How to Better Manage Your Higher Ed Initiative Branding

A considerable amount of design and creative work goes into supporting higher ed marketing initiatives. The numerous programs, services and big events require distinct, yet related, higher ed branding elements and an individual style of their own. But how do you deploy all those higher ed branding elements without confusing your audiences?

A truly effective higher ed branding strategy minimizes the complexity of the initiatives and allows your marketing teams to work more efficiently. Defining how the sub-brands within the overarching brand relate to one another, and enforcing those relationships, helps your audiences engage with your programs and understand how they fit in the greater initiative.


But managing marketing and higher ed branding efforts for such initiatives is no walk in the park. Moving forward big, school-wide goals means contending with:

  • Diverse sets of (non-traditional, non-student) audiences
  • A multitude of different teams spread out across the university and beyond
  • Competing needs of an ever-shifting mix of programs and services
  • Time scales often measured in years, not months

With so many events and programs happening all the time, and sometimes at the same time, there’s considerable opportunity for brand confusion. And without a clear brand strategy in place to provide context, the experience can quickly start to feel chaotic and overwhelming for your audience.

Brand hierarchy provides a roadmap for both — audiences and marketers — to follow. Leaving room for ambiguity in this critical element creates unnecessary roadblocks for your higher ed initiative to overcome.

Blockers to Branding Success for Higher Ed Initiatives

We’ve written previously about the challenges of positioning big initiatives on college campuses for success. A comprehensive marketing and communication strategy is a necessity for any higher ed institution launching a marketing initiative. And a logical, disciplined approach to higher ed branding, as well as a well-defined brand hierarchy, should be a part of every initiative’s communication plan.

In theory, that plan should help schools avoid embarking on branding misadventures in pursuit of their initiatives’ goals. Of course, that’s not always what happens.

So Many Logos, So Little Connection

Some higher ed marketing initiatives go on for years and generate numerous programs and services. And every stakeholder wants to differentiate their program or service from the others. They want a brand that’s unique in the initiative ecosystem.

University stakeholders are also no strangers to picking favorites. It’s not unusual to receive requests to make certain logos bigger or brighter, in order to give them extra (undue) prominence.

If too many programs insist on this type of special treatment, however, the cohesiveness of the initiative suffers. Instead of the program augmenting the shared message of the initiative, you end up with a logo salad — a bunch of seemingly unrelated and unconnected efforts.

Poor Internal Communication

On big projects, creative work sometimes gets passed between different teams. Unfortunately, there isn’t always sufficient communication between the outgoing and incoming teams in a big university initiative. More than a few marketing teams have inherited half-baked creative assets. And completing an unfinished design without sufficient information or the necessary context is never ideal.

Undoubtedly, poor communication often leads to worse outcomes. And if the design is for a key initiative asset, the lack of communication can end up negatively influencing your other higher ed branding assets down the road.

Moving Too Fast Creates Brand Confusion

It’s common for the branding strategy to evolve throughout the course of the initiative. Oftentimes, you build the initiative brand as you go. And building your brand on the fly can be effective. But you must go about it carefully and methodically. Ideally, you’d have the chance to review the resulting family of branding assets to make sure they all fit together and accurately reflect their proper inter-relationships.

However, branding and marketing work for higher ed initiatives frequently happens in a hurry. If the initiative has gathered momentum, there may be pressure to continue adding programming, or implement a spin-off idea. In other cases, a spin-off idea becomes a priority and just has to be implemented.

A more chaotic approach to brand-building results in a more chaotic presentation of the brand — wrong colors, wrong sizes, wrong placements. If you move too fast, you end up serving up that logo salad, or brand soup. And none of that helps the initiative brand. In fact, it leads to brand confusion.

3 Ways You Can Manage Branding Strategy for Your Higher Ed Initiatives

Branding clarity is critical in both higher ed recruiting and higher ed initiatives. But, in some ways, marketing to prospective students is much simpler. You just lean on the overall university brand and make use of the school’s primary logos.

For wide-reaching, multiple-audience higher education initiatives, however, it’s a bit of a different story. You still want the authority and weight of your school logo. But it’s the program or service sub-brands that should really be leading and making connections with your audience. Why? Because what’s important to your audiences at the end of the day are the programs, services and information the initiative delivers.

However, since you still want to underscore the connection between the programming and your school, the sub-brand assets you create should incorporate elements of both the initiative and the school brand.

Establish Brand Hierarchy

Higher ed initiatives generate many sub-brands. It’s important to present these sub-brands and sub-logos in their proper context to your audiences. Make sure that your audience can easily grasp the relationships between the various sub-brands of the initiative and the initiative itself.

There are several design principles that can be used to reinforce hierarchy. Scale, spacing and placement are just a few. Oftentimes the best tool will be a healthy dose of editing. With an initiative that generates sub-brands, there is often a desire from the internal stakeholders to include every logo possible on a given project. It’s best to thoughtfully view each piece through the audience’s eyes and only include the branding that will help the user take whatever action you may be asking of them.

The goal should be to ensure that you are providing the appropriate context for the target audience to understand the established brand relationships. Providing more than what is necessary will result in a visually noisy delivery that is typically less than successful.

Avoid Re-Invention

Inexperienced higher ed marketers have a tendency to want to create everything from scratch. But it’s just not necessary to make something new every time.

While there’s a time and a place for flexing your creative design muscles, sticking to the university brand book is a more efficient and appropriate way to create new higher ed branding assets.

And you should have plenty of material to source from the established brand. Colors, fonts, shapes, sizing, iconography, typography, overlays, backgrounds, treatments — there are a myriad of ways to blend these creative elements into an exciting family of sub-brand assets. Make something unique within the established brand system without breaking that system.
And how do you know if you’re doing it right? Pick three sub-logos randomly from your initiative. If they all look slightly different but are easily recognizable as part of the same cohort, you’ve done your job well.

Asset Design Based On Personas

Rarely is a program or event aimed at the entirety of your school initiative audience. Typically, programs are designed for a more specific demographic or affinity sub-set. Those differences between your initiative’s numerous audiences are yet another way to differentiate sub-brand assets. For example, a younger audience may appreciate more daring or tech-forward design choices, while a flashback to previous iterations of the school brand might resonate with older demographics.

The best way to uncover those design inflection points is by getting to know your initiative’s audience set as deeply as possible. Creating detailed, well-crafted personas will go a long way in furthering your understanding of your target audiences. And you should definitely have one on hand for groups critical to the success of your initiative.

Pulling Your Higher Ed Initiative Together

Higher ed initiatives have big goals and long runways. Higher ed branding cohesiveness can be a struggle when there are many people involved in moving the initiatives forward and a variety of programs and audiences. Head off the common branding issues plaguing your school’s initiatives by establishing a common sense brand hierarchy, making the most use of your brand book and understanding your most critical audiences.

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