Brand-building for academic innovators

by Roger Sametz for New England Journal of Higher Education

Attending to one’s brand should be a high priority for all schools, but brand-building is even more important if you’re an innovator: if your response to––or anticipation of––the demographic, market, financial, and societal pressures in higher-ed has led you to create a new model.

Not too many years ago, a school’s brand—not that many people used the “b” word—just was. A college or university went about its business, became known for particular strengths and weaknesses, accrued what we would now call brand attributes over time (party school, really hard to get in to, innovative curriculum), and, through word of mouth and its alumni, earned its reputation in the higher ed landscape. Communications and marketing didn’t play a huge role in the process.

That was then. Now, with education costs steadily increasing for both institutions and students, worrisome demographics, ever-blurrier distinctions between the offerings of private and public institutions, noisy chatter about the “ROI” of an expensive degree, and increased competition for both tuition and contributed dollars, more and more administrations and boards (some members of which “know about marketing”) feel that there’s no time to let reputation-evolution take its course. Natural selection also de-selects.

While attending to one’s brand should always be a priority, brand-building is even more important if you’re an innovator

Brand, once a concept safely relegated to toothpaste and automobiles, is now a buzzword and a must-have in academia. Even if some of those buzzing are not exactly clear what a brand actually is, or how to “get one,” they’re pretty sure they need one that will help them to survive and thrive.

While attending to one’s brand should be a high priority for all but the top-tier schools (for which the slow-cooked method has generally worked quite well), brand-building is even more important if you’re an innovator: if your response to—or anticipation of—the demographic, market, financial, and societal pressures has been to create a new model.

New models in academia face higher branding hurdles. You can’t simply strive to be the top contender in an already well-understood category; you first have to build understanding of your new model.

If you’re developing a different pedagogy, structure, calendar or experience, your branding challenge has an extra step. You can’t simply strive to be a top contender in an already well-understood category (community college, research university); you first have to build understanding around, and value in, your new model—and then trumpet why you’re the leader.

Recruiting is only part of the challenge, of course. If you’re new, or you have a new model, you probably don’t have a deep, emotionally committed alumni base to turn to for support. You simply haven’t had the time to graduate many students. And if you’ve changed course, your alumni may see your newly evolving school as “not the one I went to,” and disconnect.

A strong, well-defined brand helps

Much more than just your logo, shield or seal, your brand is what you mean as an institution. It’s how your different constituents understand what they can expect of you, what you expect of them, the value you provide, why anyone should care, and why anyone should give support. Your brand establishes and communicates your place in the competitive landscape.

The task is to manage your brand with intent––and make it known and relevant to your constituents.

To the extent that your school is known at all, it already has a brand—good, bad or indifferent. The task is to manage your brand with intent––and make it known and relevant to your constituents. Your brand can be defined in your conference room, but if prospective students, parents, influencers and donors don’t “get it,” it doesn’t exist.

Building your brand mosaic

Whatever your model—whether you’re a new institution or you’re significantly redefining your offerings—or you’ve always had something different to offer (but that difference has been insufficiently understood)—you need to build your “brand mosaic.”

The “tiles” that you place in your brand mosaic you can control: Your messages, direct marketing, print collateral, advertising, website, email blasts, blog posts, tweets—all ideally connected by a shared, thoughtful approach to verbal and visual expression. When you make the most of each opportunity these tiles afford, the tiles you can’t control—brand baggage (your history, misperceptions, some decisions that should have been different), and commentary by others in traditional and social media, won’t overwhelm or obscure the image and meaning you’re trying to get across.

The “tiles” that you place in your brand mosaic you control. When you make the most of each opportunity these tiles afford, the tiles you can’t control won’t overwhelm or obscure the image and meaning you’re trying to get across.

Much like a mosaic mural, your brand mosaic needs to be constructed so it makes sense from different viewing “distances.” That is, some prospects will stand back and look at the big picture—your whole institutional brand mural—while others will get closer and focus on a specific offering, or connect with a specific reason to support you. Different aspects of your brand mosaic will resonate with different people, which is both fine and necessary… as long as the whole mural coheres.

Getting from here to there

Brand-building is a process, not an event. And while the goal is certainly to be understood and valued in ways you wish to be, in the shortest timeframe, there’s homework to do before you go live with your brand.

Build engagement from the get-go

Marketing and Advancement, offices—and senior leadership—may “own” your brand, but your ultimate success will depend on a far larger number of people, on and off campus, both being on board, and becoming effective ambassadors. Configure a cross-campus team to support your efforts—a team from which you can learn, who you can report back to, and who can be apostles to their constituencies. Enlist representatives from key programs as well as those from important functions, such as admissions, marketing, alumni relations… Get both your skeptics and your influencers involved.

Get agreement on the basics

Working with senior leadership and your cross-campus team, and through interviews with students, staff, faculty, donors and any external experts you may be collaborating with, define your brand foundation. Be clear on your:

  • vision: what does the future look like, and how are you helping to achieve it?
  • model: especially if it’s new—what needs does it fill, and for whom is it relevant?
  • brand attributes: what qualities are already associated with your school; what attributes would you like to have associated with you; what attributes need to be managed away?
  • areas of focus: you can’t be all things to all people, so what are the areas of strength that you want to be known for?
  • value proposition: this may be perfectly clear to those on the inside, but there’s usually work to do to translate what seems obvious to you to external constituencies; don’t try and condense it into a tagline;
  • position: how would you like to be viewed within your competitive landscape; what positions do you already own; what positions are owned by others?

Configure relationships among the parts to build value in the whole

Your institution may be composed of different schools, institutes, programs and centers. Often these entities carry names that don’t reference the parent institution. As a result, the institution doesn’t “get credit” for the good work that happens in these areas.

Construct a flexible, portable messaging framework

Everyone wants an elevator pitch, but that’s not enough. From the data you gather through the above process, craft messages for your areas of focus and for key constituent groups. The goal: Your team and a much broader corps of ambassadors must be able to talk with constituents in ways that are meaningful to them.

Provide different “ways in” for prospective students and donors

Identify those areas where what you stand for and seek to advance intersect with what your constituencies care about. There’s bound to be more than one answer here—and that’s good. If your school has changed dramatically over the years, you’ll want to find through lines of value and meaning that will enable older alumni to relate to what the school is doing now.

Develop a system of visual expression

Your logo is important, but it’s not enough to unify all the different kinds of communications you’re likely to need to engage your different constituents. Based on your agreed-upon vision, attributes and positioning—and through a careful audit of how your competitors are presenting themselves visually—explore and define approaches to typography, color, imagery and composition that help you to tell your story. Your goals: a system that translates your brand meaning into ink and pixels; a framework that provides the glue to connect all your communications to one another; and a system that has enough flexibility to allow communications to be “tuned” for different audiences and opportunities. Remember, for many of your constituents, how you look is content: If how you express yourself visually is at serious odds with a prospect’s personal brand, doors may slam shut before you have a chance to open them.

Your logo is important, but it’s not enough to unify all the different kinds of communications you’re likely to need to engage your different constituents. Proprietary approaches to typography, color, imagery, and composition are needed to help tell your story.

Plan a communications architecture that meets people where they are

Through your upfront investigative conversations and focus groups, learn where, when and how people want to receive (and respond to) information. We’ve often heard from leadership that “print is dead” only to hear from high school seniors that they really want a print viewbook to put under their pillow. Yes, most roads will lead to your website, and social media’s importance continues to evolve, but these vehicles need to be planned within the context of a wider architecture.

Hit the streets with high-priority communications

These could include a new viewbook, a new website, an email template for your annual fund … all informed by the work above. Given the exigencies of academic cycles, it’s also likely that you’ll have to craft some materials in a design-build fashion—making the best decisions you can while you’re still crafting your brand system.

Build engagement across your institution

Document your system and provide training for staff and outside consultants who commission, evaluate and make communications. Then go wider: everyone (alumni, board, staff, students) has opportunities to talk about your institution—its model, vision and impact—so take the opportunity to build fluency through hands-on workshops. You need more people on your side than those with Marketing, Advancement or Admissions on their business cards.

The value is in the process—and the result

The process of establishing a strong academic brand can seem intimidating, but the value of the journey is more significant than just the end result. You’ll learn more than you probably ever wanted to know about how people see you—but you’ll also learn who feels disconnected, who has a clear vision of your value, who will advocate for you, and where hidden talents lie for telling stories, developing content … or simply getting things done.

Brand-building also presents multiple opportunities to make new friends—people who will provide invaluable support and advocacy as you roll out your brand to the wider community. For example, disenchanted alumni who’ve felt alienated from their alma mater may soften when they’re given the opportunity to voice that discontent—and the chance to be a part of developing your new brand.

Of course, brand-building does have a cost, but you’ll save significant time and money creating communications going forward. Rather than starting every project from scratch, you’ll have a system to draw from that gives you both the structure and the freedom to get the job done. And because all your communications will reinforce one another, every communication dollar you spend will buy you much more than that in increased awareness and understanding.

Building your brand is an investment that will help you to recruit and retain desired students, attract and support faculty, foster partnerships, bolster contributed income and increase the value of the degrees you grant.

Importantly in an era where the costs of both delivering and partaking of an education are under scrutiny, brand-building needs to be looked at, and budgeted as, an investment, not an operating expense—and amortized over several years. It’s an investment that will help you to recruit and retain desired students, attract and support faculty, foster partnerships, bolster contributed income and increase the value of the degrees you grant.

And when it comes to introducing yourself to new people, you’ll get started on square two… instead of square zero (or maybe, negative one).


Building the brands of two academic innovators

Olin College of Engineering

Just into its second decade, Olin is the country’s only engineering “Lab school” for undergraduates. Immersive and hands-on, students start solving real problems from day one—and both faculty and students are engaged in the continuous evolution of the curriculum. Grounded in a culture that embraces innovation, entrepreneurship and design for human needs, Olin values new ways of looking at things, and bases learning on passion, curiosity, discovery and real-world challenges. It inspires and educates engineer-innovators to dream, prototype, build and promulgate innovations that improve lives, communities and, ultimately, the world.

Olin’s mission and impact extend beyond the school’s campus. From the outset, the college has had a dual, intertwined mission. In addition to pioneering an innovative undergraduate learning experience, through the Olin Collaboratory, an initiative to share new, best practices with the wider engineering education community, the school works with other educators and institutions to transform undergraduate engineering education around the world.

Olin’s brand–its positioning, messaging and visual expression–was initially conceived before there was a school at all, and once the college was up and running it was out of sync with the energy and innovation of the enterprise. Sametz Blackstone collaborated with Olin senior leadership to evolve new brand positioning, top-line messages, a risk-taking visual system, and print and digital communications that live Olin’s brand promise–all of which have helped to propel Olin on its upward trajectory.



“We are seeing more and more people coming on to campus with an excitement about the Olin mission and what we are trying to achieve. All of our print and online materials compellingly express our brand in a way that distinguishes us from other engineering colleges.

“Applications have been up 37% over the two years since we worked with Sametz Blackstone to launch the new brand–and we’ve become one of the 10 most selective colleges in the country. Our alumni tell us that more and more doors are open to them because of the reputation of Olin, and parents tell us that more of their friends have heard of Olin when the small school’s name comes up in conversation. Corporate leaders are taking notice and wanting to connect into the college; more than 1,500 people have come from 500 institutions to experience Olin firsthand. There’s a sophistication and energy to our new messaging and materials that is attracting attention from the right audiences–and creating a buzz.”

Michelle Davis, Chief Marketing Officer, Olin College of Engineering


Vermont College of Fine Arts

Graduate-only, arts-only, low-residency national center for arts education in the hills of Vermont. Like other models that don’t fit people’s established notions, VCFA had to work first to build meaning in what and why their new model was—and how and when it fit prospects’ needs, budgets and expectations. We collaborated with this innovative institution to help define and promote their new model, craft messaging to reach a far-flung audience, and create new print and digital communications to support recruitment and fundraising—all the while building the new brand image.

Vermont College of Fine Arts logo

“The fastest-growing school in Vermont, VCFA is increasingly gaining in national and international visibility for graduate education in the arts. The brand work by Sametz Blackstone is a critical element in that growth. “The rebranding included an overhaul of the institution’s identity, printed materials, campus signage and website. The site puts us in conversation with well-established and respected programs at the national level while it dynamically reflects the outstanding quality of our programs. The year-over-year stats continue to be impressive.

“Historically, this college was thought by many to be only a collection of individual programs, each with its own challenges and accomplishments, one with a long history. One of the primary goals for VCFA with its new brand system was to help all of us—those of us inside the College and those from the outside—to see VCFA as a cohesive whole.

The brand certainly does that. And while each academic program at VCFA has a distinct identity, the brand has helped express a greater sense of unity among these outstanding programs––and insured that program successes accrue to the whole college. “The brand now says current, hip, 21st century art school. Prospective students see a place that is art and only art, and students who look like they do, and faculty they aspire to be. The brand both projects newness and solidity, flexibility and high quality. We aspire to be the top graduate arts college in the country. The brand foundation is there.”Matthew Monk, Academic Dean, Vermont College of Fine Arts