How to get buy-in from students & alumni when you rebrand your higher ed. institution. How to get buy-in from students & alumni when you rebrand your higher ed. institution.

So, you think your school needs a new brand…

Maybe your brand and visual identity feel outdated, or perhaps the leadership team has just decided on a new strategic direction and you need a brand that reflects the future of your institution. Maybe your school doesn’t have a brand at all, but you know that you need one. 

Whatever your reason for considering a (re)brand, consider this: all successful branding initiatives start with a solid consultation plan for research. Nothing derails a brand initiative faster than the feedback, “no one asked me what I think”. When brands fail, it’s frequently because of a lack of engagement with key audiences. This is true for companies, and it’s especially true for higher education institutions.

So how do you get everyone to buy into a new brand? 

You have to demonstrate that you’ve brought all important stakeholder groups — including students —  along in the branding process with sincerity and intentionality. Every audience needs to believe that their perspective and experience is valuable, and what they have to say will shape the future of your institution. When audiences feel included in the branding process, it opens the door for celebration rather than criticism. And while it’s true that any branding initiative will receive some push back, proper engagement creates advocates who will act as champions for your new brand and stand up against brand adversaries.

Proper engagement creates advocates who will act as champions for your new brand.

To create these advocates and avoid branding failure, there are two key audiences that have the ability to make or break your brand: alumni and current students. It’s a no-brainer to include students and alumni in this consultation, but let’s dive into the valuable insights you can gain from these groups and how to best engage them so you can get the information you need to build a successful brand. 

Three reasons students and alumni are essential to your brand.

1. Without them, you don’t exist.

This might seem a bit harsh, but it’s true. Teaching the next wave of tomorrow’s thinkers, leaders and doers is every higher education institution’s reason for being. And every alumnus that graduates from your institution bolsters your reputation. After all, their success is your success. Not involving them in telling the story of who you are would be a huge misstep.

Current students and alumni also have the unique ability to identify your institutional blind spots, for better or worse. Engaging them will inevitably reveal deep truths about your school that you didn’t know existed — and these truths are foundational for a strong brand. They will tell you things about the current student experience that you cannot possibly understand, even though you walk the same campus as they do every day. Alumni will reveal first-hand the impact your institution has had on them and the world — you can’t imagine the breadth of your reach without talking to them face to face.

All of this should be considered and reflected in the expression of your brand, by leveraging their insights in your brand strategy.

2. Current students are the only ones who know what prospective students want — because they’re living it.

Even if you’re a recent grad and now gainfully employed, a lot has changed since you were weighing your higher education options. As much as you might hate to admit it, you’re a little out of touch with the needs and wants of 18-year olds trying to plan their future. Frankly, so are we, which is why we talk to them directly anytime we do an institutional rebrand. 

Current students are best positioned to identify the wants and needs of prospective students because they faced the same decision just a few years ago or less. Only they can tell you with accuracy and timeliness what mattered to them, what feels real, and why they chose you. Perhaps most importantly, they can tell you what sets you apart from other institutions in their consideration set and what has proven to be uniquely true about the student experience at your school that you can sell. 

3. They’re your most powerful advocates.

Nothing you say about yourself matters more than what your students and alumni say about you. They tell the truth, and probably know your institution better than you do when it comes to daily campus life. This is important, because life on campus is a significant part of your product, as much as your programs and prestige and other selling features.

Their opinion can make or break another student’s decision to choose you — or go elsewhere. Involving students and alumni in the branding process is proactive because if they’re not given a voice at the table, it can be disastrous. We’ve seen this happen time and time again, where institutions undertake branding initiatives and campaigns that fall flat because they aren’t authentic to the experience of these audiences.

But let’s focus on the positive: when you do invite students and alumni into the process, their advocacy for the finished product is the strongest possible endorsement you can receive.

Three challenges you may face when asking students and alumni to participate in the branding process.

1. They’ve got other things to do.

Put simply, people are busy. Colleges and universities can be wary (and rightfully so) of asking students to do too much, especially because they’ve got a lot on their plates with studies, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs, etc. And alumni have “done their time” — they have jobs, families and responsibilities that make scheduling difficult, and sometimes the last thing they want to do is give more of their time to their alma mater. 

But more often than not, students and alumni are excited to be invited to participate in the process — especially current students. After all, they’ve made an investment in you by choosing to attend, so their interest and engagement are already high. And alumni have found their path in part because of the education they received from you, so it’s a matter of piquing their interest in the topic, letting them know that you can’t do this without them, and making it as easy as possible for them to participate. 

2. Once you’ve got their attention, don’t waste their time.

Before you ask anything of students and alumni, know exactly what information and insights you’re trying to gain. Just because they’re interested and engaged doesn’t mean you’ve got unlimited access or can make unlimited demands on their time. Remember: the branding process is an extension of their brand experience, and you don’t want to taint their perception of your institution by being disorganized. 

Every touchpoint in which you involve students and alumni needs to be carefully considered: you need to ask them everything you need to know from them, and not a single thing more. They need to see that there’s value in their participation, that it’s not just your institution “ticking off the boxes,” and that there’s a specific purpose for their participation. 

Doing it right leads to a big payoff: their insights will be clearly reflected in the new brand, and they’ll be able to see that. That’s how you create buy-in as you roll out your new brand.

3. Be strategic about which students and alumni you invite to participate.

If you’re like most schools, a majority of your students want a decent education that will get them a good job, and that’s it. This is not a knock, it’s simply a reality of post-secondary education. Even if you’re an ivy-league school, there’s only a small proportion of the highest-of-high-achievers at any institution. Rhodes Scholars are relatively few and far between for a reason.

We’re not saying this to incite you to tally up how many of your grads have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, but because these high-achievers tend to be the sweet spot for insights about your institution. Academically, athletically and/or politically high-achieving students and alumni often have the most insight into and interaction with the broadest offering of your school. They’re more engaged while they’re in school, and they tend to stay engaged after they graduate. 

The challenge many institutions face is balancing the perceptions of students who are more proportionally representative of the student body, with this smaller yet highly-engaged group who represent the best that your school has to offer. With all of the varied and valuable perspectives that different students of different ethnic groups, gender identities, abilities, nationalities and so on bring to the fray, it’s easy to get into a never-ending consultation vortex. And it’s just as easy to be criticized for failing to consider how to bring different voices to the table.

The key is to be strategic and selective to get a cross-section of various groups and perspectives to round out discussion sessions and allow for robust insights. If you still have a desire for broad student participation, there’s always the option to conduct a full-scale survey to allow all students to weigh in if they want to. 

Three key ways to ensure a successful consultation process.

1. Provide flexibility in timing.

Before anything else, students are at university or college to study. Knowing that this is their priority, avoid engaging in consultation during times that are known to be extra busy for students: the start of a new semester, midterms, final exams and other significant academic periods in their calendar.

But beware: seemingly slow periods are tricky too. It’s best to avoid times like reading week, spring break, and holidays if you want to see a good turn out. Summer may seem ideal, but not only will it be tougher to attract students during those times, but you may also only be able to attract a certain profile of student.

The best option is to provide a range of time slots and days over the course of a few weeks to encourage participation from a broad range of students. Be patient. Don’t rush consultation. It’s worth it.

2. Avoid overly-deliberate segmentation.

As mentioned earlier, representation is important, but segmentation can create echo chambers. Mixing demographics and profiles helps to generate robust discussions by exposing participants to perspectives that may not have considered, and will help you get the most out of discussion sessions. 

There may be instances where some groups might feel most comfortable among their peers based on culture, familiarity, or other factors. In these cases, make accommodations, but be sure to provide those same groups with the opportunity to participate more broadly, if some want to.

After all, one of the most life-changing aspects of post-secondary education is learning new and different perspectives than your own. 

3. Be transparent and follow up.

A rebrand is exciting. Most institutions only do this once every decade or two – and some not even that often. Since you’re asking students to be a part of something momentous, let them know that.

Be transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish, the steps involved and what will happen after you talk to them. Most importantly, have a plan to follow-up after you engage them. Before you launch your new brand, consider giving them a sneak peek that demonstrates how their contribution fits into the brand. Giving them the opportunity to see the results of their insights will help to secure that buy-in and advocacy you’re looking for.

Time to start planning! 

As you consider all of the planning aspects involved in a rebrand, be prepared to play the long game. To do a rebrand right, it takes time – but the payoff is worth it. Ensure that you have buy-in from internal teams before you start (especially at the leadership level) so that everyone is on board. The last thing you want is internal pushback after you decide to undertake a rebrand.

It’s also crucial that you engage an experienced facilitator to lead group discussions and interviews, craft surveys and ensure you have a sound research methodology to gather the information you need. A professional facilitator is trained to keep the conversations with external stakeholders like students and alumni on track to ensure you get the information and insights you need. There is always the risk of one or two wildcard participants who can derail the conversation, and a facilitator knows how to manage this.