When most colleges and universities consider their brands, they rarely venture beyond the design and implementation of a logo. Time and time again we have seen this “logo” inconsistently used on brochures and buildings without further thought into the potential power of branding.
By failing to delve deeper into this “potential power,” universities fail to capitalize on this profound opportunity to reinforce their specific set of ideals. Simply put, a good brand does more than establish a visual language; it creates an immersive experience for every person who interacts with the campus; it enhances the lives of students and faculty by uniting them under a shared sense of values and goals; it engenders loyalty with alumni, which as a result significantly can increase the percentage of donations.
Having a short-sighted mindset in regards to branding and not approaching it in a holistic manner will not allow a university to fully engage with existing and prospective students, faculty, and alumni, as well as the outside world.
In its infancy, a brand may start with a visual but it should go beyond a simple sensory experience. A “good” brand engages students before they’ve even set foot on campus; it communicates specific ideals and traits associated with the university; it takes a simple visual cue, like a logo, graphic or color, and turns it into a defining perspective; it frames this perspective within the student’s point of view; it allows the student to comprehend how faculty and other services can help achieve their specific goals; and it attracts prospective students by piquing their interest and promising to deliver.
A “good” brand permeates through the technologies, which now allow us so many new freedoms. The brand provides choices and lets students, as well as others, take control. Today, people no longer want to be told what to do; therefore they want universities to reflect their own values, and with that, a universities’ brand is incorporated into their decision-making process to help determine which school is the right fit.
Today, students, want to study in a setting which mirrors a particular lifestyle and makes them feel comfortable. As a result, campuses are beginning to incorporate elements from disciplines such as hospitality and urban design. Universities are diversifying their offerings, and as they do this they are creating cohesive visual languages, which reflect their brands and engage students. On campus, a strong brand integrates itself into the built environment in an organic manner.
Gone are the drab white walls and generic classrooms of yesteryear. Universities now want every facet of the built environment to communicate a specific message and to cater to a unique experience. The “one-size fits all” approach to classroom and building design is a thing of the past. Every available visual landscape on campus must now convey differentiated information to users. Integrating a university’s brand through comprehensive signage, the application of clear visual language, and design features that speak to the functionality of each space helps realize this goal.
By creating a sense of place within each building, universities not only enhance the overall learning environment but also increase rates of retention. We live in an experience-driven society where everything from going shopping to attending a sports game is singular. Successful campuses mimic this pattern. If the on-campus experience isn’t memorable, if it doesn’t transcend into the student’s post-graduate professional world, then the probability of that student staying in contact with the university and giving back to ensure that future students enjoy the same benefits considerably diminishes.
A significant advantage of a lasting brand is loyal alumni. Strong alumni contributions reflect an assigned worth that a graduate associates with the institution or university post-graduation. This assigned worth conveys the impact or perception of the individual’s experience and demonstrates their higher education chapter has influenced or changed their lives for the better. An affinity to the university has been created and a sense of pride to take care of their kinship results in an obligation to give back and ensure the vitality of the university.
At the end of the day, a “good” university brand doesn’t just influence a student; it becomes a part of that student’s personal identity. Graduates of universities with strong brands identify themselves as alumni for the rest of their lives. They flaunt not only their degrees but the experiences that came with those degrees. They wear their association with “their” university like a badge of honor and are eager to advertise it to the rest of the world.
At its core, higher education branding is the process of taking the characteristics which make a university great, and expressing those characteristics through emotive experiences which ultimately enhance learning and the overall on-campus experience. On-campus comprehensive and immersive branding at universities will be a significant trend in higher education over the coming years. The only question is what universities and colleges will get ahead of the curve and which ones will trail behind.
About the Author
Brian Brindisi is a design director for the Lifestyle-Brand Design studio and Regional Brand Design Leader at Gensler's New York office. His portfolio includes education, mixed-use, cultural, and corporate projects. Outside of Gensler, Brian continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor at the School of Visual Arts where he teaches visual identity and branding. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.