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University Branding

University Branding

Building Higher Education Brands


While higher education is a very crowded market, there are some colleges and universities that have differentiated themselves in highly compelling ways. Here are some of my favorite examples of this:

  • Naropa University: Transform Yourself, Transform the World
    • The Naropa Experience: Perform in an Indian classical music ensemble. Write a thesis on creativity and social action. Take yoga for credit. Volunteer in a community garden. Study Tibetan. Spend the weekend at a meditation retreat. Intern at the Peace Jam Foundation. Conduct research on the nature of consciousness.
  • American University: What’s KNOW spelled backwards? WONK
    • “The term can apply to anyone because it’s a smart person who is incredibly passionate about what they do,” said Nate Beeler, SOC/BA ’02, a self-described journalism wonk. “D.C. attracts that kind of thing, and AU is the perfect place for it.”
    • There is no other college quite like St. John’s. Through sustained engagement with the works of great thinkers and through genuine discussion with peers, students at St. John’s College cultivate habits of mind that will last a lifetime.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: why not change the world?(R)
    • A history and future of changing the world through technological creativity
    • Alumni inventions: baking powder, sun screen, Ferris wheel, television, computer, pocket calculator, e-mail, digital camera, etc.
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Brad VanAuken Branding: Just Ask... University Branding

University Sub-Brand Strategy


Brand Strategy University Branding Harvard

Branding Strategy Insider helps marketing oriented leaders and professionals like you build strong brands. To that end we're happy to answer your marketing questions. Today we hear from Chris, a Vice President of Marketing and Communications in Louisville, Kentucky who writes…

I am charged with helping a sub-brand of the college that I work for rename itself. The sub-brand has not correctly identified itself with the college which is part of the problem. The sub-brand currently operates with a name that has virtually no meaning (Externally Sponsored Programs) for internal or external audiences. To make matters worse they use a product brand for one of their services.

To get participants involved with the renaming, I am hosting a 1/2 day workshop. My thought was to help them understand what a brand is and does and then lead them in exercises to identify the emotional and functional benefits of their favorite brands and ultimately the sub-brand that employs them.

That portion of the exercise seems ok to me, although suggestions are always welcome, my next thought is to help them see how those benefits impact their "customers". Thus creating a list of words that would resonate with their audiences. The ultimate deliverable is to use those words to create the name and tagline.

Could you offer insight on process or steps that you have used to create for renaming or minimally at re-branding?

Thanks for your question Chris. Developing brand architecture for universities is particularly difficult, especially for large universities that have multiple schools, divisions, institutes, departments and programs.

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Brad VanAuken University Branding

Building A University Brand



At least two universities are on to something big in their brand positioning: my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and American University. Both focus on their students’ and prospective students’ aspirations.

Rensselaer chose the tagline, “why not change the world?SM” as its service mark in the late 1990s.  The tagline reflects the university’s intention to market itself as a place where people can change the world through technological innovation. It uses as its proof points alumni who have invented life changing things – microprocessor, television, pocket calculator, email, etc. It also cites its environment of interdisciplinary innovation, innovative pedagogical techniques and extensive support of student entrepreneurship. The tagline has attitude and builds confidence. Most importantly, it attracts students and faculty members that want to change the world and increases alumni pride in the school. 

American University recently announced its intent to own the category of educating “Wonks.” Their new campaign states “When you know something backward and forward, you’re a wonk. It’s a term Washington insiders use to describe their experts, people who are focused on creating change—people like American University’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” Again, this is an aspirational term and appeals to students and faculty members alike.  It also makes a strong reference to its location in the midst of our nation’s capital and its politics and policy making.

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Brad VanAuken Re-Branding University Branding

Rebranding A National University


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Why not change the world?™

As Vice President of the Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) board and chairman of its national Alumni Admissions Committee I was a key participant in the endeavor to rebrand Rensselaer. Today I want to share the case study of that effort.

Great Accomplishments, “No Man’s Land” Marketing Position
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, was the first degree-granting technological university in the English-speaking world. Rensselaer was established "for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life." Since Rensselaer’s founding, its alumni have impacted the world in many significant ways:

•    Inventing television
•    Creating the microprocessor
•    Managing the Apollo project that put the first man on the moon
•    Founding Texas Instruments and creating the first pocket calculator
•    Creating e-mail (including using the @ symbol)
•    Inventing baking powder
•    Inventing the Reach toothbrush
•    Building the Brooklyn Bridge
•    Building the Panama Canal
•    Inventing the Ferris Wheel

Yet, for all its accomplishments, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rensselaer was not well positioned (to prospective students) compared to its world-renowned rival, MIT, or even to schools such as Cal Tech, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie-Mellon. Many state schools (Purdue, University of Illinois at Urbana, etc.) offered exceptionally strong technical programs at significantly lower costs than private universities such as Rensselaer.

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