The Digital Campus

The Digital Campus

How to Manage Your University’s Brand

Branding for higher education institutions is quite unique, and Deborah Maue, a senior strategist at mStoner, recently covered this challenging topic in a webinar for Digital Campus members. Along with an introduction to branding for higher education, she gave us some pointers on how to tackle a rebranding.

Long Neglected, But Important

Higher education institutions didn’t always pay a lot of attention to their brand. It was only about ten years ago that brand strategy became a hot topic at universities, even though most of them have had a brand for a long time. So what exactly is a brand? Deb Maue from mStoner defines a brand like this:

Branding definition

You are trying to influence what your audience thinks about your brand, but you also need to make them do something based on that perception. Otherwise you are wasting a lot of time.

So what it is a brand strategy? A brand strategy is the art and science of discovering, understanding, articulating, and evolving your brand. It is important for a number of reasons:

  • Get the right students. Your brand should clearly communicate what you stand for, which makes it easier for prospective students to see if you are a good fit for them.
  • Differentiate yourself from your competition.
  • Engage and leverage alumni, who are important supporters and ambassadors.
  • Ensures that you attract and retain the best employees and faculty.

Easier Said Than Done

Implementing a branding strategy is not easy. First of all, your school most likely has a brand already. You are not in the favorable situation to start from scratch and put a whole new brand together. You have to build upon what you have.

That brand needs to support the mission of your university, which is often different. And especially in higher ed, the mission precedes the branding by decades, if not hundreds of years.


On top of that, you are dealing with many audiences and the messaging has to work for all of them. Not to forget your internal audience, who wants to have a say and decide what the brand stands for.

Branding Is Everywhere

I suspect that it will be same internal audience that most likely has a hard time understanding that branding is not just what you communicate, but actually more about what you do. The visual design, such as the logo, is part of it, but not everything.

All the interactions that your audience has with your brand are important. An example of good branding that goes beyond visual branding, such as the logo, is on ETH Zurich’s campus:

The campus has many cafeterias, two of them are right next to each other, but have different purposes. While one of them is meant to be a place where students can interact and buy food and drinks, the other one is more of a place for students to study and consume food that they bring with them.

I bet they had a hard time bringing that point across, especially the part about being quiet and letting others study. Instead of just putting up a sign with “no talking” and trying to explain that there is another place just around the corner for discussions, they introduced something with a twist. Something that has a bit of humor in it and that uses the university’s most known alumnus, Albert Einstein.

Now bear with me, English-speakers, there is a play of words here worth explaining. “Einstein” literally means “one stone” in German. So ETH decided to call the cafeteria meant for students who want to study, “Einstein”.

Are you still with me? Ok great. Can you maybe even guess what the other cafeteria is called? Congrats if you can, read on if you are still in the dark. The other cafeteria, the one where they can talk to other students, was named “Zweistein”, or “two stones” in German. Are you putting two and two together?

Genius, isn’t it? Along with those new names came a complete rebranding of those two cafeterias. Below are the posters announcing the different purposes.


The visual branding, and the creative and humorous way they play with their famous alumnus’ last name, brings across a message that is not always easy to deliver: While ETH is without a doubt a very prestigious and traditional institution, it still has the edge and modern touch that prospective, as well as current students, employees and other audiences are drawn to.

They get the best of both worlds, new and old, a message that many brands try to communicate. On top of that, the institution shows a more human side that gets them one step down from the dreaded ivory tower. As Maue stressed more than once: Brand strategy is as much art as it is science.

Another Swiss institution, the University of Basel, recently took on a branding challenge and went through a complete rebranding, rethinking everything, even the colors. We are working on a blog post on this topic, so stay tuned.

Research, Research, Research

But before any institution starts rebranding, it first has to find out how its brand is perceived by outside people. That is where market research comes in, a very important part of branding.

It not only gives you a better understanding of your brand, it also gives you credibility when you need to persuade internal audiences. It is way harder to argue with research than with opinions.

One of the best groups to talk to are current students. No one has a better understanding of your university than them, and no one has better language to express that.

But make sure to also talk to parents, guidance counselors, alumni, and prospective students. Below is a message map for parents of prospective students. It includes an overview of the attributes that you offer and the benefits that parents get.

brand attributes

To get more insight into this topic, listen to the webinar that Deb Maue held for the Digital Campus earlier this week. The entire slide deck of that presentation can be found on the same page.

And keep in mind that there is no magic bullet. The perfect brand doesn’t exist and it will always be a tad messy. And here is probably the best advice: There will always be that one person that doesn’t like the brand. Ignore them if you can and keep trying the best you can.

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