eTip #49

Why Institutions Need to Be Educated About Branding

Just like many industry sectors that have evolved over the years, the educational sector is no exception. Today, higher education is no longer about earning a degree, or having a reputable football team, or an experience that will advance your future career. Higher education needs to think of itself as a brand, and how that brand is competing with other brands, even outside of the education sector.

In this eTip, we interviewed Joseph Benson, a brand strategist with over 30 years of experience, who has defined and expressed the brands of numerous educational institutions and teaching hospitals to include The American School in London, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brearley School for Girls, City College of New York, Mount Sinai Medical Center, and the New York University Child Study Center.

BMC: What is your experience in brand strategy and how did you get started?

Benson: I spent my early career making movies. Movies are stories. And brands are stories. My first experience was developing the story for The Disney Channel brand.

Today, I am a brand strategist with over thirty years of experience defining and expressing the brand strategies for financial services, educational institutions, non-profits, healthcare, high technology, entertainment, and retail clients.

My clients choose me when they are seeking to solve their most complex brand challenges such as preparing for an IPO, acquiring competitors, entering new categories, or building a brand portfolio.

In the end, the brands I define strengthen my clients’ businesses and drive their marketing and messaging strategies.

BMC: Why is branding more important nowadays in the education sector than ever before?

Benson: There was a time, not long ago, when educational institutions would not utter the word brand. That was before they raised the tuition to $60,000. Now, the competitors for a college degree are retirement and health care. To win in this competitor set, you need a strong, favorable, and unique brand.

BMC: What are some steps an institutional organization can start taking to get on the right path?

Benson: Millennials choose brands. They don’t ‘buy’ institutions. Presidents of colleges and universities need to be the brand stewards of their institutions. As such, their responsibilities are as the caretakers of the current brand and the architects of their future brand.

To accomplish this, they must define their brand strategy. A brand strategy includes the following three components:

1) The primary target customer should be defined demographically, psycho-graphically, and behaviorally.
2) The category in which the brand competes should include no less than two other competitors and no more than four other competitors.
3) The brand must define its competitive advantage.

BMC: What are the three most common mistakes you have seen institutional organizations make when it comes to branding?

Benson: 1) They do not recognize what brands are best at
• Creating choice – you cannot be chosen unless you are a choice
• Simplifying complex purchasing decisions
• Signaling assurance and guaranteeing quality
• Commanding a price-premium
• Developing long-term customer loyalty
• Organizing markets for customers
• Communicating leadership
2) They do not recognize that there is no other asset, whether tangible or intangible, that can deliver this much value.
3) They move directly from business strategy to marketing strategy—bypassing brand strategy—only to find that the customer is missing.
• Business strategy creates an offering.
• Brand strategy creates customers for that offering.
• Marketing strategy creates demand for that offering.

BMC: Any last words of wisdom in regard to branding for the education sector?

Benson: Brands are about sacrifice. There are over one million words in the English language. And every word has a unique meaning. The strongest brands are those that choose one word and, as a result, have a unique meaning. For example, Google has chosen ‘search’, Disney has chosen ‘family’, and MasterCard has chosen ‘priceless’.

Educational institutions must choose their word carefully. Sacrifice is good.

Joseph Benson is a brand strategist with over 30 years of experience defining and expressing brand strategies for financial services, education, energy services, healthcare, high technology, entertainment, and retail clients. Joseph is the author of a new book entitled Fifty-Seven Brand Haikus. He has also written a number of articles on brand strategy. They have been published internationally, in both print and on the Internet, and have been reviewed favorably by university professors, thought leaders in brand strategy, and business executives. Learn more about Joe Benson at


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