We've written in the past that we believe authentic attitudes generate successful brands. Those that create and lead with passion are those that people want to be around and follow. Whether in business, on the athletic field, or in the classroom, leaders that demonstrate a passion for their craft attract the attention of others. It's only natural to find attractiveness in the happiness and joy that often lies beneath the surface and the freedom that's evident when someone has found their calling.
The same is true of brands within higher education. Most people come to learn about big institutions by the torches that their alumni carry or the prowess of a collegiate athletic program's success. Some young children grow up being able to identify the names and mascots of institutions, but only as they near college age does the nature of the type of education and campus experience offered become known. This begs the question: Can a brand be bigger than the product? If one were to ask a marketing professional, this may not be an issue. But a campus administrator or a faculty member may have other thoughts on the topic. What one party sees as the brand another may take issue with, and vice versa. All institutions strive to be known for the academic programs that they offer and the graduates that they help produce, but most also understand the role that athletics plays, as well as the campus tour and online admissions experience. Together, the brand has many facets.
With the rise of social media campaigns also comes the need for constant vigilance. An institution's brand can be both a blessing and a curse. Much in the way that a business faces criticism when its customers voice concerns via social media, institutions have found that their brands can also be tainted when unexpected media attention is showered upon it in the wake of an unfavorable story or event.
This reality has forced many institutions to grow their social media marketing department and ask them to wear many hats. The days of publishing a communications calendar and then updating a few social media outlets with content on a set schedule have passed. Now, in addition to promoting the "brand," these social media teams serve a more 'journalism-meets-customer service' role.
"Is there an event happening on campus this weekend?" "We need to publicize it and monitor social channels in real time."
"There's an emergency on campus! We need to let everyone know!" "Send out messages immediately to ensure campus safety and protection of the student body, and direct questions to the University spokesperson."
What was once considered an institution's brand is now less about the look and feel of a logo, the presentation of a publication, or even the main website, and more about the communications shared and the experiences one has when interacting with members of the campus community. Enhancing the design of a logo or updating the messaging on a website won't change the content of the character that a school's leadership, faculty, or students possess. Brands are what they are because they've likely grown out of someone's labor of love.
The social media posts and the mailings to prospective students will continue to evolve with the style of the times. Institutions that place emphasis on these social channels today are wise to try to meet their campus community where they are, and they will likely be best suited to change when the next iteration happens. But the brands that will outlast the others are the ones that can embrace the tools and communicate authenticity.