[Guest Blog] Research: Five Questions to Discover Your Brand Promise 
By Meg Tripp, Director of Editorial Strategy, Sametz Blackstone Associates

Building an authentic, resonant brand is a process, not an event—and asking the right people the right questions is critical to the success of your efforts. Read more in this guest blog by Sametz Blackstone Associates

Not too long ago, an academic institution’s brand evolved organically—its reputation was built through anecdotal campus experiences, student achievement, athletic prowess, alumni successes, noteworthy faculty, and so on. 

Of course, most school administrations cared about making a good impression—with potential students and their parents, incoming faculty, partners, and donors—but conscious brand building? Not a priority. That was the work of Nike or Starbucks or Volvo… not a serious bastion of learning. 

Things have changed. 

Nobody is too big—or old, or storied, or beloved—to fail

In today’s increasingly competitive academic environment, even the most august of institutions are being forced to take a hard look at how they’re perceived and understood, both on and off-campus. 

Tuition is rising (with the cost of educating students rising even faster), demographics are shifting, innovative educational models are being introduced, more schools are being forced to shutter their doors by the year, and families and college counselors are increasingly treating the admissions experience like a consumption experience. The landscape is dramatically different than it was even five years ago—and it’ll be a whole new world five years from now, too.

A strong, resonant brand gives you a leg up—but how do you develop an academic brand that’s both compelling to your key audiences and true to who you are?

In the land of big data, market research is king—but is there more to the story?

Market research is nothing new—companies have been doing it for years, with the objective of making decisions based on hard data. For academic institutions, however, digging into quantitative research is a relatively new practice, and one that certain startups and consultants have aimed to address.  

Quantitative studies and analytics can be valuable tools for making strategic decisions—if you make a point of sourcing them from trusted, thoughtful authorities, and you approach them with a critical eye. They can be quite helpful for measuring current or past states: What do people think about your brand right now? How are you perceived within your competitive landscape—and who exactly are your competitors (they might be different than you think!) But there’s also no substitute for the power and depth of qualitative research.

Qualitative research is helpful for thinking about where your brand might go moving forward. What are your institutions goals and challenges? What about your brand needs to change—or stay the same—to achieve those goals? Which aspirational attributes do you hope to make part of your brand? What misperceptions need to be intentionally managed away? How could—or should—your positioning change to be more authentically aligned with who you are—or more relevant to key audiences? The answers you seek are out there… but first, you have to figure out who to ask.

choate's homepage

A resonant brand is about more than just having a long history or a great logo. A strong brand, like Choate’s, engages emotion, inspires loyalty, and shares consistent, cohesive messaging. 

Who should be included in the conversation?

One of the most critical steps in qualitative research is figuring out which voices should (and need) to be included in your information-gathering process. 

Some participants are obvious choices: your school’s leadership, board, and staff. You might actually be tempted to stop there—these are the folks in charge, after all—but you’ll gain a much greater sense of your identity as an organization if you extend that circle further. 

Start your process with those closest to your institution’s “center” (senior leadership and board members) by setting up qualitative interviews to learn about the institution’s goals, vision, and challenges—both strategic and tactical. These initial conversations will provide invaluable insight into things about your school that you might not know, and ensure that your decision-makers are both included, and invested in your process. 

From there, make an effort to connect with individuals and groups who are “further out” from the institution’s core. You can’t meet with each faculty member individually, but you can meet with influential members who have the endorsement and respect of their peers. The same goes for staff, students, and alumni.

“Squeaky wheels” should purposefully be included in your process, too: inviting them in will help diffuse any resistance to change, and will encourage your toughest critics to become cheerleaders for your brand-building efforts.

One more consideration: should you meet with interviewees one-on-one, or in groups? The answer? Yes, yes, and sometimes both. 

It’s a good idea to give leadership the time and space to be candid with you as individuals, while other types of chats might work best in groups, so participants can bounce ideas and opinions off one another. Some groups might be more forthcoming without leadership present, while others would love to be heard—especially without interruption.

Once you’ve completed your individual and group interviews, you can also go back to your inner circle to test some of what you’ve learned along the way. This ensures they stay invested in the process—and prevents any surprises down the road!

Now that you’ve scheduled your conversations, it’s time to create an interview script that will get you the answers you need. 

Five questions to discover your brand promise

Ready to learn? The following five questions will have you well on your way to defining what your brand means now, what it could mean going forward—and how to get there. 


  1. How would you describe the institution… in your own words? This might seem a little too simple or easy a query, but you’ll be surprised by what you can learn. A quick exercise to encourage people to stray from the boilerplate: ask your participants to write down how they might describe the school to someone given a few moments in an elevator, or a chat at a cocktail party, or in an interview with a newspaper.

    The first set-up demands brevity, the next demands congeniality, and the last demands clarity—and you could well end up with three very different answers.

  2. What does the institution do—for whom, and to what end? This question might seem to cover some of the ground your initial question does, but it also introduces gaps in terms of how your participants might speak about you versus what they know, and gets everyone thinking about what people want (and need!) to understand your organization: your functions, your audiences and community, and your purpose—both practical and philosophical.

  3. What brand attributes are currently associated with the institution? What attributes would you like to see associated with it? What myths or outdated perceptions need to be dispelled or managed away? This question guides you through the attributes you own right now, the ones you wish you owned, and those you’d like to leave behind.

    It also invites your interviewees to be both aspirational and realistic in their perceptions of the institution.

  4. Where is the institution currently positioned in the competitive landscape—and where does it need to be? Here’s where you gain insight into how different people across the organization see you as a competitor: who are you up against? What do you have that they don’t have—and vice versa? What makes a potential matriculant choose another school over your own? How competitive should or could you be—and what would need to change or evolve to get there?

  5. What do you need—messaging, resources, communications, training, support—to convey the institution’s brand in a compelling and effective way? Depending on your interviewee’s function within the organization, the answers to this question will be very different, and quite illuminating—not to mention the start of a to-do list!

    Your leadership might want your vision and values to shine brighter on your website… rather than lurking a few pages in. Your board members might want a workshop to get them more comfortable with speaking about you. Your marketing and development people, when asked, might or might not think their materials align with desired attributes (and, if not, your work is clear). Each of these answers will help you set communications priorities as your brand-building process continues.

    If you’re speaking to someone outside of the institution, shift the question to get feedback on your current communications: what communications have they seen? What were their impressions? What did / didn’t they learn about the organization? Where could they improve? An outside perspective can’t hurt.

georgetown preparatory school homepage

Georgetown Prep shares their school’s values in an animated website header that overlays their mission statement of “Men for Others” on images of students participating in life on and off campus. 

berkshire schools core values

Berkshire School’s unique core values slider peeks out from the site’s homepage and creates a fun viewing experience of the six values the school instills in all members of its community. 

You’ve asked the questions—now get to work on the answers!

Qualitative research is invaluable to the process of brand-building… but only if you take action based on what you’ve learned. While your interviewees might be energized by the chance to share their perspective, they want to see movement forward, too. The first product of your investigation should be a full review of your findings, accompanied by concrete recommendations, and a step-by-step action plan to build your brand, and advance your institution in the process.  

You can update those who participated in your conversations at critical junctures as you work through your plan, giving them both a sense of positive momentum—and confirmation that you truly heard what they had to say. 

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