Building your school’s brand mosaic: ensuring your story is heard

by Roger Sametz for Higher Education Marketing Report

Your brand is built and understood through your offerings, history, communications, behavior—and what others are saying about you. To connect with desired prospects, you need to make the most of the communications you can control—and influence, and provide context for, the ones you can’t.

Today’s high school students sort through more “noise” in the process of exploring, evaluating, applying to, and eventually, choosing a college than any generation before them. Ensure that your story is being heard above the din by prospective students, their parents, and influencers.

Of course, they still have the sources of input that their older siblings and parents did: recommendations from enthusiastic alumni and from classmates a few years ahead, pressure from mom and dad, print brochures, and enthusiastic recruiters manning the tables at college fairs.

The web is where things get a little more chaotic. Most colleges nowadays offer a website—of varying levels of quality and depth—for student perusal, and many have also planted a flag on a social network or two (or ten). But that’s not where their digital footprint ends.

Conversations and interactions on social media platforms play a powerful role in students’ decision-making processes today—and as much as schools would likely prefer those exchanges all to be positive ones, they can’t actually control what gets said about them on Facebook or Twitter, unless it’s on their own page. (And even on their own pages, they can only exhibit so much control before their users and fans—and detractors—call foul.)

Your challenge as a marketing or admissions pro is to successfully navigate this new, fragmented landscape––and build and manage your brand with intent.

It’s a complex, sometimes daunting environment. So many choices, so few verities. And in this new world, it’s not about creating one-way, “broadcast” impressions anymore… if it ever was. Sure, you can still project your desired identity and messages. But now your constituents, potential constituents, and commentators across all media are free to share their experiences and expectations, right alongside your own. All this “communication”––together with your offerings, accumulated reputation, and the experiences you deliver––converges to establish your brand.

Your challenge as a marketing or admissions pro in higher education is to successfully navigate this new, fragmented landscape and to build and manage your brand with intent. And because different people are looking at your school with different needs and expectations, you need to build a brand that is compelling and cohesive at an institutional level and meaningful to people looking at specific aspects of who you are. Some people need and want the expansive “horizontal” view; others want to dig deep into a “vertical” offering.

Further, to help ensure that the story you want to be told is being heard, you must make the most of the communications you can control—the collateral you make, your website, your blog posts and tweets––and influence, and provide context for, the ones you can’t.

You need to build a brand that is compelling and cohesive at an institutional level and meaningful to people looking at specific aspects of who you are.

How? By creating and arranging a mosaic of inputs and ideas—both organization- and crowd-generated—where each “tile” is carefully positioned relative to others to form a brand mural that people can understand and believe in: an authentic representation of your school that people will want to connect their own personal brand to. It might feel like you’ve lost control with all the noise and options out there, but the key to success is to see your mosaic as an opportunity, not a problem. You get to place the tiles you control, and you can create a compelling brand image.

Make the most of the communications you can control––and influence the ones you can’t.

Getting started

Hone your vision and mission

With so much information available out there, it’s more important than ever to establish a clear vision and mission for your institution: what it stands for, promises, and delivers. Your vision and mission will be your guide as you choose and place the different tiles of your mosaic, and will provide context for the tiles you, or others, place. Distilling who you are in a clear way also makes it easier for others to remember you—and ultimately, to recommend you.

Be clear on your brand attributes

Once linked only to automobiles and toothpaste, brand attributes can be important differentiators. Is your culture collaborative or competitive? Are you career-driven or do you have a more classic liberal arts approach to learning? Is your pedagogy structured or DIY? Agreeing on a set of attributes that you want to have associated with your school provides guidance for future writing and design––and, later, a yardstick by which you can measure “are we known for what we want to be known for?”

Build for different points of view

You are not a monolithic organization and neither are your constituents. Through quantitative and qualitative research—and from feedback in different forms—you can discover what the different “ways in” to your institution are for different people. For example, a guidance counselor at a high school might be looking for information on alumni placement and career success, while a particular student might care more about your campus culture and extracurricular options. A parent might be concerned about class sizes and one-on-one time with faculty, while their child is wondering about how their degree will be perceived by potential employers in their dream field. You can offer each one a path into your school through your communications—if you know what they care about, and why.

You are not a monolithic organization and neither are your constituents. Provide different “ways in” that are relevant to different constituents.

Encourage participation

Since conversations about you are happening anyway (and affect your brand), you can’t create your mosaic without them. You can either use them to add detail to your identity (via user experiences, feedback, and recommendations), or risk having them scrawled across your carefully constructed brand (via negative blog posts, tweets, or YouTube videos). While you can’t directly control what’s said, you can determine the context of how it’s heard—and be respected for your openness to dialogue, and different voices in your community. If you don’t provide a strong brand context with the tiles you can control, there’s a good likelihood that a negative story that you can’t control will become the story––at least for a time.

Match expression to meaning

Two mosaics with the same subject can look very different based on the materials chosen and how they’re deployed: highly-glazed, brightly colored, strongly-shaped tiles will have a very different affect than will matte, muted, randomly-chipped tiles. How you approach language, typography, design, color, imagery—and constituent engagement—can help differentiate you from your competitors and reinforce the brand meaning you want out there.

Getting more specific: yes, your school has a logo or seal, but it is primarily through your choices––and use––of type, color, imagery, and design, that the communications you make will be seen and evaluated. And particularly for current prospects, visual expression is content: if a potential student is turned off by your visual brand, he or she might never dig into the written content that you’ve slaved over.

For current prospects, visual expression is content.

Project light—and dark

We don’t typically talk about both the “light” and “dark” of our institutions. And, of course, we all want to focus on what’s great—and ignore (or more dangerously, hide) what isn’t. But transparency is no longer a choice. Your only choice is whether you embrace active or passive transparency: whether you want to determine how to address the light and dark or leave it up to your “viewers” to bring the dark to light.

Plan and proceed

It takes time to build your mosaic; you can’t do it all at once, or alone. So you’ve a choice as to which tiles you select and insert, and when—and how you incorporate the contributions of others—expected and otherwise. How you create and reveal your mural—and how you replace damaged or misplaced tiles—can reinforce (or not) the brand you’re trying to advance.

Thinking of your brand as a mosaic—one always in process—will inevitably change how you think of your role, and what’s possible with your communications. Previously, you focused only what you could control: your logo, tagline, viewbook, ads, website, events.

Thinking of your brand as a mosaic—one always in process—will inevitably change how you think of your role, and what’s possible with your communications.

But as the planner and facilitator of your brand mosaic, you have the opportunity to influence contributions from others that might previously have just seemed scary or out of control. Now you have the capacity to craft a compelling, authentic identity that will be meaningful to those whose interest, participation, and support are important to your school’s success.

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