College Pursue Authenticity in Branding Strategies

Branding for higher education is, in a way, “reputation management,” said Marylou Ferry, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at Scripps. For institutions of higher learning, that means communicating to donors, media, and potential students that the school is a worthy investment of time and resources. 

The 5Cs all place some emphasis on marketing the college outside the bubble, but each college maintains a different focus on the best way in which to sell itself to prospective students, parents, and the world in general. 

Ferry described the importance of “communications that are authentic to faculty and students.”

For Scripps College, that meant setting up video booths for alumni to share their stories and focus groups where students wrote words they thought best described their college on notecards. Ferry described this process as a low-cost way to hear and market the voices of Scripps.

“The inside views and the outside views of the college should be similar, because that means it’s authentic,” explained Ferry. “We want to tell the best stories about Scripps.”

Currently, Harvey Mudd College is actively participating in an explicit rebranding campaign, according to Vice President of Communications and Marketing Tim Hussey.

“We were looking to uncover what the new brand platform needs to be,” Hussey said. “There is universal agreement among all members of the college community on the importance of the college’s mission and core values. What was lacking was a unified message that clearly and succinctly expresses what is distinctive about Harvey Mudd College.”

Last September, HMC requested proposals from 14 firms and settled on MindPower Inc., based in Atlanta. In November, departments like Advancement and Admissions sent material to the firm as “background research.”

“We’ve sought input from all members of the college community and conducted more than 150 interviews through 30 focus groups and phone conversations,” Hussey said.

In January, MindPower submitted an initial report to the administration.

“We wanted to be able to say, ‘They heard this, they missed this, etc.,’” Hussey said.

Since then, MindPower has returned to share its findings with administrators and the Board of Trustees.

Hussey stated that the results had not been shared with the student body yet, but he stressed that it was an ongoing process and that it would happen soon.

“[The] response thus far has been very positive,” Hussey contended.

HMC and MindPower are still connected at this stage.

“The process will be collaborative for the next several months, and MindPower is developing a ‘brand toolkit,’” Hussey said, stating that the firm will assist the Communications office with a few projects and campaigns.

Pomona College is also working to develop an authentic view of the college from the outside. This led Mark Wood, Senior Director of Communications at Pomona, and other administrators to seek out a neutral consultant.

“It’s not so much about building a brand as it understanding what your brand is,” Wood said. “What we learn about our brand won’t change what we offer.”

Wood explained that Admissions has the most control over the “brand” of the college when communicating with prospective students. When Bruce Poch, former Dean of Admissions, left the college, “it seemed like a good time to step back and understand what our brand was,” Wood said. 

The goal of the “exercise,” Wood said, was to focus on admissions “and how we were perceived among prospective students and parents.”

A committee was formed and requested proposals from many firms. Three firms were brought in to give presentations based on their proposals.

“Mark Neustadt’s firm ... really spoke our language,” Wood said, specifying that other firms had a roundabout way of assessing the college’s perception. “What he offered was much more straightforward.”

A representative from Neustadt stated that the firm could not comment on branding activity at the 5Cs.

Wood also stressed that the student backlash to the campaign is a misunderstanding.

“What the research showed was that [the Southern California location] was leading people to believe that the education might not be as rigorous,” Wood said. “All we’ve been talking about is trying to correct that misperception.”

Wood remarked that this process was specially budgeted. 

“It’s not cheap,” he said of bringing in an outside consultant, but he said the school is unable to release the budgetary information associated with hiring Neustadt. 

He also said that Pomona’s campaign was unique.

“Pomona doesn’t have a problem to solve ... We’re not an institution that’s struggling,” he said.

According to Wood, the college is still taking time to process Neustadt’s recommendations, though he did say that Admissions had contracted Neustadt to create material aimed at prospective students.

At Pitzer College, Vice President for Communications, Marketing, and Public Relations Mark Bailey has a very specific branding project underway.

“It’s a three-pronged challenge: the Robert Redford Conservancy, the 50th anniversary, and wrapping up the 50Forward Campaign,” Bailey said.

The Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer will be devoted to Southern California environmental sustainability issues. The 50Forward Campaign aims to expand student aid, improve facilities, strengthen academic programs, and increase alumni support for a total of $50 million in fundraising.

Bailey believes that Pitzer’s relative newness among colleges and its tradition of sustainability, service, and social justice work in the college’s favor in terms of marketing. Since joining Pitzer last May, Bailey has embarked upon projects like redesigning the Pitzer website, standardizing the use of the Pitzer logo and font, and creating short videos entitled “Meet a Pitzer Student.”

“We don’t say who we are,” Bailey explained, “we introduce ourselves.”

Bailey explained that liberal arts schools are at the forefront of educational marketing, and his hiring last May “was a vote of confidence in marketing.”