For as long as I can remember, I’ve used a series of three slides in conference presentations and campus meetings with clients. They describe the difference between a “house of brands” and a “branded house.” They’re relevant to higher ed because many colleges and universities have unintentionally slipped into a house of brands philosophy. A house of brands is a multi-brand strategy such as those embraced by General Motors and Proctor & Gamble. Each brand is supported by its own distinctive marketing strategy. Any institution that is made up of a collection of units (business school, engineering school, arts & sciences, etc.) that are each marketed under a different name and a customized program is essentially a house of brands.
A house of brands strategy can work well in some industries, especially when the branded products or units can’t replace one another. But in higher ed, a branded house approach is almost always preferable. While many institutions are beginning to recognize this, more are still struggling with converting. A branded house is one in which there is a great deal of synergy between the units of an institution. When University of X adds a school of education and names it the “University of X School of Education” as opposed to naming it after the donor who funded it, that’s a sign the institution is probably applying a branded house approach.
A house of brands approach gives each of an institution’s units the flexibility to determine their own target audiences and fight their own battles unfettered by the rest of the institution. Many deans find this appealing for the wrong reasons. And many underestimate the costs associated with successful implementation of a house of brands strategy. Cost is one of the primary reasons a branded house strategy is more appropriate for higher ed. It’s substantially more efficient and effective to focus on marketing the overarching brand of the institution.
Ithaca College has been moving in this direction. In the recent Inside Higher Ed article, The Sum or Its Parts?, reporter Kellie Woodhouse describes how the College is moving to promote the “comprehensive student experience,” an effort that actually began a few years back with the “Ready” campaign. Faculty concerns that the strategy will fail to “address the unique substance of the college’s academic programs” don’t even make sense. They are confusing “marketing” the College with “selling” the College. Marketing is done by the marketing department. Selling is done by admission officers. Marketing, which is a “top of the funnel activity,” should emphasize the whole of Ithaca College. It will fill the inquiry pool with a wide variety of prospects interested in many different programs. Selling, a “bottom of the funnel activity,” will involve working with prospects interested in specific programs to help them understand the unique aspects of Ithaca’s individual programs. At the top, the marketing effort (which is one-to-many) should embrace the branded house strategy and focus on the College as a whole. At the bottom, the selling effort (which is more one-to-one) should focus on responding to the needs and interests of each prospect.
Unfortunately, many institutions only recently came to realize these important issues about strategic marketing. Now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s difficult to get deans to relinquish control of the programs they’ve implemented to promote their own colleges or schools for the good of the entire institution. But with all the pressure on higher ed these days, I predict many are beginning to realize they are stronger united than divided.