Branding Lessons at the World's Top Universities

We tend to associate brands with things that sell. How about brands that sell us? The school from which you received your BA, BS or BEng often impresses prospective employers or clients. The allure of the institution stems not from a factual knowledge of the university's strengths, but from a received understanding of what it stands for --- its prestige, ideology, and reputation. Universities are more aware of this than ever; some have groomed themselves into ├╝berbrands, leveraging their equity beyond the traditional educational arena. This article suggests, however, that their success should not be surprising. After all, universities that get it right operate the perfect forum within which the ultimate brand experience can be offered.
Isn't it amazing how, come every commencement season, temporary amnesia sets in? Surrounded by the bubbly and bunting, brutal all-nighters and massive loans are forgotten, and everyone displays unreserved affection for the alma mater. The magic lies in the fact that the best universities are, essentially, great brands.

The benefits of solid branding are as apparent in the educational arena as they are in business. Universities cost a lot of money to run, and research costs even more. Government funding, moreover, is declining. Raising money for operating costs and endowment enhancement is thus more important than ever. Every revenue stream -- alumni contributions, corporate partnerships, long-distance learning opportunities and merchandising -- must be conscientiously cultivated. In many cases, this means exploiting the core assets of the organization. Like many successful brands, universities have learned that the brand is one such core asset that can transcend categories to sell almost anything. The power brands of the university-industry successfully reach across and beyond the educational sector. Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford credibly and successfully sell summer camp for twelve-year-olds, cheerleading classes, T-shirts, holiday tours, and even financial services.

What are some of the branding lessons we can glean from universities?

1. Focus on the experience, not on the product

As in most industries, universities offer very similar "products" at first glance. But the best universities define a world of difference behind the B.A., M.B.A., M.Eng, or Ph.D. In fact, many of the best universities offer terrible undergraduate education. Students have little or no contact with the illustrious faculty who grace the university's academic catwalk. Instead, their educations are typically guided by teaching assistants eking out a living.
No worry. The students from the top universities will tell you that the degree is merely an excuse for the overall experience, in the same way, "I need new shoes" really means, "I want those Nikes." No one remembers the mathematics class or even that groundbreaking seminar on the Middle East. They will remember the annual football game, the "Full Moon on the Quad" tradition, the fountain-hopping, and the breakfasts with the President.

2. Stick to one idea.

The best universities stand for a single idea, one so simple that it lends itself to transposition into each stakeholder's individual world. This facilitates a sense of complete ownership, which in turn catalyzes loyalty to the brand. This was brought home to me when I attended graduation at MIT this year. The idea was simple: Live for technology. While waiting for the ceremony to start, friends tapped busily at their Blackberrys, keeping in contact with their friends. Occasionally, they would look up to inform the over-anxious parents whom they had been appointed to chaperone that the graduand they were awaiting was "turning onto Mass Avenue right now."
A roar of approval met the Commencement speaker's quip that he looked forward to the day an astronaut would plant her boots on Mars. A giggle wafted through the solemn ceremony as a bunch of silvery NASA balloons was let loose over Killion Court. I couldn't believe it. Everything said that technology was a way of life; being a geek was almost cool.

3. Speak in one voice.

Keeping it simple also means presenting yourself clearly and coherently to your stakeholder. Oxford and Cambridge have more trouble than Harvard or Stanford in encouraging alumni involvement for this reason. It is true that British universities have, traditionally, larger endowments and more support from the government, making business development a lesser priority. It is, however, not the lack of need that has inhibited the development of these university brands.
The problem, from a branding point of view, lies within the decentralized college system of Oxbridge. Students are simultaneously members of the university and of a college. This arrangement splits loyalties, confusing the claims of ownership over the fond memories of those youthful days, fragmenting the power of the brand.
The muddle is further exacerbated by the perceptual disjunction amongst internal and external stakeholders. To the insider, the college (e.g. Trinity) is the true hub of social and academic activity, with which members are wont to build lasting relationships. The university is merely the aggregate of the different college. To the wider public, however, the name with the cache is the university (Cambridge or Oxford). Consequently, external stakeholders such as corporations and foundations support university-wide initiatives, whilst the colleges work at delivering the brand promise. The lack of clear brand architecture is clearest in the international arena, where the distinction between the college and the university is dimmest. Flip open this week's Economist to see Templeton College battling with the University of Oxford for centerstage within the same advertisement for executive advancement programs.

4.The brand exists in the people.

The critic would argue that universities are not as generic as I characterize them to be, that they provide unique environments of learning and challenge. I agree. I also suggest, however, that the brand is a key component of this offer. And the brand is particularly potent because universities almost always celebrate the key element of the brand: its people.
The community that develops around the university is its true distinguishing factor. The "inspired environment" unique to a university is not due to an institution per se -- its walls, architecture, gardens, its ivy and spires -- but to the other individuals who, by a shared notion of mutual affirmation, collectively create that very matrix the organization is supposed to provide.
Universities are motley collections of individuals who, somehow, come together to define and redefine an idea, an ideal. By building strong emotional bonds between disparate groups of independent-minded students and professors, universities transform themselves into universes of unmistakable loyalty. This spirit transcends the individual product of the organization -- the educational experience and degree.
More and more universities are acknowledging the value of their brands: those intangible assets, that single idea clear and distinct enough to bridge time, discipline and geography. No matter how distinguished, the buildings, machines, and accolades are consequential, not central, to the allure of a university.
The best universities succeed because they live and breathe that cardinal rule of branding -- that its value exists solely in the minds and hearts of its community -- more successfully than many corporate organizations. Moreover, the university brand thrives on the persuasive power of received understanding -- because a university stands for certain values, it will attract people who share in those values, who in turn perpetuate and strengthen the brand.
That's the genius of it all. Well-managed, the university brand best displays its potency by its remarkable self-perpetuating, evolutionary properties.