December 18, 2006
Branding Education: How Higher Education Is All About Brand Management

William Lozito over at Strategic Name Development had an interesting piece on Wednesday based on a Wall Street Journal story about branding for universities. In this entry building from that WSJ piece, the focus is on the branding of business schools and how that brand has increasingly become a part of MBA programs, in seek to increase recruitment, funding, etc.

The piece focuses on how schools are developing a niche for their particular brand, such as The Kelley School of Business at the University of Indiana, which considers itself as "the best MBA program for career switchers," or schools changing their names often to reflect prestigious donors.

Lozito writes, "B-schools have to think creatively about promoting their brand names. Sometimes that means engaging in some non-traditional advertising." The example he uses is the National University of Singapore, who has created ads like this to promote their schools.

Yet, what does something as highly subjective as branding a university mean in reality? One thing is for sure--universities spend big bucks protecting their name and intellectual property.

Back in October, for instance, Charles McGrath had an article in The New York Times about Harvard University, which spends "somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million every year to protect its brand name -- to keep other institutions from billing themselves as, say, the Harvard of Dog Training Schools of the Harvard of Pilates Teacher Training Programs." The article focuses on a new magazine called 02138, the zip code for the university. The magazine is a piece of P.R. itself, focusing largely on celebrities of various sorts who have gone to the school.

McGrath writes, "Generations of Harvard types used to think that their degrees alone conferred on them a certain degree of celebrity, but 02138 suggests that even among Harvard alums there is a caste system. There are the ordinary grads, who pass through Harvard Yard by the thousands every year, and then there are what the promotional material for 02138 calls
Harvard influentials,' who deserve a magazine of their own." McGrath calls the magazine a lifestyle publication, which "excites feelings of envy and inferiority while also sending out a lifeline of reassurance to those fortunate and discerning enough to be reading the magazine in the first place."

Back in February, Lindsey Gerdes had a piece in BusinessWeek about turf wars between business schools in the same market and the importance of branding and reputation in this space, focusing particularly on the fear from other universities when the University of Texas-Austin decided to open a business school, because of the strong brand the university has built in other academic programs.

And, in March, I wrote about a branding problem at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University, when an agriculture fraternity was found to have a goat locked in their closet, the victim of several animal rights abuse that is believed to have een used in hazing. The situation brought plenty of ridicule on the school. At the time, I wrote:

University officials have been scrambling to cover this the best that they can, and I don't post it in this venue to try to further the mockery of a great school like WKU but rather to bring the discussion to a community of branding experts. What do you do in this situation, when something happens that does nothing but reinforce the very worst stereotypes about a place you are trying hard to build up? So far, they have made it clear to distance themselves from and punish the fraternity involved and have otherwise kept their mouths shut. But this is the type of story that will stick in people's minds.

As much as many academics would like to separate themselves from a world of advertising and branding, the very process of higher education is a war of branding and recruitment, it seems, and that extends far beyond sports. Whether it be turf wars for business schools, preserving the Harvard brand, or trying to rescue the WKU reputation, I think the folks at Strategic Name Development are right when they say that schools have to "think creatively about promoting their brand names and manage the reputation of the school. Although I don't always approve of their tactics when it comes to restrictive IP concerns, a school's brand is. for better or worse, the majority of its value, and everything from hiring to student recruitment is done in a way to preserve and build that brand for future generations of consumers/students and donors.