07/10/2012 02:28 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Buying a Brand, Not Just a Mascot

I've recently experienced the incredible joys and wake-in-the-middle-of-the-night pressures associated with helping my son choose where, over the next four years, he will mature, learn and socialize before stepping out into the real world. And it's only costing my wife and me about $200k. Here's hoping there's an ROI!

Parents, like my wife and I, still want generally the same things from their kids' colleges as they always have: solid reputations, small class sizes, personalized attention, safe campuses, and last but not least, a focus on education. But with tuition prices at exorbitant levels, parents now tend to rationalize their kids' choices of colleges the same way they rationalize the purchase of any "big ticket" item: through brand. "Well, it's a Viking stove, so that means it must be good."

When buying higher education, we want the same fulfillment, especially since we're dropping several tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars, We want a guarantee of a school's worth before we (or our kids) experience it. We want to know what we're getting in order to validate the plunge. To be honest, I'd feel a helluva lot more comfortable plunking down all that cash if I knew I was buying into a brand.

Certain higher-tier, "prestige" schools, like Harvard, MIT, UCLA, Oxford, Michigan and Brown, deliver on that brand promise. In addition to rock-solid reputations as centers of knowledge, these universities have done a great job of making themselves strong brands, creating a position in the marketplace (yes ... these days it is very much a marketplace) through their use of colors, mascots, symbols, and logos. In turn, they're always considered desirable, competitive and a good investment. Many kids come out of these schools and go on to good jobs and successful futures.

But what about the middle-to-lower tier "mass" schools? My son, a solid student, wasn't eyeing the Harvards and MITs, but was considering a dozen reputable, though not entirely tip-of-the-tongue, colleges. At the beginning of the school year, he gave his guidance counselor a list of the places he wanted to apply, and then returned to her office recently to let her know where he was accepted. She told him she was surprised he got waitlisted at Lehigh and Muhlenberg, but accepted into Lafayette. Amongst these mid-tier, no-brand colleges, she clearly had a perception that Lafayette was better than Lehigh and Muhlenberg -- we have no idea how this perception was formed.

In order for parents to feel good about shelling out the dough on these "no-to-low brands," middle-tier schools need to brush up on their branding abilities and make people aware about what really differentiates their school from another. Heck, even the fictional Faber College from Animal House had a strong tag line! ("Knowledge is good," for those of you who don't worship that movie the way I do.) On paper, many of these mid-tier institutions seem virtually identical, some with tag lines as dubious as Faber's, and have done little to set themselves apart. Here are some of the strikes against them:

  • The no-brand cache is less evident on a resume and therefore, does not "give back" or add quantitative value to a graduate's worth
  • The no-brand gets no "wow, great school!" comments to validate choice and experience
  • The no-brand demands a monologue to explain the basics. ("Well, it's a small, private school in east-bum-fuck that has a really good bio-science program" vs. a dialog built on understanding and connection, e.g., "Is it really like Good Will Hunting there?")
  • The no-brands do not strengthen the way our children are perceived by others or help to solidify their individual identities, as most brands we choose in our adult lives do (especially in our early 20s, when the sole purpose in life is to get a handle on our individual identity)

Maybe it's because of what I do every day, but it doesn't seem like it should be SO hard for these no-brands to become big brands. And given that some college-age students are questioning whether college is worthwhile at all, given the eventual debt (nearly 80% of recent college graduates are returning to live with their parents), these colleges need to act fast in order to keep their schools, ahem, their brands, afloat. Here a few tips for how they can put themselves on the map:

5 Tips for Going from a No-Brand College to a Brand College

  1. Know your target student body (and parent body). Understand what motivates them and is relevant to them, and then make sure they know that you offer programs in which they'd be interested. For example, Stony Brook University has a big bike share program, and University of the Atlantic in Maine uses 100% recycled paper for everything on campus.
  2. If you want to be thought of as different, BE different. Create a program that puts you in a league of your own, and then promote that difference everywhere you can. For example, Colorado College divides its academic year into eight "blocks," intensive academic units lasting three-and-a-half weeks, during which students and professors cover a semester's worth of course material, one course at a time.
  3. Translate your purpose into a brand belief (what you are) and behavior (how your brand acts) that your current students and staff can understand and consistently communicate to prospective students/parents.
  4. Got any high-profile or famous alumni who perfectly reflect the mission of your school? Use 'em! Who better than an Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), George Clooney (Northern Kentucky University) or Tim Allen (Western Michigan University) to serve as your brand ambassador?
  5. Understand your weaknesses and how they effect your brand image -- and then do away with them altogether.

In the end, I am happy to report that my son chose Lafayette College as the place where he'll spend the next four years. One of the reasons we all loved Lafayette was because they called out pieces of my son's essay in their acceptance letter, as opposed to the standard form letter he received from nearly every other school. This told us that Lafayette cared about the individual, and would give our son the attention we, and he, wants at this point in his life. It was a small gesture, yes, but it made a big impression on this branding professional, proving sometimes a school doesn't need to do that much to put a stake in the ground about how they want to be perceived.