Over the past years, we got the privilege to work on many brand strategy projects in the education industry. We, for instance, helped EPFL in Lausanne rebrand the EMBA program and Geneva School of Business (HEG) to sharpen their brand positioning. During our work, we realised that the education industry (private institutions in particular) have moved into a competitive dynamic, typical of business sectors. Universities are not only competing at a global level which each others, they also must face alternative digital learning ways such as skype classes and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).
Most of schools and universities are not prepared for the marketing challenge that emerge from the transformation of their industry. In the past, “selling themselves” or “differentiating their brand” was never a topic of concern for educational institutions. Student applications were coming in as competition was limited and mainly local. Yet, this lack of “marketing DNA” in the industry is a chance for schools that decide to invest in their brands. In other words, it is not too hard to stand out if everybody else is blending in. This article shares some of the key lessons we learned working on the brand strategies of top educational institutions.
1. Defining a binding idea
Simply changing the logo would achieve as much as repainting a broken car. A convincing brand must be built on a clear and consistent idea. In 2008, Babson College in Boston saw an opportunity to anchor its brand around the idea of entrepreneurship. The institution expanded this idea, recruiting leading entrepreneurs as faculty members and even hosting an annual conference on entrepreneurship within its walls. By „ infusing the spirit of innovation into its academic programs “, Babson ranked first in entrepreneurship in the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking 2011. Making the program positioning clearer with a binding idea was also one of the key objective of the EPFL EMBA rebranding. Based on workshops with the management, we identified “the link between innovation and management” as an essential, credible and attractive binding idea. We developed the tagline “harnessing innovation” to bring this new position to life in a simple yet powerful manner.
2. Engaging with an entire classroom
The barriers to change are numerous. Deontological, political and cultural obstacles are likely to arise as the branding journey unfolds. To succeed, the branding journey must take everyone into account. Internal change can only occur if the institution’s dynamic and culture are considered. Start by addressing stakeholders (academics, professors, current and prospective students, alumni, parents, athletic teams, recruiters, etc.). Evaluate and understand their interests and experiences. Most importantly, make sure that their insights are carefully considered. The goal is to craft an authentic brand position that will resonate across the board.
3. Reaching beyond the school’s walls
Printed collateral is the most visual part of the brand, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. The experience the institution offers is what truly shapes the way it is perceived. When implementing the brand, consider all relevant touch points: lectures, graduation ceremony, application process etc. The Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, for example, built a powerful network of 25’000 former students across 120 countries to strengthen its marketing powers. The network is very active, and operates regionally. Each section coordinates social activities to keep the spirit of the school alive beyond the school walls.
The opportunities are endless, but there is one golden rule: branding an educational institution should never be done at the expense of the quality of education that it offers. It is time to define the binding idea that can move your entire organization to the next level. Exam times are coming up and not everyone will pass.
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