Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Does Branding Pay Off for Colleges? Harvard Thinks So.

It has taken a while for branding to seep into the world of higher education. Traditionally universities and colleges have not been staffed by professional marketers. There has been a revulsion toward the concept of Customers, in favor of Students. Education has been the mission; it was never about the Bottom Line. But due to increasing competition for private and state funding and the proliferation of school choices including for-profit and online learning options, colleges have been turning to branding and marketing as a tool to compete more effectively and drive enrollment and donations.

In the higher education arena, college branding efforts began to emerge and proliferate around 2000. Many of these programs involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, multi-faceted "stakeholder" market research, new names, logos and taglines.

Note that most institutional branding efforts still focus mainly on the external aspects of branding and not on organizational change and the holistic college experience. Unions, faculty independence, bureaucracy and lack of sophistication are reasons that traditional branding (logo) versus the newer age model (stakeholder beliefs and customer experience) is more entrenched.

Some program examples:

  1. After Beaver College, located near Philadelphia, PA, became Arcadia University in 2002, student applications doubled by 2006.
  2. The University of Maryland likes to tout how its "Fear the Turtle" campaign resulted in increased alumni contributions, more applications, higher quality students and a better ranking.
  3. Former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey has presided over the remaking and rebranding of the New York City's New School as its President. Kerrey was brought in to unify the disparate component schools of the New School under One Mission, One Brand, One Name. Since the program was implemented, the university has greatly expanded its offerings, faculty, enrollment and fund-raising. "We do think of our students as our most important customers. And if they are unclear about who we are, then we run the risk that we might lose potential students," said Kerrey.
  4. Columbia College (no, not that school in Manhattan) of Chicago has built a whole campaign around a focused positioning ("The largest and most diverse private arts and media college in the nation").

An impetus behind many of these branding initiatives for colleges big and small is an acknowledgement that applicants have so many choices and not every institution is a "Harvard". The premise is: Harvard would not need to brand itself because after all, it is Harvard, it can just stand on its name.

Well, interestingly, as of late Harvard seems more interested in branding and differentiation. Undergraduate and graduate schools are suffering from declining endowments. In this economy, competition is becoming more fierce for students and the need to differentiate is more appreciated.

Harvard University recently applied for trademark ownership of the themes/taglines "Managing yourself" and "The world's thinking." Harvard has already registered "Ask what you can do" (from President Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech)—and "Lessons learned".

"This is a fairly aggressive position for educational institutions who are not historically known for hardball competition in the marketplace," according to trademark attorney Joe Dreitler who has advised Budweiser and Al Gore.

In August Harvard agreed to license its name for an upscale line of clothing (in order to raise money for financial aid... and build its brand perhaps???).

If Harvard is the pinnacle of higher education and success and is now investing more in branding, then there are few more powerful examples to show that college branding is smart and effective.

Read more of Kevin Randall's blog

Kevin RandallKevin Randall is Director of Brand Strategy & Research at Movéo Integrated Branding ( Kevin consults on brand matters to Fortune 500 companies and specialized health care and business-to-business organizations. His expertise is understanding, integrating and applying research and brand strategy to create business and customer value. Kevin has been invited to speak on brand topics by Google, Harvard Business School, Wharton and Kellogg, and his articles have been published on six continents. His clients at Movéo include Siemens, CareerBuilder, Cardinal Health, Molex, GOJO/Purell and Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Prior to joining Movéo, Kevin worked for Interbrand where he developed brand strategies for companies such as Abbott, Alcatel, Cricket Communications, Ford, GE, McDonald's, Motorola, Nationwide, Roche, Smucker's, and 3M.