Education Branding: Positioning is Primal

What image comes to your mind when you think of IIM and IIPM (or Harvard and University of Phoenix in the US context)? Even though one might not have been a part of either IIM or IIPM, one would have fairly consistent opinions about these institutions. Such is the nature of education branding–deeply etched in the minds of the people. Its intangible, highly perception driven and builds over time.

Jack Trout said that “positioning is how you differentiate yourself in the mind of your prospect.” This is primal to the education marketing. Of course, positioning is just the beginning of the branding, it also follow-through by delivering whatever is promised.

Indian private education sector has grown rapidly in last decade and it is expected to grow at annual rate of 15-20%. This means more clutter, competition and challenges in differentiating. In this context, institutions should start focusing on strategically building their educational brands as it takes significant investment of time and resources to get the desired results. Given below are few recommendations for institutional brand building:

1. Understanding students’ behavior and their decision-making process: Decision-making for pursuing higher education is involves complex buying behavior and high levels of involvement that result from expense (time and money), significant brand differences, and infrequent buying (Nicholls 1995). This process is further complicated by the inherent gap between students’ aspirations with ability. While majority aspires to join IITs, only a handful would be able to finally make it. Likewise, their is a hierarchy of choice (compromise) of institutions and students search for their best fit. This leads to the next point–where do you figure in that search list of student and why?

2.Segment and position: Most institutions do not have a conscious and well-thought plan of action about what is their target segment and how do they want to reach this segment? Lockwood and Hadd in their article Building a Brand in Higher Education state that “Institutions that want to actively manage their education brand must first consider how the marketplace perceives their brand promise.” For example, IIM are prestige enhancing institutions while IIPM is a revenue maximizing institution–very different segments, very different positioning.

3. Leverage the power of association: Education is a knowledge service and hence people associated with the institution are the most important brand asset. This includes borad members, administrators, faculty, students and alumni. This is especially important for the institutions which are prestige seeking as compared to revenue maximizing. For example, ISB and GLIM have fast-paced their reputation building process by leveraging the power of associating with leading corporate leaders, global universities and star professors.

4. Bridge the gap between promise and delivery: Finally, in an environment where perceptions are shaped by rankings and online social media, institutions tend of overpromise their internal capability and underestimate the influence of external factors. Most institutions fall short of delivering their brand promise resulting in dissatisfied product and customer. (education is again unique in the sense that student is both the product and the customer of the service). Thus, institutions need to consciously work on building supporting systems and processes to deliver the experience.

Dean Ajit Rangnekar of ISB in an interview with Business India identified the biggest challenge for a new institution as the “absolute clarity on how it [educational institution] intends to position itself in the market”. He advised “a new institution to stake a new, real position (not an advertisement creation) that clearly distinguishes itself from others.”

Positioning is central to the process of education branding and institution building. In these times of changing expectations, even institutions which have been in existence for a while, may have to reposition themselves. Likewise, new institutions should systematically study their segment and position themselves somewhere in this spectrum of pretige enhancing and revenue maximizing approaches. This requires clear articulation of positioning strategy so that institution can build a coherent and successful brand over time.