What is your brand? It’s a question we should constantly come back to, whether or not we’re being asked or making strategic and tactical decisions. A university’s brand is more than a positioning statement, and it’s more than its expression: the display ads that drive awareness and the viewbooks that help compel a prospect to apply. As we know, brands are built on institutional culture and on ownable strengths that make us relevant and distinct from peers. But for our customers — those who buy in — a brand is consumed every day based on a promise of what that experience would be.
We say that a brand must be authentic; therefore, we know that a brand is more than (wonderfully phrased) words on a page — because, in higher education, a brand is lived. It’s the spaces we keep and the experiences we create on campus. It’s how a door opens and who and what is behind that door to greet a student.
But how often do we step back and think about how we’ve aligned our brand with our campus space — and, conversely — our campus space with our stated brand?
If you walked a mile on your campus, would the feeling you feel at the end be your proclaimed brand promise?
I typically say that when you have a large lecture hall, distance learning starts at the 10th row. You might as well not be in the classroom at that point because you are not engaged.
- Dr. Rickes
President, Rickes Associates
Higher education — and the world — is in a state of flux right now. Maybe that’s putting it mildly (fine, it’s chaos). A global pandemic has upended how and where we educate, exacerbating existing trends and forever changing our industry. Gen Z looks at education and outcomes differently than any generation before it, and next up? A demographic cliff with a mandate compelling us to grow — smarter, not bigger. Now is the time when campuses should be strategically re-evaluating their use of physical space on campus — from dorms to classrooms to quads and every common space in between.
Amidst this disruption, let’s not lose the opportunity to ask ourselves: are we living our brand? Now is the perfect time to ideate and innovate, to ensure that our audiences feel our brand: from the website meta description to being handed their diploma at graduation — and every campus experience in between. At SimpsonScarborough, we believe that brand strategy is institutional strategy. Let’s use this opportunity to make it so.
To think about this, I spoke with Persis Rickes, Ph.D., President and Founding Principal of Rickes Associates, a team of higher education futurists that deal in spatial planning and optimization. Dr. Rickes was recently quoted in The Chronicle’s “Rethinking Campus Spaces” (a great resource on this topic), and I was struck by how many of the campus space trends carry implications for brand strategy. Together, we talked through some of the biggest trends and questions that should be considered in ensuring brand and campus alignment.
Distance Learning? Closer Than You Think
COVID-19 caused every college and university to grapple with how to sell the value of their campus when everything suddenly went virtual. However, even before the pandemic, there were double-digit percentages of students attending brick and mortar institutions while simultaneously taking courses online, some at their own institution. Students balancing online and in-person courses is nothing new, but we’ve often sold the classroom experience on our campuses as The Gold Standard.
In “Rethinking Campus Spaces,” Dr. Rickes said, “I typically say that when you have a large lecture hall, distance learning starts at the 10th row. You might as well not be in the classroom at that point because you are not engaged.” If rows of students in larger classrooms are disengaged, and classroom learning is simultaneously happening from the dorm room WiFi, we need to look hard at brand messages that promise an experiential education and an engaged community. As marketers, we’re often selling an ownable variation of those ideas. But if the where of learning isn’t aligned, we must consider the implications before campus planners make strategic spatial choices.
If you walked across campus, if you sat in a classroom, or if you stopped by a professor’s office — would you feel your brand in action?
The Promise of Personalization and Inclusion
Marketers know as well as anyone: this generation of prospective students want to be seen. We’ve built vast, expensive communication apparatuses to connect with prospects on a more personal level. It’s a key promise of certain institutions: personal attention and an individualized learning approach. Fifteen years ago, resort-quality amenities may have been a driving factor for why a student might attend a university. How times change. Students now want to see their desired outcomes, they’re more cost-conscious, and they want ownership over their campus and their experience. If you work for a university that claims student individuality in theory, in practice can your students:
- Create a custom academic path for themselves?
- Go to the wellness center and be supported in creating a personal mental and physical wellness regimen?
- Truly own and customize their living space, and feel like they played a role in shaping it?
- Feel welcome, known, and supported at the career center?
Fostering inclusivity and nurturing diversity is another critical component of living out the promises of our brands (and, in this case, our missions). Sometimes it’s a matter of striving even harder to answer the questions raised above. As Dr. Rickes noted, “Often, first-generation students don’t have that natural sense of ownership.” A university may feel that the proper levels of attention and support are there for those students who know to take it, but first-generation students need greater guidance to know that it’s there for them.
The answer to this issue, once again, lies in making choices about how we use campus space. Schools must intentionally create inclusion by building club and activity spaces, space in cafeterias for greater diversity in cuisine offerings, performance spaces, and collaborative, communal living spaces that say, “You are welcome here. We see you”. Oh, and where you put those spaces on campus? That says a lot about your priorities, too.
Office Hours (And Seeking Support From Faculty)
It’s a cornerstone of higher education in the United States; the ability to seek out faculty for help, to discuss research, or to simply find mentorship. So many schools (and their faculty) find immense pride in these relationships. But how does space reinforce – or impede – the delivery of attention and support? Closed doors, small, book-lined rooms, narrow hallways — does that signal a welcoming environment for these essential conversations?
Times are slowly changing. Dr. Rickes spoke of one instance where a university’s millennial-dominated faculty took the hinges off their doors to emphasize accessibility. So it’s clear that a newer generation of faculty see the need — and have the desire — to be more open and more collaborative. But that’s a reskin, at best. The faculty office needs a full-scale overhaul if universities can hope to fully live out the cultures that they claim.
There is so much else to consider, and so many questions worth asking as you think about the many ways in which a campus must bring a brand to life.
How often do we step back and think about how we’ve aligned our brand with our campus space — and, conversely — our campus space with our stated brand?
When you provide support to students, are those systems comprehensively centralized? Are students forced to navigate a web of different spaces and offices for student services or academic support centers?
If your campus claims ties to its community, is your community welcomed into spaces on your campus – or does it only work the other way around? Does your performing arts center face inward toward campus or outward to signal the entire community is invited? And what about those old stone walls that line the perimeter of so many campuses — what does that say about who you value?
By design, every institutional brand strategy is different. Each school has different strengths, different distinctions, and different cultures. Vitally — and often forgotten — is that each campus also has a different sense of place and utility of space as well.
Clearly and authentically communicating your institution’s story has never been more important. But while we’re in disruption mode, it’s worth asking: if you walked across campus, if you sat in a classroom, or if you stopped by a professor’s office — would you feel your brand in action?
Jack Edgar is a SimpsonScarborough Strategist helping to form higher education brands that thrive & endure. He holds a BBA in Marketing from William & Mary where he double majored in Sociology, and he's an especially good follow on Twitter (@JedgarAllenPoe). Outside of work you can find Jack at home in Washington DC, likely watching a movie. Learn more about Jack and the rest of our team here.