The Art & Science of Branding

by George C. Dehne

GDA Integrated Services believes successful branding has two major components – accuracy and effectiveness. Branding is essentially based on the trust “clients” and the public have in the institution. It is, therefore, counterproductive and, indeed, risky to attempt to brand a college or university if the brand is viewed as inaccurate to those closest to the institution – current students, faculty and staff, and alumni.

Additionally, as most of us know, the first rule of successful marketing is to know as much as you can about your “successful” and/or “ideal” customer in order to identify others in the marketplace. In our current student and alumni studies, we not only understand the brand or determine how to enhance the brand, we learn about what motivated current and past students to enroll at a college or university. Questions in these sections range from how they learned about the college and what source of information had the greatest impact on their decision to enroll to college characteristics that were essential in their decision to choose your institution.

On the other hand, the brand must have the desired effect – attract students, dollars, and public appreciation. The accuracy, therefore, is determined by learning about the views of internal audiences, while the effectiveness is learned by determining the attraction of the brand among external audiences. Of course, to determine branding accuracy and effectiveness, the internal and external audiences need to react to four issues:

The Branding Research Project

The approach GDA Integrated Services recommends (although it can be modified if the cost is prohibitive) includes the following steps:

Review of Material and Research
Review printed and electronic material used in all areas of the campus both internally and externally. Review any available research ranging from feasibility studies, admitted student questionnaires, student satisfaction studies, accrediting visit team reports and so forth. This is the first step in determining how your institution seems to be positioning itself as well as searching for new positioning opportunities and distinctions. We also glean current institutional language and determine other language possibilities from this material.

On-campus Interviews
We conduct in-depth interviews with faculty, students and staff in a variety of configurations. For example, we generally interview senior and junior undergraduate faculty separately, because we often get very different viewpoints. Not only do we interview high-achieving students, students of color, etc, we also ask to interview those undergraduate students on campus that the college has identified as exemplary.

Quantitative Research to Determine Accuracy
Ideally, we conduct Web-based surveys of the following groups:

Quantitative Research to Determine Effectiveness

In this case, we propose to conduct telephone interviews with the following groups:

At the conclusion of the research, your institution will know its current brand identity and how to enhance or, perhaps change, its brand to make it more accurate and effective.

The branding exercise results in several kinds of recommendations:

The “Elevator Speech"
GDA Integrated Services will develop a short but effective description of a college or university that can be given to someone unfamiliar with the institution in a short elevator ride. We all know that both undergraduate, part-time students and graduate enrollments are generated primarily by word of mouth. An effective elevator speech in the hands of current students, alumni, and staff increases the impact of word of mouth exponentially. The elevator speech will become the “language” of your institution.

Positioning Themes
Positioning themes are included in the elevator speech, but they are also the overarching themes that describe the whole institution. While we might find that a school within a university may have to enhance its own position vis-à-vis its competitors, it should still fit comfortably under the positioning themes for the institution.

The College Tagline
We evaluate the possibility of capturing the essence of a college in a single tagline.

Visual Identity
In this case, we are not necessarily talking about producing a new logo or word-mark for an institution, but rather gleaning from the research the visual images that resonate well with both internal and external audiences. These insights can then be incorporated, if necessary, into a new visual identification.

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