Institutional Branding Demands Presidential Ownership: An Open Letter to College and University CEOs

For an institutional branding effort to succeed, presidents must provide leadership and champion the cultural change that breathes life into a brand foundation.

Your school’s brand is probably well-established in the minds of your employees, current students, alumni, and others who have a vested interest in your institution’s success. After all, you—and they—have contributed in many ways to creating and communicating your institution’s narrative. Their stories and perceptions revolve around the interactions they’ve each had with your institution, and the impact those experiences have had on their lives.

Organizing and reinforcing your stakeholders’ positive perceptions about your school by the way you and your college or university community members act and talk about your school will help create a healthy, efficient, effective, and optimistic culture whose members are eager to follow your lead toward a bright future.

But most of your prospective stakeholders (future students, employees, donors, influencers, local opinion leaders, and others you’d like to engage more significantly in the life of your school) may not have had the benefit of meaningful personal experience with your school just yet. So their perceptions are waiting to be shaped.

Exercising leadership discipline in the management of your college’s brand is the best way to help prospective stakeholders know your institution as you want them to know it, and to encourage them to act in ways you’d like them to act: inquire, apply, enroll, persist to completion, donate to, and advocate for your college.

In many ways, the expression and demonstration of your college’s brand is a “shorthand” version of your institutional mission and vision. It’s true to your institutional charter and heritage, it reflects that to which you are committed to provide your communities, and it can guide your leadership team’s decision-making toward achieving your institutional vision.

Imagine the powerfully organized influence and impact of every member of your campus community informing and inspiring all of their operational and promotional decisions by considering the simple question, “Does this opportunity align with—and support—our brand pillars, promise, centering idea, and character?”

Just as important, of course, is the influence such alignment and decision-making consistency can have on the confidence that members of your campus community will have in you as their president.

By creating a campus culture that is rallied around a shared brand foundation, and by exercising the discipline to make strategic program and policy decisions in a way that obviously supports and aligns with that brand, you will inspire confidence and enthusiasm among your employees, your students, your alumni, and members of your community who count on your success to help them achieve theirs.

Lead by example

Successful brand initiatives in and beyond higher education share one common trait: the CEO champions the effort. Clarifying and elevating your institutional brand simply can’t happen unless you assume the mantle of role-model-in-chief.

  • In your speeches, writings, and casual conversations, make it a point to allude to, or even directly reference, the concepts and words that make up your school’s brand pillars, promise, centering idea, and character.
  • When selecting student and faculty stories to share with others, make certain you demonstrate how they represent at least one of you school’s pillars, or how they deliver on its promise.
  • In your own demeanor and attitude, and in your own office, create an ambiance that exudes elements of your school’s brand character.
  • And in all that you say and do in your daily life as the CEO of your campus community, demonstrate that you are personally and professionally committed to your school’s centering idea.

For inspiration, listen to the words of Dr. Mark Putnam, president of Central College (IA) as he reflects on the leadership role he continues to play in a very effective brand clarification and elevation initiative launched a few years ago (and still going strong.

In future installments of this blog series, I’ll offer some inspiration about how key administrative units across your campus can breathe life into your school’s brand foundation, from admissions and fundraising to the more challenging academic and student life programs, as well as athletics and business operations. Stay tuned.