On Purpose: #HigherEd, Branding and the Elusive Differentiator – Part 1

Kelly O'KeefeKelly O’Keefe has dedicated his career to innovation in the world of branding. He is a professor and founding board member of the VCU Brandcenter, the number one graduate advertising program in the country, and a partner at PadillaCRT. O’Keefe is known for pioneering work in digital marketing, brand strategy and creativity. He’s advised GE, ESPN, Walmart, Sesame Street and others on branding issues.

The man knows brands and how they can help organizations in any industry achieve their goals.

I talked to O’Keefe last week about branding and the quest for differentiation among higher education institutions.

Christian Munson: Why is it hard for colleges to differentiate?

Kelly O’Keefe: Thousands of colleges compete for student attention. Many are so similar that if you were in the halls of any one of them and didn’t see a sign identifying the college, you’d have no idea what college it was. The buildings are similar, the faculty is similar, the programs are similar, the culture and environment are similar. That sameness has gotten worse because of rankings, such as those from US News and World Report. Rankings tend to push colleges toward making decisions that make them more similar to other highly rated colleges. So if you have a college that’s 20th on the ranking, they want to look like a college that’s 10th on the ranking. They’re all endeavoring to adopt similar attributes – be great at research, adopt higher standards for enrollment, etc.

Differentiation is about doing the opposite of that. It’s about looking at the college that is 10th on the ranking list and saying, “How can we differ from that organization as much as possible in ways that are authentic to us?” Differentiation is not about the message. It’s about the substance of the educational path. It involves choosing to be different in terms of an approach to teaching, an approach to delivering education online and offline. In terms of a physical environment, it’s what the buildings look like and feel like. It’s in the way grades are given and the way faculty are incented and rewarded. There are very few colleges looking at actually creating a program that is different in a significant way from other programs. That’s where real differentiation will happen.

DifferentiateCM: What role does brand play in differentiation?

KO: If you think of brand as a collection of slogans, taglines, logos, and colorful messages, it can play only a small role. That’s yesterday’s view of branding. But the enlightened view of branding is an understanding that a brand reflects the overall experience delivered by the organization. It helps a college understand how it wants to be perceived and seen in the marketplace, which reveals opportunities for differentiation.

Are we an institution that is more creative than our peers or more traditional? Are we more rigorous or more nurturing? Are we a free and open environment or a buttoned-up, structured environment?  By answering these kinds of questions, brand reveals what an institution is, what it wants to be and why it’s unique among its peers. It presents prospective students with a clear choice and point of comparison with other options. It’s also a guidepost for internal decision making. What kind of faculty should we hire? What type of students should we enroll? What do we value most highly and prize in education? How do we communicate and to whom?

CM: So branding is as important internally as it is externally?

KO: Yes. It’s more important internally. If you have a strong brand, it helps you first to attract the right people who are interested in delivering the experience that you and no one else offers. A strong brand also helps faculty and staff make decisions consistent with it, reinforcing and perpetuating it. 

Brand also increases pride because now you’re not wrestling with, “How good are we compared to Harvard or Yale?” What you’re really thinking about is, “How well are we doing that unique thing that we’ve chosen to focus on?” You’re not playing on somebody else’s ball field, you’re playing on one you’ve constructed yourself.

CM: How should colleges approach branding?

KO: You have to invite your faculty and staff into the process as well as your donors, your alumni, and your students. They all have a stake in the organization. It’s unwise to change direction without consulting the people who care most and have invested most in it. If you do, you’re going to be in trouble, because they’re going to rise up and they’re going to reject the direction.

Bring them into the conversation, invite those students, the faculty, the donors, the alumni, to talk about what, in their eyes, makes the school unique, what they hope the school achieves, what its highest aspirations are and where they think it should be going. It takes longer and it costs a little more to do that kind of research, but the rewards are tremendous because even in the process of conducting the research, you are telling your most important audiences that you care about their opinion. It begins to build community even before you’ve come out with a strategy. And it informs the work to make sure that it’s more accurate and more truthful. You can’t just make a brand different overnight. You have to honor where it’s been and what already has made it strong.


Next time, I’ll continue the conversation with Kelly, and explore how one Virginia college chose to be different and built a brand on that decision. Part 2 of the conversation is here.

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