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Is NC State University a Branded House or a House of Brands?

Been having a good conversation with David Green over at the College of Veterinary Medicine regarding branding strategies for NC State and other universities and it occurred to me that the discussion is similar to those I had at Harley-Davidson and Sea-Doo back in the days.

The discussion was around branding strategies.  Brand strategies typically fall on one end of a branding continuum often referred to as a brand spectrum. At one end, you have a “branded house” strategy, where the “big” brand is firmly established and plays the driving role across all product offerings.  At the other end is the “house of brands” strategy where  the larger brand is behind the scenes and often unnoticed.

Harley was clearly a branded house. The products (motorcycles, motor clothes, accessories, etc.) were closely tied to the Harley-Davidson name.  At Sea-Doo it was the other way around.  Sea-Doo was owned by Bombardier Inc. and you rarely, if ever, heard that name in marketing.  You had Sea-Doo, Ski-Doo, Lear Jet, Challenger, etc.  All were/are part of the Bombardier family of products.

You can probably think of other consumer brands and put them in the appropriate brand buckets.  Apple is a branded house.  All of its products shout out “look at me,” we’re from Apple.  General Mills on the other hand, house of brands:  Cheerios, Haagen-Dazs, Betty Crocker, Green Giant.

In higher education, there are few examples of the extremes, but many universities slide toward either side of the spectrum.

Duke is a good example of a university that is closer to the house of brands.  As David pointed out, Duke has an extremely strong brand, but it’s not monolithic. For example, news releases reference the college/ center/or institute; it’s not just a Duke professor.  NC State, on the other hand, is closer to the branded house side of things.  It’s the NC State college of … education, design, physical and mathematical sciences, humanities and social sciences, etc.

“At Duke the individual colleges have separate identities–Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Fuqua School of Business, Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering, Sanford School of Public Policy. Duke also promotes units: Kenan Institute for Ethics, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, etc.  I wonder if promoting the individual entities helped them become endowed, recruit faculty stars, top students, and additional donors?

“My take away is that an effective whole is created by developing and integrating strong components. I’ve been thinking of our reorganization as a long-term commitment that supports strategic new directions for NC State. But what are those directions? Do we want to build upon our emerging strength in biomedical research? Are we moving toward an environment in which collaboration with external corporate, government, and academic researchers is the norm? If so, promoting the collaborative research undertaken by Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research would be appropriate.”

“I realize we cannot expect answers to all questions in the few months ahead but to state the obvious–how we organize, staff, and work together on what agreed upon priorities will influence how our many publics view NC State.”

David make some really good points and these are the types of things we all need to be thinking about.  I didn’t respond to the bigger ideas, but focused on the challenges faced by NC State.  Here’s my repsonse to him:

“I’ve always felt we should encourage the colleges to maintain their own identity, but I think  Duke has a couple of advantages over NC State.  First, they have spent years (decades with some) building the awareness of the individual schools and/or programs.  We don’t have the advantage of time.

“Next is money.  The individual Duke brands have money to spend on marketing and they have been consistent in promoting them…over time.

“So, time and money make a big difference.

“Size is the other advantage they have.  They are small and have fewer units which means more focus.  Focus is what it’s all about and it is one of the biggest challenges we have.  How do you focus a campaign at an institution that has 200 or more areas of study?”

So there you have it.  A thought starter I hope and I’m looking forward to hearing from others about our branding strategy as we move forward.  Is NC State University a Branded House or a House of Brands.  Well, today we’re probably much closer to a branded house, but is there where we want to stay?   It’s all TBD.

Passion Rules!

66 of 100


1 David Hunt { 01.13.10 at 12:53 pm }

With more of our advances coming as a result of collaboration across disciplines, I think we’re going to naturally move from thinking of our campus as a collection of colleges to thinking of it as a very strong and diverse community.

2 Jane Albright { 01.13.10 at 1:01 pm }

Depends on the audience and the results you want. I’d be willing to bet that to most people — the general public — both Duke and State are brands and they wouldnt know a Fuqua from a Fuquay. The 200 areas of study is State because that’s what State does.

To the academic elite, maybe the named department or school is more important and they should be communicated with at the Fuqua level.

So, who is our most important audience? Who are we trying to impress?

3 Joe Hice { 01.13.10 at 3:18 pm }

Well, unlike most consumer products companies, we’re trying to reach myriad audiences and that makes our job even more challenging. I think you can look at the “sub-brands” as the little extras that might add personality to a university. The fact that Duke has a Fuqua school and Harvard a Kennedy school adds something to the personality. On the Harley side it’s the Fat Boy or Dyna Wide Glide. They add nuance and I think that’s important. But how do we weave those ideas into our brand? What do we weave into our brand?

4 Anna Rzewnicki { 01.13.10 at 9:37 pm }

This topic comes up frequently at business school conferences and I’m glad to see the discussion here.

I concur with Karen’s note about the audience. Business schools, for example, develop messaging and work on brand awareness to showcase how they are different than other business schools. The same, I think, could be true of each college in a university. We all have individuals/audiences who have (or might have once they learn about us) an affinity for or interest in our particular discipline(s), our lines of research within those disciplines and our approach to teaching. When reaching out to these audiences, we need to be able to communicate our ‘brand’ or key messages concisely, in the few moments we have before we lose their attention. We need to keep our brand (or messaging) visible and consistent, so that they recognize it when they come back for a second look.

The strength or character of the entire university then, I think, is built on the strength & character of its individual colleges, centers & programs. These are the personality of the university, as Joe said, but I think they are much more than that …. they provide the substance that comprises the whole.

That’s why I have long been an advocate of including the college name and field of study when identifying a researcher or a student in a story, to help provide a point of reference and to showcase the depth and breadth of academic & research programs within the university – strengthening the whole by increasing recognition of the units. If the story is about work being done collaboratively by researchers from several colleges or units, then referencing each does a better job of explaining the full story and showcases the strength of the whole university even more.

The brand of the university, then, needs to be the power statement that says, Look what we’re made of/what we stand for/what we make possible – from the named professor in the named department or school within a college to the brand new freshman just starting to learn of the possibilities.

Going back to the corporate example, when I see the General Mills logo on a cereal box, I take that to mean that General Mills stands behind the quality of what’s in the box, regardless of the individual brand of cereal. I select the brand of Gen.Mills cereal based on what I need & want at the time I’m buying … and the branding and messaging behind each of those individual kinds of cereals helps me make up my mind about what I need & want, because they tell how how they’re different from one another. If the logo on the box is Kashi instead of General Mills, then I know I’m looking at a whole other style of cereal options.

5 Mike Schoenfeld { 01.14.10 at 8:03 am }

Thanks for the shout-out Joe, but I would disagree somewhat with the assessment of your neighbors down the road. The Duke identity, while perhaps not “monolithic” (and I’m not quite sure what that means in this context) is certainly pervasive. And for good reason — our research and experience show that former, current and prospective students, faculty, and supporters, regardless of their affiliation or degree, identify first and foremost with Duke. And in turn, I think we as an institution understand the value of one of the most powerful, well-known and well-respected brand names in higher education. We choose to have perhaps greater flexibility in how that gets deployed than other places, but that doesn’t diminish the allegiance that our key constituents have for the Duke brand, and how we present it. Take a look at the website and material for the Fuqua School of Business and you will see repeated and clear messages about the “Duke MBA” and the “Duke business education.” Likewise with Sanford and Nicholas. And Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, while our largest academic unit by far, is as much an internal and historic designation, albeit an important one. So where does that out in in the “house of brands” vs. “branded house” spectrum? Somewhere in the middle, I guess, which is probably where we all want to be.

Congratulations on 66 days with many, many more to come!

Mike Schoenfeld
Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations
Duke University

6 Joe Hice { 01.14.10 at 9:02 am }

Mike: Thanks for your comments and observations about Duke. I think it’s great that here in the “Triangle” we have three great institutions; NC State, Duke, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill — and lets not overlook the great smaller colleges and the North Carolina community college system — that talk to each other and work together.

Perhaps we should all get together to do even more to promote the educational diversity and opportunities that are available right here in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill. A regional focus if you will. Any student, interested in any subject, with just about any budget, can find what he or she wants in this area. At my old home it was UF, the community college, or bust. We’re truly a mecca for higher education and we don’t carry the baggage of the larger markets like Washington D.C., New York, Boston, etc.

7 Lisa Currin Fogarty { 01.14.10 at 2:48 pm }

Doing what we do best. Together. How can you beat that? It’s like having the best forward, the best point guard and the best coach. All at the same time. While the team gets the props, everyone knows respects and celebrates the individual characteristics of the players too.

I’m thinking that applies to NC State with our myriad areas of excellence. My gut reaction to a strong house-brand is: I love it. I think it instills unification, cohesive pride, a team mentality. With a university as large as ours we need a unifying mantra that supports and inspires our individual missions. Something that strikes a chord across the campus. For faculty, for students, for staff, for extension agents, for donors, for alum. Which, is the hard part. 😉

I think recognizing that we aspire to greatness as a team, and allowing individual aspects of the brand to surface for unique characteristics of each “player on the team” can also apply to our uncommon neighborhood of Universities.

The three (really four with Wake Forest) largely recognizable universities in this area are probably so accustomed to having each other around that we forget how fortunate and unique that makes us. We’re each already recognized for specialized areas of expertise, and when you put all that recognition together, it’s ridiculously powerful.

I like that NC State is a land-grant. That’s such an important phrase. That phrase means responsibility, a noble charge, a promise. I like that we’re known as the people’s university. I like that we provide services, advice and extension into each county of our state. I like that we have agricultural and engineering beginnings and have never stopped leading in those areas. We were biotech before biotech was cool. 🙂 And I like that.

And I like that there are three more powerhouse universities down the road. I like that they have medical schools. I like that the architecture alone on Duke’s campus makes me go silent, that my relatives in Alaska have heard of Chapel Hill’s Kenan Flagler business school, and that Wake Forest is one of the nation’s most respected private schools.

I like that we’re talking about things as a team. And I like that Duke chimed in.

When I saw Joe’s post from the N&O about our new chancellor, and picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off after a whirlwind of administrative challenges, I thought of this. Do you remember Al Pacino’s speech to his team in the movie, Any Given Sunday: “Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives. All comes down to today, and either, we heal as a team, or we’re gonna crumble.” I’m such a sucker for words. And sentimentality. And team. And a branded house.

8 Joe Hice { 01.14.10 at 7:41 pm }

It’s starting to get fun, eh!

9 Q { 01.15.10 at 8:11 am }

Given Woodson’s directive by UNC GA to “take NC State to the next level”, and given the resources we have available (from fiscal to grassroots) to promote that accomplishment, I would have to give the nod to the branded house.

Woodson’s key challenge there will be to make acolytes from within a deeply entrenched siloed culture.

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