A branded house vs. a house of brands: which is better for higher ed.?

Many post-secondary marketers find themselves in an ongoing tug of war with their faculty-based cohorts. The source of tension? Whether or not the brand for a given unit deserves to stand apart from the institutional brand. 

There’s a case to be made for alignment, and for exceptions. And like everything in higher ed. things are more complicated in practice – because though the argument might be binary, the solution is rarely cut and dry.

Every post-secondary institution’s visual identity approach falls somewhere on the spectrum between a branded house, and a house of brands. (If you’re not familiar with those terms, download our marketer’s guide using the form below).

A Higher Ed. Marketer’s Guide to Structuring a Branded House & House of Brands.

If the terms ‘house of brands’ and ‘branded house’ aren’t familiar to you, download this quick reference guide that explains the difference, when to use them, and shows you what it looks like applied in higher ed. and other industries.
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The ‘right’ approach for a given college or university varies by institution, and often within each institution, too. Broadly speaking, those on the branded house end of the spectrum often feel we’re one institution and our visual brand expression should reflect that. Those on the house of brands end commonly feel our program/unit appeals to a specific audience and so should our visual brand expression.

And guess what? Both camps are right.

There’s an argument to be made for either approach. But lest you accuse us of fence sitting – we absolutely have a horse in this race. Before we go there, let’s take a look at why the tension between the two approaches persists in higher ed.

Why a branded house is rare in higher ed.

Most colleges and universities start out closer to a branded house than not. Visual identity standards guide a ‘master’ brand, and demonstrate how that brand is applied as extensions for a variety of faculties, departments and units. The result is a tightly aligned family of brands that visually conveys the institution’s various ships are rowing in the same direction.

But there are exceptions. Perhaps the most obvious is athletics. Despite the care and consideration many schools put into their institutional logos, the familiar heraldic shield is not a compelling identity for a football team or a track and field athlete to compete under. If it were, we could look forward to the annual ‘clash of the crests’ in conference finals.

Research institutes can be another crack in the dam. When external partners join forces with a college or university’s research talent, authorship can be muddied and a ‘new’ entity or identity can be a quick way to mitigate any struggles that might ensue.

Add to this the sense of identity and unique character that accompanies attending one of multiple campuses, or studying in an individual academic faculty, and it’s easy to see why a pure higher ed. branded house is more often a mirage than a model. In addition to the above, here are another two reasons why a higher ed. branded house is harder to build than a house of cards.

  1. Different academic specializations appeal to different audiences.
    The thinking here goes, to recruit business students to your business school/aspiring doctors to your medical school/future architects to your architecture program (and so on), it would be helpful to tailor your communications – and the brand you market under – to that specific audience subset. Some faculties and academic areas are more prone to pursue this path (and we have listed the usual suspects above), and their logic isn’t baseless. But follow that path of logic too far, and you’re looking at a pure house of brands, where every faculty (and why stop there – every department!) has its own unique brand apart from the mothership.
  2. Outstanding gifts deserve outstanding recognition.
    When dedicated alumni or other philanthropic advocates of the institution decide to direct a transformational gift to an institution, they’re often celebrated with a naming recognition. This isn’t always disruptive to a branded house – it’s possible that the current graphic standards address the guidelines for a ‘named’ brand extension. But there are cases where either the benefactor, the awarded faculty – or both – want to leverage the momentum to signal change within the institution, and to the broader community. And as we’ve covered in this space before, your brand can be a powerful change agent.

You should aim for a branded house – even if you’ll never achieve it.

Our take? Aim for a branded house. It’s kind of a no-brainer, but there are several reasons that should be your North Star.

First – let’s talk budget. There may be rare exceptions, but more often than not, few individual faculties have a marketing budget that rivals that of their institution. Which means that in a branded house scenario, each discrete brand is trying to build its profile and equity with fewer resources. Those that buy into the branded house model, by contrast, benefit by leveraging the marketing efforts of the institution, allowing them to focus their own budgets solely on amplifying the unique intellectual and academic space they own within that institution. And, in the highly-competitive space of higher education, you’re going to compete for marketing share of voice with ‘like’ faculties from other schools – why compete with faculties from within your own school, too?

Second, the same broader equity that comes from securing your place within a branded house (rather than carving out your place in a house of brands) helps to insulate your faculty’s or academic brand’s reputation. Say you’re a discrete faculty brand within a university, and a public relations issue happens within your faculty (because, they do). Your distance from your university’s parent brand could leave you exposed both in the media and in the court of public perception. In a branded house scenario, the broader (presumably positive) reputation of the institution serves to mitigate any negative fallout. Even in the reverse scenario – where the university itself, or a faculty other than yours encounters a public relations issue – there’s less exposure for an individual unit. In a branded house, bad news may still impact you: but in a house of brands, it can define you.

Finally, there’s strength in numbers. When your faculty or unit succeeds, it’s inevitably enhancing the reputation of your university or college – which may be what leads you to the crossroads of deciding to ‘go out on your own’ as a unique brand. But when another faculty, or a researcher or student from another part of your institution succeeds, their success benefits you, too. And there’s credibility from which everyone benefits when their communities – inside and outside of the school – perceive all of the institution’s ships to be rowing in the same direction (I know, I know: I’m mixing metaphors).

How to seek internal buy-in for a branded house approach.

In higher ed., the benefits of a branded house outweigh the benefits of a house of brands – making the branded house our recommended path, in theory. In practice, things are rarely cut and dry.

However, there’s one thing that can help get most of your institution on board with an approach that leans towards alignment – that is, closer to the branded house end of the spectrum. 

That one thing is a big idea. A big, ownable idea that’s thoroughly researched, and has been developed through broad (that is, as broad as is appropriate for your school) consultation. A big idea that’s inspiring and real. Time and time again, we’ve seen schools that develop this kind of foundational big idea, successfully build a solid branded house. And, we’ve seen schools that have neglected their institutional brand see faculties turn into factions. 

And who can blame them? If there’s no inspiring idea to believe in and buy into at an institutional level – no common rallying cry, no songbook for everyone to sing from – why not go it on your own? 

So, if you’re a marketer working in an individual faculty or unit that’s pining for a standalone brand – maybe take a beat before going down that path. And if you’re a marketer wondering why more of your community doesn’t buy into the branded house model, you may need to start with a critical look at what idea you’re asking them to buy into – assuming one exists.

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