a simple and easy-to-understand tagline, and holistic approach to your brand’s visual design language.
Phase 3: Brand Guidelines Development
This critical phase allows us to work closely with our clients to develop all the tools necessary to successfully bring the brand to life.
We create a series of templates that ensure consistency across all departments including letterhead, business cards, email signatures, marketing emails, print pieces, and social media applications.
We also create comprehensive, easy-to-use brand style guides. This ensures all aspects of the style tile, brand voice, and brand messaging are applied consistently across all future marketing and communication channels.
Phase 4: Implementation
Working off a carefully developed implementation schedule, we partner with you to apply the brand and bring it fully to life.
Implementation consulting includes all aspects of a rollout. This has included projects such as announcements and unveilings, signage updates, new enrollment campaigns, website rebuilds, and/or fundraising campaigns.
Echo Delta began working with South Dakota Mines in 2019. The school was faced with a pivotal moment in their history. After deep discovery, we realized the new brand needed to preserve the historical legacy of the university while building on the innovation, forward-thinking, and bright future it offers its current students. The new brand launched in August 2020 and was welcomed by excited alumni, students, staff, and faculty. We continue to work with SDM to develop marketing campaigns and enrollment materials.