Burnishing the Brand in Higher Education

It may be easy to imagine the difference branding makes for a consumer product like an automobile. Terms like luxury, rugged and sporty no doubt conjure particular brands of vehicles in the minds of consumers, perceptions that are derived from years -- often decades -- of targeted branding.

For an institution of higher learning, branding may look a bit different, yet it is no less important to the perception among the school's various constituents, including current students, prospective students, alumni and residents in the surrounding community. When Peace College changed its name to William Peace University and transitioned to a coeducational institution, the occasion offered unprecedented opportunity for school leaders to reinvigorate the brand.

Managing a university's brand is an ongoing process of refinement. Each year brings a new class with its own unique contributions and expectations; new technology and media channels must be analyzed and effectively incorporated into the fabric of campus communications; and budgets and priorities are scrutinized regularly. Take into account the additional considerations of a name change and the transition from single-gender to coeducational, and rebranding becomes all-consuming for those with marketing and communications in their job titles.

What does a university rebranding entail? At each decision point, whether selecting logos for T-shirts or considering new signage on campus, we begin by talking to our various constituent groups to determine what resonates most. At WPU, the arrival of our first male students meant our branding had to reach a new audience. In addition, we were anxious to share the news of our updated offerings, including an expanded athletics program. Incorporating these changes took place over many months, and we continue to gather data to hone our brand and message. Sometimes this takes place in formal focus groups; other times it comes to us by way of casual conversation around campus. Even with a choice as simple as deciding which logo to use on a particular item, each decision is made with purpose and deliberation.

Because consistency is critical for ensuring our message is received and reinforced, each piece of communication, whether distributed internally or externally, must first go through the WPU marketing department, where appearance, verbiage and style are checked for adherence to our style guide. Having a central distribution point gives us ultimate control of our messaging and branding. When materials go out, they pass the litmus test for what we are trying to achieve if someone can pick up a piece and immediately identify it as coming from William Peace University.

Rebranding requires us to pay attention to these visible, tangible items, but when we think about how our brand is perceived, we must also consider the culture on campus. Though harder to quantify than logos or signs, what we are really pursuing is a feeling. We want to brand the experience individuals have on campus, and at WPU, this realization has meant a revolution in the way we interact with one another and with visitors.

There are not many places you can visit these days where the people you encounter are not constantly looking down at their smartphones. This practice is so commonplace we hardly take notice. At William Peace University, our administration and staff decided to challenge that culture by walking around campus with intention and purpose -- to greet those we meet with eye contact and a ready smile. It may sound hopelessly old-fashioned, but this single gesture absolutely epitomizes the welcoming, friendly culture we are cultivating at WPU.

Another way we brand the experience of newcomers is by helping them find their way. As a university located in a lively urban area, we have the privilege of hosting countless visitors each day, many of whom are unfamiliar with the campus and need help getting pointed in the right direction. Instead of pointing, however, we take the extra time to actually walk with them to their destination. We have a small campus, so this is fairly easy for us, but we believe it demonstrates just how caring our community is.

These welcoming gestures may seem insignificant when taken at face value, but accumulated over time, they make a lasting impression, not only on visitors but on students and staff as well. There is something infectious about a friendly face and showing concern for others' well-being. At William Peace University, this is perhaps the most subtle but impactful rebranding we have achieved.

Dr. Debra M. Townsley is president of William Peace University (formerly Peace College), a private four-year university located in downtown Raleigh, N.C.