It was pure serendipity that I read Brand Immortality by Pringle and Field on my way to a conference where I was to speak about branding to a group of enrollment executives from colleges and universities. It wasn’t a giant “Aha!” moment, but I realized that institutions of higher education represent the longest-lasting brands in our relatively young country.

The authors of Brand Immortality begin their book trying to defeat the notion that brands are transient and have a life cycle much like individual products. They would get no argument about that from most university trustees and administrators, who preside over institutions that have maintained the same name for decades or even centuries. And, make no mistake about it, colleges and universities market themselves – many to survive, a smaller number to thrive. What strikes me as odd is despite the amount of money that most colleges spend on direct mail, print and web advertising, social media marketing, and many other categories, how little they focus on branding.

With more than 3,000 “competitors,” U.S. colleges and universities need to differentiate themselves, particularly in the coming years when the baby boom echo begins to fade. Of course, differences in location, selectivity, programs, and cost mean that no school actually competes with all other schools. A student in Nebraska seeking a nursing degree, for example, is likely to look at a small number of local or regional colleges that offer such programs. A student wanting to attend Princeton is likely to focus mainly on peer-group institutions like other Ivy League schools, and a few other colleges of high academic reputation but with more predictable admissions outcomes.

Even with this self-selection, though, colleges still face a daunting task to fill their incoming classes not just with bodies but with students with the right academic, extra-curricular, financial, and other traits. The competition for the right students (or occasionally any students) has forced colleges to look at their marketing efforts in conventional business terms: lead generation, relationship management, etc. This business-like focus is largely a good thing for colleges, but too much focus on pure lead generation presents one risk: loss of focus on branding.

College marketing materials often look interchangeably alike. Happy, diverse students; a green and leafy campus; engaged, enthusiastic professors, etc. Not that these images are all bad – they suggest to students that four years at that college will be pleasant and productive. Unfortunately, these same materials rarely hit on one or two factors that really separate that school from its competition. As counter-examples, let’s look at a pair of Columbias:

Colmbia University. One example of a university that has done a solid branding job is Columbia University. While one might say that as an Ivy League school that can reject nine out of ten applicants, Columbia U has all the branding it needs, the school still has to compete with seven other Ivies and various other peer schools to attract the most accomplished students. I’ve watched their marketing efforts for more than a decade, and they exploit perhaps the most important difference they have to offer: they are the only Ivy in New York City, and are located right on Broadway.

The Columbia University website (and all other marketing collateral) identifies the school by its official brand name, “Columbia University in the City of New York.” The big photo at the top of the site (at least when I wrote this) wasn’t the classic shot of Low Library, but a night shot of the Empire State Building. Not a happy student, enthusiastic prof, or tree (yes, there are trees in this urban enclave) in sight. I know at one point they mailed posters to applicants that didn’t show the campus, but a spectacular view of the city skyline. Written materials I’ve seen emphasized New York City as a “playground” for Columbia students and a key part of their undergraduate education.

One key aspect of any branding effort is identifying the segment of the market one wants to appeal to. This may mean that your branding efforts may actually discourage some customers. That isn’t all bad – few brands are intended to appeal to 100% of the market. In Columbia’s case, their emphasis on being located in the heart of New York City will likely reduce interest from students to whom an urban campus holds no appeal, or who worry about giant rats. But that’s a good thing – these students would be unlikely to make it through the entire enrollment process anyway, and, if they did actually matriculate, might pose a retention problem.

Does CU’s branding work? In the last decade or two, they have outpaced almost all of their rivals in percentage increase in applications. A few years ago, I saw the results of research that asked students at a dozen or two of the nation’s most selective schools a variety of questions about their college process, current happiness, and so on. One of the questions asked whether “location” was important in the selection process. While virtually every school had a modest percentage who said that location was an factor, Columbia U was off the chart on that question with nearly half of the respondents citing the importance of location.

Columbia College. Sticking with the “Columbia” theme for the moment, another school that has taken a focused approah to branding is Columbia College Chicago. (This school faces the additional challenge of brand confusion with the more famous Manhattan-based Columbia.) The tagline in one ad I viewed said simply, “The largest and most diverse private arts and media college in the nation.” Their self-description on their website is just a couple of paragraphs, and focuses on how their size and Chicago location let them offer “an unparalleled array of courses with exceptional technological resources in the heart of one of America’s greatest cities.” Few colleges, given the opportunity to answer the question, “Tell me about your school,” would be as brief and focused as Chicago’s Columbia. That’s solid branding.

Name Recognition vs. Brand Image. Even colleges with strong name recognition need to determine if they have built a brand. The two Columbias have done that, in my opinion, but many other schools may have familiar names but fuzzy brand images. What do they stand for? What’s unique about them?

My colleague Sally Rubenstone has for years tried to launch an editorial feature on College Confidential with a working title, “What’s So Special About…?” The premise was simple – in an effort to help students differentiate between thousands of college options, let the colleges themselves identify those unique characteristics which separate them from the rest – unique academic options, unusual campus amenities, and so on. Amazingly, most of the colleges Sally had contact with were unable to articulate a single truly unique advantage they offered their students. Instead, they recited the usual viewbook text about faculty who really interacted with students, study abroad programs, and so on.

Last week, I heard Murphy Monroe, Admissions Director at the aforementioned Columbia College Chicago, speak about his school’s recruitment process. I’m sure had he been on Sally’s contact list he would have summarized the key factors that differentiate Columbia from other art schools as quickly and succinctly as their website. Understanding “what’s so special about” an institution is the first step to effective branding.

Being unable to suggest anything about a college or university that differs from its peers is a branding problem. Emotional branding can be important, too. Budweiser beer may not taste much different than other American beers, but they have advertise for decades to distinguish their brand in emotional terms.

Until institutions can internally develop their branding strategy, they won’t be able to communicate what they stand for to others. And, when every high school senior is a “lead” at dozens of colleges, branding may well be the key factor in turning that lead into an applicant and eventually an enrolled student.

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