Four dimensions of brand-focused research

by Caity McLaughlin Lischick for New England Journal of Higher Education

Not long ago, “brand” was an unmentionable word in the higher education landscape—one that came with suspicious connotations of consumer packaged goods and retail. Today, however, there’s increasingly broad acceptance that a higher education institution’s (HEI’s) brand is critical to attracting and retaining the best students and faculty, as well as engaging alumni in meaningful ways. Brand is no longer to be ignored, but to be managed with intent.

But first: What is an academic brand? It’s certainly much more than your logo or seal. An HEI’s brand is what the institution means out in the world: its value and values, the expectations people have of it, and what differentiates it from its peers.

Active brand management can make all the difference in ensuring the right students are finding you—and staying with you.

When your brand is in sync with how you want to be known, you’re in good shape. But many HEIs face a lack of awareness with their key audiences (i.e. students who would be a great fit just don’t know about the school), while others need to dispel myths or misperceptions (i.e. only “x” type of student should apply or will do well here—when that’s not true at all).

The good news? Active brand management can make all the difference in ensuring the right students are finding you—and staying with you—and that your alumni become engaged, active ambassadors for your institution.

So how do you get there?

The first step in any brand-building initiative is research: knowing where your brand is today and where you aspire to be in the years to come. A helpful rubric for thinking about brand-focused research is to consider four “dimensions:” qualitative/quantitative and internal/external.

Qualitative vs. quantitative

Qualitative research is most useful for exploring open-ended questions about where your institution’s brand is currently, where it’s been, and where leadership would like it to go.

In one-on-one interviews and focus groups, walk through your institution’s goals and vision, as well as the challenges that may stand in the way. Who is the school attracting (and enrolling) right now, and who makes for a good fit? Which brand attributes are currently associated with the institution, which attributes would interviewees like to see associated, and what myths and outdated perceptions need to be actively dispelled? Where is the institution currently positioned in the competitive landscape—and where does it want to be?

A standard list of questions for all participants, like those posed above, will ensure a common baseline for reporting purposes—so that you’re able to make some generalizations about the views expressed in your interviews. However, qualitative research offers the opportunity to explore unanticipated avenues of inquiry, too. Participants should be encouraged to opine on the issues most critical to them. These are inherently personal, but always ending an interview with the query, “What haven’t we discussed that you think it’s important for me to know?” will help you tease out any unexpected topics to be covered.

Quantitative, survey-based approaches are best employed to gauge where your brand is right now or where it’s been—not where you want it to go.

Quantitative, survey-based approaches are best employed to gauge where your brand is right now or where it’s been—not where you want it to go. These types of responses are innately limited, due to the structural constraints of a survey, but quantitative surveying does offer the opportunity to go broader with your reach than you may have the time or budget to do qualitatively. For example, you can engage with a much broader swath of current students or alumni by using a quantitative survey that’s distributed via email than you ever could with 1:1 interviews or in-person focus groups. Moreover, Facebook and other social media platforms offer opportunities to connect with prospective students and their parents for quantitative surveying.

Internal vs. external

Moving beyond methods, it’s important to be thoughtful about who you’re surveying. Think of possible participants on an axis that runs from those closest to the HEI’s vision and therefore the most “internal” (i.e. leadership and board) all the way to external audiences who are completely uninitiated (i.e. prospective students and parents).

Start on the internal side of the axis and move down the line, beginning with key leadership and board members to get a firm sense of the institution’s current and future vision and objectives. Qualitative methods are best employed with these internal constituents.

Then, seek out individuals and groups progressively farther out on your axis, before turning your attention to truly external groups like recommenders, prospective recommenders, prospective parents and prospective students. As you move along the spectrum from internal to external, you can shift from qualitative to quantitative methods.

For constituents in the middle of the spectrum (staff, faculty, students, alumni) structure qualitative interviews with a select number of individuals who are representative of—and who can serve as ambassadors back to—their respective groups. Then go wider with quantitative surveys to engage additional members of these constituencies.

Your quantitative survey should invite your respondents to rate or rank the importance of the vision, values and priorities you’ve gathered in your qualitative interviews, enabling you to validate—or challenge—what you’ve learned along the way. Do students believe that the institution is delivering the value leadership it claims it does? Do alumni agree with the reasons staff think they should stay involved?

Squeaky wheels” should be invited into the process, which will go a long way toward diffusing subsequent resistance.

Engaging with these different constituents can also be a huge help in fostering enthusiasm for, and investment in, brand-building. Any “squeaky wheels” should be invited into the process, which will go a long way toward diffusing subsequent resistance to change and will encourage them to be cheerleaders for your efforts. Ultimately, an inclusive process will pay dividends when it comes time to move from findings and recommendations into implementation.

Adding internal and external audits

Before your brand investigation is complete, gather a cross-campus sampling of communications materials to audit against what you’ve learned in your research. Do your print, digital and social communications verbally and visually reflect the attributes you want to reinforce and those you aspire to have associated with your institution—or do they send different messages entirely? Do they match what you want key audiences to believe? Does your use of color, type, imagery and design advance what you want to be known for?

Likewise, review the top-level communications of your competitive set. What value propositions does your HEI advance? What is their verbal and visual affect? This will help you stake out your own position in the competitive landscape.

With research in four dimensions in hand, you’ll be able to build a solid platform for both verbal and visual expression, and create a relevant, resonant organizational brand that helps you achieve your institution’s tactical and strategic goals.

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