How can you remedy your higher ed.’s deviant sub-brands?

You know that your institution’s overall brand is number one. But can every other unit or department on campus say the same? 

If you’re thinking of one particular sub-brand that has stolen your parent brand’s thunder, this one’s for you.

It’s natural for multiple sub-brands to exist within a school. Between schools of business, law, music, and medicine, there are different audiences to speak to, and a sub-brand can typically do this more effectively. 

But when a sub-brand starts to challenge your institution’s parent brand in esteem, resources, or prominence, you’re often faced with a frustrated deviant sub-brand. And that’s bound to fracture your unified brand approach. 

You have a choice: Address the underlying issue and foster your sub-brand’s ability to flourish within the larger sandbox of your parent brand’s standards. Or live with a discordant sub-brand that eats away at your overall brand’s integrity.

A healthy higher ed. sub-brand complements the overall brand.

You’ve made a promise to your students, staff, and faculty: You can thrive here. You can be yourself. It’s okay to be different.

All who enter your school are encouraged to find their own path, right?

That same promise should extend internally to other schools and departments under your institution’s larger umbrella. They, too, should be able to thrive in their bespoke identities as part of your overall brand. 

That last part is key: As part of your overall brand. 

The definitive higher ed. marketer’s guide to a branded house vs. a 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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When done right, each unique sub-brand under your parent brand’s umbrella should be able to stand alone, while at the same time leaving no question as to the larger brand from which it comes. 

A complement to your parent brand. A branded house instead of a house of brands. Not something willfully and recklessly unorthodox. 

Your larger brand’s influence should be evident in its sub-brand’s experience, attitude and communications. Everything from colours to voice should fall within a certain set of standards that connect the sub-brand and parent brand. 

If the sub-brand doesn’t do that, deem it a deviant.

Now, divergence doesn’t always look like a way-off logo or unaffiliated colour scheme. Divergence happens when a sub-brand gains more clout as an individual entity, leaving your overall institution unrecognized or unmentioned. That indicates something is off. And it needs to be fixed before it’s too late. 

Deviant sub-brands in higher ed. are a symptom, not a disease.

When sub-brands start to wade into wayward identity waters, tensions start to rise. That stubborn wedge is lodged even further when the sub-brand seeks to separate itself from the parent brand altogether.

The _____ School of Business sans at the school name is an example of this. And it’s pervasive. (Yes, we are calling out you business schools specifically. You are notorious!)

This is when you know something is missing. The parent brand lacks something the sub-brand can attach itself to or resonate with. And it’s how you know that your deviant sub-brands are a canary in a coal mine — this close to undercutting the integrity of your brand. 

The longer you allow your institution to be fractured by sub-brands who don’t see themselves as living under the same brand identity, the harder it is to bring them back into the fold. And this disconnect undermines the unity and cohesiveness your brand wants and needs to convey. 

Think about it: If a sub-brand doesn’t leverage your institution’s prestige by associating itself, what does that say to a broader audience? And conversely, if a parent brand doesn’t recognize or support each of its sub-brands, it’s obvious something’s amiss. 

You want a brand identity that everyone at your institution can rally around and see themselves in. But if you’ve gotten to the point where sub-brands simply aren’t, it’s time for some introspection and intervention.

Inspire deviant sub-brands to back up your higher ed.’s overall brand.

Your higher ed. institution’s brand is a living, breathing thing. It’s inherently meant to evolve, not be formed in a focus group, then left untouched until the next brand overhaul.

Along the way, look at how your brand is changing (or should change) and ultimately how to bring your sub-brands along for the ride.

Here’s where to start.

1. Build a bridge. 

Never underestimate the value of a personal conversation. If you know of an esteemed faculty member from your business school who’s gung ho about their brand, sit down and talk to them. Ask what’s driving them away from the overall brand.

  • What could be done to accommodate them and the way they view their brand compared to the parent brand? And how could you bring them back into the fold? 

Ideally, these types of conversations happen frequently. Offer stakeholders chances to speak their minds, talk about their concerns, or bring up new ideas. This bolsters both brands. 

2. Finding something about your overall brand that everyone buys into.

You want sub-brands to want to be part of your parent brand. Convince, not coerce. In order to do that, reevaluate your parent brand to find something that rings true for all.

  • What strikes a chord with all of your campus stakeholders that each individual sub-brand would be proud to tie itself to? 
  • How could you create something that everyone sees themselves in? 
  • What could spur everyone to want to belong?

3. Develop a big sandbox of brand standards. 

If you haven’t already, devise a set of brand guardrails to outline your parent brand’s desired adherence. These rules shouldn’t be made in a vacuum, but rather agreed upon by everyone, sub-brands included. Their input could go a long way in leading them back to the fold.

Your parent brand’s parameters will be the chaperones that keep sub-brands from spiraling to a point of no association. Give sub-brands a big sandbox to play in, but remember: a box has its boundaries.

Keep tabs on your higher ed. brand’s relevance and resonance.

Whether you’re working to bring each sub-brand back into your branded house or you want to prevent this frustrating reality altogether, it’s going to take some work.

Your brand needs your attention in order to thrive. It doesn’t matter if you launched a shiny new brand in the last few years or maintain a legacy brand that’s a household name (Hi, Harvard!). You need to ensure it’s well nourished. 

Regularly checking in on your brand’s resonance ensures that what it’s saying connects, speaks to, and engages everyone

Annual surveys, market research, recruitment metrics, and donor and alumni relations are all tools you can use to gauge whether or not your brand is reflective of the moment, the people behind it, and the larger conversation. You’ll learn what is or isn’t working. Then, you can get to work fixing it.

There is beauty and inspiration in individuality. But there’s beauty and inspiration in unity, too. Your higher ed. institution’s parent brand and its sub-brands can certainly support both — as they support each other.

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