Why universities need brands?

4,627. Four thousand six hundred twenty-seven! That’s the number of degree-granting colleges and universities in the US. To get a better idea of the American higher-education market, you should also factor in 3,000 4-year institutions. While you are at it, go ahead and add more than 1,500 2-year institutions like “junior or community” colleges. We are talking about more than 9,000 players -in the US only! Particularly in the Western world, higher-education is a densely-crowded marketplace. To stay ahead of the competition institutions must utilize whatever solution there is. As a result, every year universities and colleges spend tens of millions of dollars to strengthen their brand.

Most of those higher-education institutions end up launching new logos. What they often fail to do, however, is to communicate why they felt the need to work on their brand. When an organization doesn’t explain its objectives correctly, public zeroes in on the visuals, treating the project as if it were a creative endeavour, not a strategic one. Nine times out of ten that does not end well.

That is a common trap, into which many universities fall. The most recent casualty is Texas Woman’s University (TWU.) The institution launched its new brand identity without clarifying why it needed a new logo at the first place. The result was -expectedly- unenthusiastic reception. So, let’s use TWU as a case study and go over the major reasons why higher education institutions want to brand themselves.


Three big motivations

Albert Einstein -allegedly- said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” For that reason, when kicking off the project, the consultant would ask the client a simple question: Why this project and why now?

As a rule of thumb, every branding project is a change management project. On the surface, the university might be changing its visual identity. But if you dig a bit deeper, you would realize that perhaps the organization is yearning to change the opinion of prospective students, the interest of its donours, or the level of engagement of its stakeholders. As far as brand strategy is concerned, these are the three giants that motivate a university. That said there are always other forces in play. TWU gives no hints of its drive. So, let’s look at possible driving forces and rank them from least likely to most likely one.

Change for the sake of chance

Some universities want to keep things fresh all the time. Usually, those institutions tend to be smaller in size and pioneer in spirit. Also, there is a school of thought, which defends that change is inevitable and that you should refresh your brand identity every five years or so.

While it’s not very likely, visual fatigue might be the reason why TWU needed a new logo. Nonetheless, the fact that this project qualifies more like a redesign than a rebrand adds some credibility to this argument. That said, the change for the sake of change argument does not hold for time-honoured organizations such as Coca-Cola. (Texas Woman’s University was established in 1901.) Based on its press release, TWU last updated its logo in 2002. And 15 years might not just be long enough. We might have to look elsewhere for an answer.

Desire to be noticeable

A more likely drive is to be relevant. As stated above, higher education marketplace is a very competitive one. Perhaps the university was on the news for the wrong reasons. Or maybe TWU was not on the news at all, which sounds more conceivable.

There is a discipline called Attention Economics, which treats people’s attention as a scarce resource. According to the traditional model called AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action), the primary communication task of a brand is to grab people’s attention. So, if TWU, its students, or its alumni have not been accomplishing attention-worthy tasks for a while, then the change of visual identity might be an auxiliary attempt to make the university a top-of-mind choice.

Like all other human-made systems, universities need financial resources to survive. And the road to funding goes through the attention of students and donours. If that was the objective, though, then this project looks like a missed opportunity, for the new visual identity is not talk-worthy.

Leave a personal legacy

Alternatively, maybe the new chancellor -who, based on Wikipedia, assumed office on July 1, 2014- wanted to stamp her mark on the university. That’s a likely case and a relatively common one among higher-education institutions. Be that as it may, what is her vision precisely? It is hard to piece that together by reading the press release.

Further research reveals that the chancellor thinks, “people should care everything they do.” Put differently; she wants TWU students to show great affection for their deeds, whatever those may be. Psychologists call this state of mind “the Flow.” When you fully devote yourself to what you are doing you become one with the activity. The ideas start flowing through you. As a result, you increase your productivity, be more creative, and become happier.

So, maybe her goal is to reposition the university as an incubator, which forms people, who passionately love and excel at what they do. That looks like a plausible explanation, for the school adopted a new slogan: Boldly go. If that’s really the case though, sadly the university’s message is heavily buried. Other than the slogan, neither the design nor the visuals convey the message of passion, dedication, and excelling.

Recapture lost meaning

There is one final possibility. The new chancellor is the first woman to hold that title, following a series of six male presidents. Possibly under her guidance the TWU’s purpose, which is to educate a woman, empower the world feels more authentic and less patronizing. For that reason, perhaps she thought that the rebranding project was an excellent opportunity to relink the organization to its core purpose. Arguably, that’s the most probable explanation.

The press release states that under the new chancellor’s guidance the university aims to educate, inspire, and empower students for generations to come. This objective is also in line with Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman’s research. In Marketing Metaphoria, the authors argue that a college or a university is -first and foremost- a semipermeable container. Students want to reach out into the “real world” while still retaining the sense of protection and relative safety of the college environment. In that sense, maybe this project was an attempt to position the university as a transformative container for women -which is precisely why it was established at the first place.

So, if you are the marketing director of a university or college and want to rebrand your institution, ask yourself why you want to embark on such a journey. Let your consultants know your goals so that they can create the right solution for you. Then finally, when launching your new identity, describe the obstacle you are trying to overcome, state your objective, and explain why you are doing what you are doing. That way you can create a much more receptive audience.

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