Educational institutions use many forms of media – like brochures, social media, educational fairs and college festivals – to market themselves. This is in addition to placing expensive ads in premium media outlets, all with the underlying hope of becoming a BRAND that needs no introduction. A brand that the management and faculty carry with pride. A brand that students can represent smilingly while attending family functions and inter-college festivals.
Brand Recall vs. Brand Impact
In reality, however, marketing can ensure a certain amount of brand recall, not brand impact. That can only come when the institution has a truly differentiated story.
Crafting such a story in the education sector requires clarity and courage. For instance, it takes courage for the institution to operate within a narrow area of specialisation. The generic opportunities for leadership in many sectors have already been taken by central government-run institutions. Whether it is engineering, medical, design or law, it will be difficult to dislodge the first names that come to mind. But as the Indian School of Business has proved, it is not impossible.
How Institutional Brands are Created
Let me outline the sequence in which educational institutions need to go about configuring their brand.
1. Develop an overall blueprint
Develop an understanding of the big picture: the goals and aspirations that the brand will champion, the specific student segments it will target and the manner in which the institution shall embody the character of the brand.
The vision, values and purpose get defined at this stage, and go on to become the supreme and enduring elements of the brand strategy.
2. Internalize the brand personality
A strong institutional brand is built from the inside out. As the most important brand ambassadors of the institution, the management and the faculty members need to be completely aligned to the brand’s values. Every time a faculty member stands in front of a classroom, it is the institution’s brand that is in action.
Signature policies and processes should therfore be revised to ensure congruence between the inner personality and the external projected personality. There is also plenty of scope for innovation in pedagogy.
3. Infuse the brand into the students
The third stage is to ensure that the students epitomize the institution’s character and standards. This not only attracts employers, but also the right kind of collaborations.
Students are not only the largest and most visible body of ambassadors of the brand, they are also its primary products. It goes without saying that the proof of the brand pudding lies in the consistency, competence and decorum exhibited by the students.
4. Cultivate the alumni
This is the secret sauce that made Harvard the brand it is. Almost at the outset, the institution learnt to feed off of the success of its past students, by actively involving them in the management of the institution’s reputation. This created a million parallel connections between Harvard and business enterprises. As a result, they continue to wield unprecedented influence, manage to keep their curriculum ahead of the times and help current students find their most suitable perch while exiting the campus.
Institutions in India have only recently started investing in active alumni management as a way of expanding the footprint of their brand.
A fundamental shift in thinking
If a brand does a systematic job of these four dimensions, it will not need the expensive promotion or publicity campaigns that have today become the mainstay of many private institutions. Most of them are inherently conflicted about it but feel helpless in the wake of competitive pressures.
These are competitive times and it is understandable that institutions want to do more. They can instead do better.
A foundational shift in thinking is the need of the hour and begins with the existential question: Who are we? The institution’s differentiated study begins in answering this.