Think outside the mascot: 5 steps to better academic branding

Back to school on academic branding

Private prep schools. Community colleges. Name-brand universities. International programs. Vocational and technical institutes. Academic organizations of all stripes are competing harder for business – and looking carefully at their branding practices.

Not just the logo or the ads. Not just the mascots and marching bands. Not the varsity team jerseys. More and more, schools are asking themselves a larger, more critical question: How do we brand the essence of who we are, i.e. our curriculum?

Recognizing the obstacles

Academic environments, generally, are not marketing environments. They are learning environments. So their marketing culture is usually not highly evolved – and is often handled by Admissions, an affiliated but separate discipline.

The other challenge is political. Academic organizations frequently must practice inclusion to secure buy-in at lots of levels and optimize the chances of success for any change in how the school operates. Big initiatives make big targets.

So it’s best to think long-term and include the correct stakeholders early and often.

5 baby steps toward curriculum brand development

Step #1: Step back. Waaaaay back. Look at your curriculum end to end and try to describe it in basic language. Example: A private school client wrestled with the task of how to describe its curriculum, which is evenly split between traditional liberal arts courses and highly creative electives. The course of action became about Balance. The Sorry-But-We- Can’t-Name-the-Client curriculum “strikes the perfect balance between classic studies and progressive, student-driven inquiry.”

Step 2. Consider culture as well as curricula. Sometimes it’s not what happens inside the classroom, but outside it. One private school client has an informal Peer to Peer counseling program that matches underclassmen with juniors and seniors, so there’s always a person to turn to for advice. This is not unique, but no one else has branded it, so an opportunity exists for a P2P initiative that underscores a supportive culture.

Step 3. Brand the faculty. No, we don’t mean that you should assign “superstar” status to any individual. Rather, think about the faculty as a team, which shares a common goal. Consider a faculty t-shirt day when every teacher wears the same shirt with the same message, like: I teach great students great things. It’s a small step toward creating the perception of a unified spirit and standard.

Step 4. Consider brand partners. The Learning Company is not a brick and mortar institution. But check out the alliances they’ve built with Smithsonian and National Geographic. Those associations command a lot of credibility for the courses offered. If you co-brand a course with a local university, 501C3, or other entity, you can begin to brand the curriculum from the inside out.

Step 5. For extra credit: Believe in the blog. The Darrow School, a private high school in New York, has a charismatic head of school who can blog.

We remind clients that blogging takes tradecraft and time and it shouldn’t be done by just anyone. But a blog program that features a rotating field of faculty experts, coaches, guests, alumnae, and other stakeholders can be interesting – and can feed social media channels and site content with fresh images and opinion.

Your turn. Give us a shout and we’ll be happy to buy you a beverage and talk in more detail about your school and its brand.

The Facebook Conspiracy Theory


A few weeks ago, articles and videos were making their way around the web claiming that Facebook ad-buys were completely bogus.

Facebook claimed that if you purchased an ad focused on gaining likes to a page, you would set a budget, create the ad and, over a couple weeks, watch your fan-base grow. The real question is about quality: Who’s doing the “liking?”

We decided to do our own testing.

We created a new page with no likes, posts or engagement whatsoever. We even gave it a title that no one would have interest in liking… “Virtual Apple Tree”. It’s an image of an apple tree doing what apple trees do: Growing apples. We put a $25 spend behind it and waited for the magic to happen.

Sure enough, magic happened. We received 141 likes at around $0.17 cents per like. Amazing, right? But that’s when the concern set in. How could we possibly get 140+ people to like a Facebook page with no content or interaction, simply from paying $25? We dove into the pages of our new friends.

They all seemed to be legitimate people. They had profile pictures, standard US names, some activities on their walls from playing games, sharing content, etc. But then we noticed a startling trend.

Click-farming: Worthless growth

The new fans of the Virtual Apple Tree all seemed to have liked 5,000+, 20,000+ and even 40,000+ pages. The research had brought us face to face with the reality of click-farms – companies that give people small sums of money for every thousand pages they like.

The real cost of empty likes

For unsuspecting Facebook page managers who are just trying to use the advertising tool, these fake likes are much more detrimental to a page than the waste of money. Pages built on click farming are now going to start taking your organic reach away from potential real fans, causing you to want to pay even more money to “promote” posts. And the only way to get rid of these likes? You have to manually delete them one by one.

3 Actions

If you are focused on buying likes, you should:

1. Reevaluate your Facebook strategy. Depending on your target, Facebook may be the wrong venue for your audience or you may simply just be too late to the game to start a new page.

2. Try to increase engagement organically. Although Facebook continuously makes this harder to do, stay focused on reaching the quality fans and worry less about quantity.

3. Consider hosting an on-wall promotion with your advertising budget instead of purchasing ads. This is a way to reward your current fans for their patronage and also gain new fans virally from others posting and sharing the content.

As always, we are here to discuss social media strategy with you. Give us a shout. Let’s talk. Beverages are on us.

Weekly Blend- 5/2/14

dc-weeklyblendThe Weekly Blend is a blog post by drinkcaffeine that provides a wrap-up of what you need to know from the marketing & digital spaces.  Here is what’s going on this week: Read Time: 3 minutes



At its NewFronts presentation to advertisers in New York, YouTube formally announced a new ad program called Google Preferred. The program allows marketers to buy ads within the top 5% of YouTube content across a multitude of focused categories.

The move is an attempt to attract television advertisers by guaranteeing them the chance to show their commercials alongside the most sought after YouTube content-rather than just crazy cat videos.


Google is stepping up efforts to woo more dollars away from traditional television advertisers as users increasingly watch videos online. They want to show they are willing to offer features that are familiar to traditional marketers and are stressing that when viewers feel they have a real relationship with a YouTube content creator, he or she might be more inclined to purchase a products. All in all, a major step for digital advertising and potentially another step further away from the traditional television.


Snapchat revealed an update to their users. The new version makes it possible to chat within Snapchat for the first time and once you leave a conversation, the messages will disappear. More exciting, within Snapchat, you will be capable to make a video call to a friend at a moment’s notice. Their hope is to make video chats feel like opportunistic luck, like a chance encounter at a bar instead of a Skype call planned days in advance.


Snapchat challenges the conventional notions of calling, texting, or sending a photo. While chatting, users will know when they are both actively in chat mode and able to crossover to video. This allows for a different type of experience, a real world, in the moment conversation rather than sending and receiving messages. There are also a lot of great design nuances too. One in particular that we like is that your image will fade while video chatting creating a less distracted conversation. Here’s a link for more information.


Ever since ‘photoshopping’ has become a verb, as in to alter an image, people have been publicly pointing out Photoshop “fails”. Now, a bill has been sent to Congress hoping to do something about these Photoshop extremes. The Truth in Advertising Act (H.R. 4341) intends on creating a plan to regulate excessive Photoshop use in advertisements.

Specifically, if passed, the Federal Trade Commission would create a report that contains:

(1) A strategy to reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted.
(2) Recommendations for an appropriate, risk-based regulatory framework with respect to such use.


It is hard to regulate an artistic expression, which we all have the right to invoke. Advertisers want to portray an image in the best possible light and consumers don’t want to be lied to. This is nothing new, but where do you draw the line? Editing has been going on for years, but does that make it right? All in all, we don’t know where this will lead but the potential is there for some very big alterations in a lot of industries.