Branding Your Community College

August 2011. As more community colleges compete for a limited pool of students -- and for the students most likely to complete degrees -- a growing number of two-year institutions are looking into branding efforts. However, given the constraints on the marketing budget of a community college, most institutions have faced significant obstacles in launching a new or updated brand.

We turned this week to Mike Barzacchini, the director of marketing services for Harper College, who offers the following practical tips for branding your two-year institution -- on a budget.

You Don't Need a Huge Budget

"Look at your brand as an asset you invest in, just like any other intellectual asset. Too often we default to "We don't have the budget" or "We don't have the time," but it doesn't take a big budget to communicate how your college is different. It doesn't take a big budget to achieve consistency, discipline, and relevance in your marketing messages."
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College

The secret to branding on a budget, Barzacchini suggests, is that "you don't have to make a whole new logo, a tagline, an entire marketing campaign. Make your brand visible and practical, and apply it in the communications you already do. Tell that brand story regularly, at every opportunity." Too often there is a temptation to look at a branding initiative as separate from the other communications work that the college does. But Barzacchini notes that actually, all of your communications are opportunities to remind your constituents of your brand promise -- including fundraising messages, events, campus planning, public relations messages, recruitment, and employee communications.

For example, when Harper College developed its "Go Forward" brand, Barzacchini identified opportunities to apply the brand in varied communications: "We talked about how our donors empower the students' journey forward through their gifts to fund scholarships. When we opened a new health sciences building, we named it the Avante Center, from a Latin word meaning 'going forward.'" In short, you can develop specific brand messages within the overall framework of your brand that are relevant to a particular need or occasion.

Finally, rather than treat branding as a one-time effort, allow your brand to evolve over time, based on what you learn as you build relationships with your different audiences -- and as your institution (and the world around it) grows and evolves. "You build equity in your brand over time," Barzacchini remarks. "Focus on incremental changes in your messaging."

Brand Research on a Budget

"Ongoing research plays an important role in making sure your brand speaks to your key stakeholders," Barzacchini notes; however, many smaller institutions will not have the budget for a separate brand perception survey. In such cases, Barzacchini recommends:

  • Seed your ongoing institutional research initiatives with questions that can inform your understanding of how your brand is perceived
  • Hold a "dinner with 10 strangers" -- this is not a focus group so much as an informal discussion between 10 diverse stakeholders (community officials, donors, campus officials, students, etc.) that gives you the opportunity to collect qualitative feedback about how your institution is perceived and how you can move forward

Define Your Position

"Before thinking of a tagline or a logo or a brand campaign theme, you have to think about your positioning statement. Map who your key audiences are, and spend time articulating your position to each key group."
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College

Your position statement:

  • Articulates your institution's strategic goals
  • Clarifies how your institution's performance is aligned with the needs and expectations of your constituents

To arrive at your position statement, link your strategic goals to the strengths of your institution. Identifying those strengths needs to be based on your brand research; "the brand has to equal the experience," Barzacchini remarks. Ask questions that invite constituents to volunteer what is distinctive about your institution, beyond cost, location, and convenience. The themes that emerge, when joined with your institution's strategic goals, become the core of your brand position.

"Strive to stand out. Traditionally, many community colleges brand around location ("we're near you") and value ("we cost less"), while neglecting distinct attributes that would allow them to stand out among their competitors and peers. Price and place are great attributes to mention, but highlight what's unique, distinctive, engaging, and relevant about your institution."
Mike Barzacchini, Harper College

Once you have a great position statement, the challenge in communicating that position is to offer specially crafted messages for varied audiences. For example, Harper College's "Go Forward" tagline is based on an internal positioning statement that articulates Harper College's vision of offering relevant opportunities to enrich your life with learning. Then the college had to define: What does this brand mean to high school graduates? To professionals nearing retirement? To donors looking to invest in the next generation?