Adrienne King (@dr_adking) is the director of marketing and communications at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho.
At the core of any good brand campaign—or rebranding campaign—is defining the market niche. In other words, what differentiates your institution from the more than 4,000 other institutions of higher education in the United States?
This relatively simple question is often extremely difficult to answer. But rest assured —if you can’t answer it, your prospective students won’t be able to either.
Therein lies the problem. How will they know if your institution is the right fit for them if you can’t tell them?
The answer is in the research. Before attempting to execute a branding campaign, always conduct extensive market research. (Your institutional research office should be your best friend.) Analyze your current and past enrollment data, consider any qualitative research surveys that your institution may have conducted and be sure to review any institutional strategic plans as your branding campaign should align and support these efforts.
Finally, listen to your campus constituents. Conduct a series of focus groups and/or individual discussions with current students, prospective students, administrators, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. This will give you a baseline for your branding efforts. After all, perception is reality so you need to have a realistic impression of your institution’s brand.
I’ve found that one of the best questions to ask constituents is to define the institution in three words—without overthinking it. The goal is to get participants to give you their top-of-mind impressions of your institution. Beware that you will get both positive and negative descriptors, which is okay. Remember, perception is reality.
I gather these from as many constituents as possible, and then classify them together in groups looking for similar themes. These themes are your brand attributes, which should be the foundation for your institution’s brand. Essentially, they are your differentiators—and your brand promise.
When we first started our rebranding efforts at Idaho State University, I was concerned about our ability to define our niche in a unique way, without it being so broad that it would be reflective of every other institution in the state/region.
As it turned out, this exercise not only served as a great way to develop our brand attributes, but it also provided the inspiration for our new tagline. Every single student we spoke to provided one word consistently during this exercise—opportunity. This, in turn, inspired our new tagline:
At ISU, our brand attributes include: community, opportunity, innovative, location/adventure, value, comprehensive, research/discovery, health care and applied learning. These brand attributes have inspired our entire rebranding campaign—from campus beautification efforts to videos to marketing messages. Take a look at some of the ways we’ve incorporated them into our brand:
Campus Banners feature photos of ISU’s faculty, staff and students, highlighting our brand attributes.