Turn your dreams into reality at _____ [insert any big city school with a small-town feel], where experiential learning thrives and professors know you by name.

See anything offensive? Notice anything that might raise the hackles of your alums? Or get nixed by admissions? Perfect — branding complete!

But not so fast. Maintaining the status quo might satisfy the masses, but that doesn’t mean it accurately reflects your school, or differentiates you from what your competitors are doing. And it’s definitely not going to catch the eye of your prospective students.

Take a stand for what you’re best at.

In higher-ed, it’s common for decisions to be driven by tradition, and real change can take a long time. To be successful, a strong brand needs fearless leaders across the university who are willing to make bold choices at the risk of not pleasing everyone.

Perhaps you’re a marketing director overseeing a university rebranding that vastly deviates from its long-standing key messages and brand identity. Or maybe you’re pushing for a university magazine overhaul, but meeting resistance from stubborn alumni who aren’t open to seeing their alma mater through a new lens. Or you might be working with a team who’s fallen into a pattern of churning out the same old materials and needs some coaching to inspire fresh thinking.

No matter the scenario, you have a challenge — to forge ahead despite the inevitable pushback and be a champion of great work.

That’s easier said than done, though. To learn how to brand fearlessly, follow these tips.

TIP 1

Take the offensive

Instead of trying to avoid complaints, be prepared to address them confidently and head-on. If you know that your fresh new website is going to make a huge impact on prospective students, but some traditionalists among the faculty won’t be comfortable with the change, decide in advance how to approach their feedback. Point to research that backs up your decision, for instance, to replace faculty bios with student/faculty Q&As that get at the crux of their research. Arm yourself with examples of other schools that have made a similar move and succeeded — or even pull examples from the corporate world, if that’s likely to resonate with your audience. Be able to speak not only about what you’re doing, but why, and how the change will help the school meet its goals and reinforce brand messages.

TIP 2

Test it

Testing is effective not only to find out how something is working, but also to back up your bold decisions. “We tested this with students and it works” can be an effective way to shut down internal naysayers, especially when college staff members are well outside your target audience (read: not 17 years old!).

For a more major branding initiative, formal testing, both qualitative and quantitative, is a good idea before implementation. Consider surveying specific audience segments. But for a smaller-scale project, it can be surprisingly illuminating to pull together a few quick focus groups or talk one-on-one with students to get their feedback. If you hear the same things on a consistent basis, you might get ideas for improvements. And if it’s working well, you’ll come away armed with positive feedback that you can use to back up the work.

TIP 3

Lead with strength

Often a concept starts out bold, but ends up watered-down by the time it’s actually executed. One common reason for this dilution is that leaders are highly involved in the development of a big idea, and then turn execution over to their staff members, who may not be in a place or have all the facts to defend the original concept. If a junior-level employee is asked to make a change that goes against the creative vision, he or she is more likely to make the change instead of pushing back.

To avoid this, make it clear to your staff members that you’re their leader on the frontlines. Stay present and available throughout the review process of any new or major branding effort. Schedule regular check-ins to ensure that the brand is being executed appropriately. When the project needs to be presented to departments across campus, take ownership and spearhead important decisions.

TIP 4

Know when to listen

Fearless branding shouldn’t mean disregarding every bit of feedback you get. Sometimes feedback will even suggest how to amplify your idea. If you’re hearing the same criticisms over and over again from different audiences, your work likely needs re-examining. That doesn’t mean scrapping the idea entirely, but it may mean that an element of the brand isn’t really reflecting the school’s personality and experience. Keep in mind that a strong leader who can take advice is more likely to earn respect from colleagues — and get more buy-in for the next crazy idea!

Learn more

Take your branding even further with these tips from higher ed experts on how to convince those prickly profs that branding and marketing matter.