There was a lot of angst at UPCEA’s (University Professional and Continuing Education Association) Marketing and Enrollment Management Seminar (MEMS) in Palm Beach, FL this week, and not all of it was related to the election. An annual gathering for enrollment and marketing professionals in continuing/adult ed, MEMS this year highlighted several key challenges faced by colleges and universities whose student population is very different than the “traditional” undergrad. Their life situations are more complex and the drivers of their decision-making are very different, so the people trying to recruit them have to use very different strategies and tactics than their admissions colleagues on the undergrad side. And yet these professionals, who work for schools with names that include “professional studies,” “online,” “continuing ed” and the like are asked to work within the structures and strictures of a more traditional environment. [caption id="attachment_3532" align="alignright" width="433"] This graphic shows examples of three different types of brand identities. Higher education generally benefits from a model closer to "branded house" than "house of brands."[/caption] The higher ed branding challenges raised by this were brought to life really well by Elizabeth Scarborough Johnson, CEO of Simpson Scarborough, a market research firm that does a lot of work in higher ed. She talked about the dueling ideas of a “branded house” and a “house of brands” in higher ed. A branded house is, essentially, one big brand that all parts of an organization use, regardless of their individual business needs (the whole is greater than the parts), while a house of brands is a collection of individual sub-brands (the parts are greater than the whole). The schools represented by UPCEA are very much at the center of this debate. On the one hand, they are undeniably part of larger brands whose reputations they can likely benefit from. But on the other, their admissions goals and offerings are very different. More often than not they are relied on to bring in significant revenue (say the phrase “cash cow” to people in this field and see them cringe), so have to be more focused on lead generation, conversion and other things that fall so clearly into the traditional “marketing” category, as opposed to the “admissions” category. This naturally leads to a “do what I gotta do to fill seats” mentality, an outgrowth of which is often distinct brands (including logos), separate strategies and the first cracks of a fractured brand. As you can imagine this is an inefficient and expensive way to do business. If you’re Proctor and Gamble, you can afford a house of brands mentality, but in higher ed, where time and dollars are tight, it’s not likely to be successful, and it will almost certainly lead to confusion in the marketplace. So in her UPCEA keynote, Johnson argued for “a unified yet flexible brand strategy,” essentially a branded house with some wiggle room. In this model, all parts of a college or university work from a single brand position, but co-opt and adjust it as needed to suit their particular business needs. She highlighted recent efforts by Northwestern University to collect the pieces of their fractured brand and put them back together in a clearer, more consistent and hopefully successful way, but noted that this path is difficult (for all the political reasons you can imagine) and “requires intense coordination across an organization.” And we all know how good higher ed is at being coordinated… [caption id="attachment_3534" align="alignright" width="544"] At Primacy we've helped a variety of clients in higher education define their brands and be very intentional about bringing that to life across the entire experience. That includes Regis University and their Everything Matters campaign.[/caption] So what’s a school to do? I tend to agree with Johnson that a modified branded house is the best path. I’ve worked for very large, very complex higher ed and healthcare brands, and if I had a dime for every time I heard “I need my own logo” I’d be a rich man. Everyone is being told they need to differentiate themselves, to identify and share those things that truly make them unique. So “differentiation equals distinct strategy” is a logical next step. But ultimately that undercuts the value of the university and leads to the very real possibility of the many boats rowing in different directions crashing into each other (at Primacy we’ve had clients who were literally bidding against themselves in paid search – talk about inefficient and expensive). If you find yourself in this position, take a step back and try to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Focus on those things that bring your organization together, not the things that separate you. Find that common thread and hold onto it. The future of your school likely depends on it. Want to talk more with me about your school’s branding challenges? Matt.Cyr [at] theprimacy.com?subject=Let's%20Talk%20Higher%20Ed%20Branding">Get in touch with me and we’ll set up a time to talk.