Rebrand vs. Refresh - How to breathe new life into your institution’s identity


Many colleges and universities rely on their institutional legacy as a foundational component of their brand. Seals, logos, colors and more are all aspects of a time-honored tradition that conveys the significance of an institution. Creating messaging that builds on more than a century of values helps establish the strength of a brand in the minds of prospective students. However, not all brands were originally built to stand the test of time. As trends emerge and the higher education landscape changes, a brand that hasn’t been updated in 10, 20, or even 100 years might begin to look and feel stale. If that is the case, it might be time for your institution to take a closer look at what its brand represents. 

Perception vs. Reality

The word “rebrand” is an umbrella term often used in marketing discussions, but in truth, the definition varies based on specific needs, from something as small as refreshing the imagery used in messaging, to something as drastic as changing the name of an institution. Often, these changes take place during a time of transition, for example, the appointment of a president or opening of a new college. So, how does a university determine the extent to which they need to refresh their brand? I spoke with Tom Sternal, President of Generation, a branding and communications agency for nonprofits, to answer that question.

“What’s at the heart of the institution?...What’s the mission? Not just a formal mission statement, but the real purpose.”

Sternal suggests starting from ground zero, identifying the core values that your school provides and instills in its graduates. Sternal continued, “Once that is established, the next question would be ‘Is the way you see yourself the same way your market sees you?’ How big is the gap between perception and reality?” The goal of a brand is to convey your internal values to the outside world. If there is a gap between those two, a rebrand can help close it. 

Small changes, Big impact

A rebrand, however, can be a serious expenditure of time, money, and effort. Many marketing departments might not be equipped to take on a project of this scope, but would be able to refresh their messaging, imagery, and other marketing materials. For institutions looking for a more economical refresh, Sternal suggests “Focus on revenue generation.” Making admissions or fundraising the focal point of your brand refresh will not only be a good metric to gauge the response, but will also help generate momentum for a complete rebrand within the institution. If refreshed marketing materials are generating more revenue for the school, stakeholders within the institution will be more likely to get on board with a complete rebrand. 

As your brand refresh begins to gain momentum, you might feel pushback from stakeholders within the institution and alumni who aren’t as excited about the change. How can a marketing team gain buy-in from these two crucial groups? “Research and data must prove it’s the right decision,” Sternal says. Conduct primary research within your target market to compare the refreshed brand to the existing one to ensure that the new messaging resonates. Using the data provided by this research is a great way to prove to naysayers that a rebrand will succeed.

As mentioned above, many universities rely heavily on legacies that stretch back for generations. I asked whether it was possible to balance the old with the new when introducing a rebrand.

“There’s always a way to bridge history with modernity. Whatever is new has to have the genetic code of the past to justify where you’re going. Sometimes, you need to dig deep to see what the institution stood for in the early days. Try to draw a line from yesterday, through today, to tomorrow as a way to sustain trust.”

In other cases, a rebrand might require a return to the tenets of history. If your college or university’s brand has strayed too far from the ideology on which it was founded, it might be wise to look backward before moving forward.” 

When is the right time to consider a brand refresh?

Every few years, marketing teams have the obligation to ask themselves “what’s next?” For an institution with declining enrollment, that question might need to be answered immediately. According to Sternal, the importance of a brand can’t be understated.  

“A brand is a way we unite people in a common cause to create a unified institution, [it is] an emotional thing that is often underestimated.”

Even during times of prosperity, it’s important to examine how the brand is being perceived. The scope of a rebrand or refresh is tied to the size of the opportunity at stake. For example, a school looking to increase social media lead generation might consider updating the aesthetic of their Instagram and Facebook pages to match that of their website. Taken individually, this project isn’t burdensome, but combined with a few other small refreshes, it can have a significant impact to the future of your institution.

Ensuring that your brand accurately showcases the values of your university is a vital step for schools of any size. Does the internal perception line up with external reality? If the answer to that question is no, a brand refresh may be necessary.