Conversations with College Presidents on Branding in Higher Education

A few years ago, we made our first trek to the annual AMA conference for higher education marketing. It was held in downtown Chicago, and only 300 attendees joined us. This past year, for the same event in Austin, we were part of a crowd of more than 1,200.

What accounts for the spike in interest? Now as never before, colleges and universities are tapping into the power of the brand to carve out a unique place in the market. Recently, it seems as though we’ve entered a new brand landscape.

Twenty years ago, the average college president spent little time worrying about the brand. Applications were up. Budgets were stable. And leading a university can be as complex as running a small city – why focus on the window dressing? But as higher education has evolved, so have the prevailing views on branding. Today, “bestfit” students are hard to find. Donors have limitless ways to mete out their charity dollars. In the face of these and other headwinds, administrators are learning that investing in the brand is no longer a luxury.

Branding is a necessary good. And many institutions are now taking the first steps of developing a single, compelling story to rally around and share with the world. What do the leaders of higher education institutions think about brand? How do they make the case to their constituents? Who manages a university’s brand?

Conversations with Five College Presidents

Our contributors hail from all corners of higher education: public universities, private schools, smaller liberal arts colleges and trade schools. Among other administrators we interviewed, we spoke with five presidents who lead private colleges and universities to answer these questions and others.  Their insights are profound and prosaic, elegant and enlightening, from highlevel insights to practical advice on building consensus with stakeholders. What follows are some of the big-picture takeaways from these conversations.

Margaret Drugovich, of Hartwick College, talks about marketing that recreates the experience of attending your college. Gonzaga University’s Thayne McCulloh shares tips for getting buy-in from the most important group of brand advocates on campus: the faculty. Greg Salsbury, of Western State Colorado University, brings some refreshing ideas on putting the brand into action. Otterbein University’s Kathy Krendl talks about making the past relevant for students today, and building a “model community” on campus for the brand. Finally, Brian Casey of Depauw University lends some perspective to the many challenges of implementing a brand.

Hartwick College: Recreating the Experience of Attending Your College

Dr. Margaret L. Drugovich is a scholar and practitioner of transformational leadership and innovation in higher education. In 2008, she was appointed president of Hartwick College, a liberal arts college that offers a unique experiential learning environment in Oneonta, New York. Hartwick’s approach to education gives Dr. Margaret Drugovich a critical perspective on the role and the challenges of branding a small liberal arts college.

President Margaret Drugovich on Enforcing the Brand

The whole senior team owns the brand, but everyone plays a specific role. And someone does need to get up every day and think about this. That’s why our office of communications and marketing is our brand enforcer. They make sure we stay true to the brand by managing the logo and other visual aspects, as well as running the website and checking the voice.

Preseident Drugovich on Staying Relevant and Being Flexible

The brand needs to be relevant and flexible – relevant for students and flexible for alumni. With students, as new generations arrive on campus, we need to stay relevant to them and their needs. With alumni, these folks had a moment in time with us, so it’s different, and we have to keep that experience fresh. Delivering on a promise is another way to think about branding. If we are mission-driven enterprises, then we have to deliver on what we say we will do. I sometimes wish we could have a Chief Promise Officer.

It’s all about experience. A liberal arts education is complemented by experiential learning. At Hartwick, we think about this every day, because it’s our promise to students. Our job with marketing is to recreate that experience our students had on campus. Yes, that’s a big challenge for colleges with small marketing groups like ours – to pull those threads out and highlight them for particular audiences. It takes a lot more expertise and intentionality than most small colleges can invest in.

President Drugovich on Inspiring Others to Follow

For any audience, I try to find the common space between where we are now, where we want to go, and what that audience’s experience was. I don’t try to ask our alumni to think differently about the college. Instead, I need to make the case: “Our college is moving forward, and we need your help with that.” Whether it’s fundraising or an admissions campaign, the message comes down to making today’s experience accessible to someone else. That’s a transcendent idea that bridges generations. You need to be careful with language. Alumni can get upset when they hear about new things on campus because it doesn’t match their experience.

For Hartwick, it was our switch from the Warriors to the Hawks. Even 20 years later, I hear from alumni at reunions about the fact that we made that change. The Warriors name symbolized something in their experience, and they can’t connect anymore. So we need to ask, “What will people pull out from their experience that will keep them grounded?” And that’s a hard question to answer.

Gonzaga University: Getting Buy-In from Campus Brand Advocates

Dr. Thayne McCulloh has spent the past 25 years serving Gonzaga University, a private Jesuit university in Spokane, Washington. In 1990, he started his first administrative job in the office of student affairs. From there, he went on to other high-level positions in administration, planning, and academic affairs, and in 2009, he became the university’s first lay president. Dr. Thayne McCulloh has seen nearly all sides of university leadership. Here he talks about uniting a campus around a brand – and quelling the politics involved.

President Thayne McCulloh on the President’s Role

Presidents need to set the respective roles of students, staff, and faculty throughout the brand process. We need to make sure our colleagues doing the hard work of marketing the university pay more attention to the education providers than anybody else. On the other side, a president needs to help faculty understand why a brand is important. So I need to make sure they know that the better we can articulate what Gonzaga does as an institution, the more students will want to learn about what the faculty do.

President McCulloh on Getting the Faculty Involved

But there needs to be a high degree of fidelity between tdhe lived experience on campus and the experience that we’re communicating. That’s often not the case. The entire university organization naturally resists the kind of things that branding professionals want to do. And because branding is often perceived as a corporate act, faculty members are naturally skeptical. The faculty members need to own the brand. At the end of the day, they carry the educational mission of the institution. St udents pay for an experience that revolves around their academic program.

So all things considered, their judgment of how effective the institution is will inevitably be attached to the academic experience – and that ties back to the effectiveness of the faculty. To become carriers of the brand, faculty need to feel like they’re working with folks who really do believe that they, the faculty, are at the heart of the enterprise. One mistake that marketing people can make is to go to faculty and say, “We’ll get input from you, but it’s our job to create the brand.”

A better approach is to ask how the organization puts its brand together, and then go to the faculty to get their help. Say, “We think there’s a gap between how you think this institution ought to be seen, and how your marketers are trying to articulate it. Will you help us close that gap?”

President McCulloh on Making the Case

Some faculty and staff ask me, “Why can’t we make our enrollment goals to the exact number?” And I always love that question, because it gives me the opportunity to make the case for the brand. Only by closing the gap between the lived experience and the brand message do we gain greater control over what effect we have with students, which in turn generates demand and impacts our faculty.

Many faculty members appreciate hearing it put this way, because they can understand my hypothesis. Most haven’t heard it put quite that bluntly before. Universities are really complex places, so a brand needs to be flexible. But I’m not sure it’s an effective use of our time to force all constituencies into one basket. In essence, you must answer four questions: Does the brand help coalesce us as an institution? Does it impact enrollment? Does it impact the number of benefactors who give? Does it spur alumni to get engaged with the university?

Western State Colorado University: Putting the Brand into Action

Before Dr. Greg Salsbury came to higher education, he worked in financial services for 17 years. This gives him a unique vantage point among college presidents, something he brings every day to his leadership of Western State Colorado University. With a background outside of higher education, Dr. Greg Salsbury has rapidly made an impact at Western State Colorado University. Here he offers compelling ideas about branding and industry.

President Greg Salsbury on the Range of Your Brand

I see brand as a far-reaching concept. It impacts one-on-one conversations between counselors and students in all areas. It impacts legislators as they’re deciding on funding models in Denver. It impacts parents as they think about sending their kid to this place in the mountains. It’s pervasive. It’s not just a logo – it permeates everything that impacts how you’re thought of and talked about. In a word, it’s your reputation. That’s the simplest way I can say it. Brand is the essence of how you’re represented, and what people think of you.

President Salsbury on the People Factor

It’s easy to talk about brand in esoteric ways. But in the end, your brand is directly related to the people in your organization. People want to work at a place they’re proud of, a place that’s respected. And so brand obviously impacts hiring.

Your people have massive impact on your brand. Even if you have a phenomenal product, it can be mugged by bad leadership and the people who deliver that brand. It’s impossible for your marketing department to put a bandage on subpar personnel. You have to have a deliberate approach to hiring. For that, I recommend Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, where he talks about making sure you have the right kind of people on the bus.

President Salsbury on the Execution of Brand Building

Here’s the dirty little secret about brand: People often think it’s akin to strategy. I don’t really think it is. Execution trumps strategy – every time. And it’s harder. A good strategy will not save you if you have bad execution. You can have a poor strategy, but through phenomenal execution, you can save the day. Not the reverse. Execution builds brand.

Otterbein University: Making the Past Relevant

Since 2009, Dr. Kathy Krendl has been a transformative force at Otterbein University, in Westerville, Ohio. Not only is she the school’s first female president, but she also led the effort to change the school’s name from college to university, and launched a new undergraduate curriculum to align with the campus’s shift to semesters. Krendl previously served at Ohio University as dean of the Scripps College of Communication and, later, as provost. A communicator at heart, Dr. Kathy Krendl brings a savvy PR perspective both to rallying her community and to advocating for the brand at a liberal arts institution.

President Krendl on Taking the Long View

In the wake of the recession, many colleges were looking for short-term approaches to branding their institutions. But we looked long-term. We started with our core values and developed a brand statement. Since then, it has been about building our core values into the ways we operate.

We play up our curricular focus on experiential learning. Our founders felt very strongly that learning by doing is one of the best ways to learn, and that remains a key facet of an Otterbein education. Students once worked on a campus farm; now they learn out in the community through internships, service learning, and the like. For us at Otterbein, the brand is an intentional process. It’s a story we’ve worked very hard to create from a real experience on campus. It’s something we live every day. We try to talk the talk and walk the walk.

President Krendl on Connecting to Your Heritage

During our brand discussions, much of the staff felt that the school could use an affirmation of its history. It’s a remarkable history, and it’s worth sharing. We were the first school founded as a coeducational institution. Our founders saw education as an opportunity for betterment and social mobility, and they wanted to create an educational opportunity for those in need. Otterbein admitted African Americans before the Civil War, and was he

About the Author
William Faust is the Managing Partner of Ologie, a branding agency that helps higher education and other purpose-driven brands define their purpose and tell their stories in engaging ways. Visit