Brand authenticity in higher education is challenging as universities face pressure to conform, maintain rankings, attract students, and secure funding, which can dilute their genuine character and create a disconnect between perception and reality.
Establishing and maintaining a strong brand identity is a crucial undertaking for universities worldwide. One key aspect that can significantly impact a university’s reputation is brand authenticity. But what exactly does brand authenticity mean, and why is it often elusive?
Brand authenticity goes beyond a logo or strap-line. It encompasses the genuine and consistent expression of a university’s values, culture, and unique attributes. When universities successfully embody authenticity, they foster deeper connections with their stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the wider community.
However, achieving brand authenticity in the higher education sector can be a formidable challenge. Universities often face pressure to conform to industry norms, maintain rankings, attract students, and secure funding. These factors can lead to a dilution of the institution’s genuine character, causing a disconnect between perception and reality.
To delve deeper into this topic, we have an insightful podcast episode featuring Bill Faust, the managing partner and Chief Strategy Officer at Ologie; a national branding and marketing agency based in Ohio, United States. Bill’s primary role is to help make brands more clear, compelling, and consistent through market research, brand strategy and integrated marketing. (You can listen to the podcast here)
Bill shares his expertise on how universities can cultivate brand authenticity and build meaningful relationships with their audiences, and throughout this blog, we will refer to key insights from our conversation with Bill, providing practical strategies and examples for universities to embrace their authenticity and stand out in a crowded marketplace.
There’s no denying that the path to achieving brand authenticity in higher education isn’t always going to be an easy one, but through uncovering the power of genuine connections, you can shape a positive future for your university.
Finding the real you
And now for the million dollar question — Who is the real you?
When it comes to defining authenticity and discovering the true essence of a university brand, the process can be both challenging and multifaceted. Universities, by nature, cater to diverse audiences and stakeholders, making it less straightforward to pinpoint their authentic identity. However, by delving into key attributes and reflecting on the institution’s history and values, universities can gain clarity on what authenticity means for them.
Bill Faust highlights the importance of looking both backward and forward simultaneously. For university brands, understanding their origin story and the values upon which the institution was founded is vital. Exploring the founders’ vision and the intended beneficiaries helps establish a firm foundation for uncovering the authentic self of the brand.
“It means looking both backwards and forward at the same time. For some brands, the history of the brand is interesting, but maybe it’s not relevant to today. But for university brands and college brands, to find the authentic self of the brand, you do need to look backward and understand your origin story and the values on which the institution was founded. Who were the founders and who were they meant to serve?”
By drawing on the university’s history and heritage, institutions can determine where the brand has come from and, in turn, chart a course for where it can go. This process allows universities to align their current identity with their roots, weaving together a cohesive narrative that resonates with stakeholders and reflects their genuine character.
Finding the real you requires introspection, exploration, and a deep understanding of the institution’s purpose and values. By undertaking this journey, university brands can forge a genuine and meaningful connection with their audiences, fostering trust, loyalty, and a distinctive position within higher education.
“[It’s about exploring] what makes you you and saying, let’s find a contemporary version of that.”
Take a look at our recent blog, ‘How heritage brands can build on their past to shape their future’ for more insights on this.
Seeking inspiration from other industries
“I think higher ed can learn so much from retail and sometimes, when I say that, it bothers people because they worry that retail — being very transactional — somehow cheapens this idea. I think retail has the really hard challenge of being authentic to who they’ve been and where they’ve been, but also being way out in front with leading ideas — innovative ideas — and staying in front of the customer.”
In the pursuit of brand authority and authenticity, universities can draw valuable lessons from industries beyond their own, particularly the retail sector. While some may question the relevance of retail, which is often perceived as transactional, there is much to be learned from how retailers navigate the delicate balance between preserving their heritage and pushing boundaries with innovative ideas to stay ahead of customer expectations.
One brand that exemplifies this approach is Patagonia. It remains deeply committed to its history and values, fearlessly taking a stand on political issues and personal ethics. By staying true to its core principles, Patagonia may alienate some customers, but it also cultivates a loyal following that shares its beliefs. This demonstrates that great brands understand the importance of saying “no” to opportunities that do not align with their brand identity, even if it means turning away potential partnerships or sponsorships.
“We always tell a brand the hardest thing you can do is say ‘no’, but it’s also the most important thing. You know, ‘that’s not on brand for us. We’re not going to sponsor that or we’re not going to run that ad because it’s off brand’”.
Another example is Apple, and under the leadership of Steve Jobs, it understood that brand success lies in embodying core values. Jobs famously said, ‘Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.’ By staying true to their values and consistently delivering innovative products, Apple created a brand identity synonymous with quality, design, and cutting-edge technology.
For universities, the challenge lies in evolving and remaining true to their brand promises amidst an uncertain future. How can they adhere to their core fundamentals while adapting to changing technologies and the unknown landscape of education? The key lies in reframing their core/founding values in a contemporary context. By embracing forward-thinking ideas while staying rooted in their mission and values, universities can prepare their brands for the future and maintain brand authenticity.
Key ways institutions can build their authenticity – what can they do to gain buy-in and having authentic voice
When it comes to building brand authenticity, universities can employ several key approaches to gain buy-in and establish an authentic voice within their institution.
Leverage the Strategic Planning Process: One effective way for universities to define their brand is by integrating it into the strategic planning process. By aligning brand development with strategic goals, universities can lay a solid foundation for their brand authenticity. This ensures that the brand reflects the institution’s mission, values, and future aspirations.
Encourage Participatory Brand Evolution: To gain support and foster a sense of ownership, universities should involve key stakeholders in the brand evolution process. While it may be daunting to invite numerous voices into the discussion, it’s essential to provide individuals with a voice. Giving stakeholders an opportunity to contribute allows them to see themselves in the brand’s development, fostering a greater sense of support and commitment to its success.
“Make the process of evolving the brand as participatory as possible. Involve as many key stakeholders as possible. That can make people nervous because it invites a lot of voices into the tent if you will, but I always say ‘Give them a voice, but you don’t have to give them a vote.’ It’s not a democratic process. It’s not a process where everyone says, ‘we’re going to vote on whether you like this image or not’, but you give them a voice because people support what they help create. If they can see themselves in that process and can see where they had some sort of influence, then they’ll support it later on.”
Embrace Continuous Brand Management: Branding should not be seen as a periodic paint job for a house. In industries outside of higher education, brand management is a continuous function. Similarly, universities should adopt an ongoing approach to brand management, constantly evolving and refining their brand to keep it relevant and aligned with the changing needs of students and the broader education landscape. Higher education has made strides in this area, but there is still room for growth and sophistication in brand management practices.
How to measure authenticity
Measuring brand authenticity is widely acknowledged as a challenging endeavour due to its subjective nature, multifaceted characteristics, long-term implications, limited quantifiable metrics, and susceptibility to external influences. Brand authenticity relies on the perceptions of individuals and demands a comprehensive approach that encompasses values, transparency, and emotional connections. However, while challenging, understanding the effectiveness of brand authenticity is essential for universities.
Bill recommends identifying relevant metrics that align with the brand, ranging from direct marketing, advertisements, and email campaigns to enrollment figures, fundraising efforts, and storytelling. Any content that exemplifies a strong dedication to the brand’s image and values can be correlated with measuring brand authenticity. Although direct causation may not always be established, meaningful correlations can be discovered.
Moreover, specialised surveys targeting brand awareness can serve as effective tools for measuring authenticity, alongside noteworthy achievements such as awards and recognition from external bodies. For instance, Purdue University’s recognition as an innovative brand in recent years aligns seamlessly with their authentic personality, as innovation is at the heart of their brand essence. Awards exemplify that you’re walking the walk, not simply talking the talk.
(If you are interested in gathering data and insights on brand authenticity, don’t hesitate to contact us today).
Finding brand authenticity: The conclusion
In the pursuit of brand authenticity, universities face a multifaceted challenge that requires self-reflection, inclusivity, and a proactive approach. Let us recap some key takeaways:
Ultimately, brand authenticity is rooted in honesty. It is the genuine expression of your institution’s identity, values, and promises. By actively embracing authenticity, universities can build trust, engage their audiences, and create lasting impact.
Remember, authenticity is an ongoing journey, and its rewards are invaluable. Stay committed to your brand’s essence, seek inspiration from diverse sources, and continuously evaluate and refine your approach. Together, we can unlock the true potential of brand authenticity within higher education.
Listen to the podcast
Listen to Bill Faust’s full podcast episode below or search The Brand Education on Spotify. Don’t forget to leave us a review so more people across the sector can find us and tune in.