Author: Forge Team

4 January 2024

No one has to tell you that these are unprecedented times in higher education; you and your team are in the thick of it. Colleges and universities are facing daunting challenges and pressures, from looming enrollment cliffs to cultural declines in how higher education is valued. A purpose-driven brand can help.

Purpose matters. It’s real. It helps you shape your future, connect with students and donors, and guide decision-making.

In an age where students and donors increasingly prioritize social and environmental responsibility, a purpose-driven approach can set your institution apart. It fosters deeper connections and engagement with students, parents, donors, and communities looking to align themselves with like-minded institutions and brands they can believe in—like yours.

First things first. What is a purpose-driven brand?

A purpose-driven brand is your institution’s brand promise, grounded in your higher purpose and vision, brought to life to make a positive impact in the world. A purpose-driven brand is manifested through the integrated efforts of your school’s programs, people, partnerships, and messaging.

The challenge most colleges have, as well as most companies (don’t feel bad), is truly understanding their higher purpose and succinctly defining it. Multi-point mission statements aren’t your purpose. Think Patagonia, whose higher purpose as an outdoor gear company is this: “We are in the business of protecting our planet.” Simple. Inspiring. Focused. Patagonia’s purpose-driven brand promise is to deliver products, experiences, and land preservation that helps people enjoy and protect the planet.

Tips to get you started on a purpose-driven Higher Education Brand that works harder:

  • Ask the hardest question: why does your institution exist? This is really about your college or university’s vision. What is your dream for improving the world? This is your institution’s higher purpose. Granted, it’s a difficult question for any organization to answer. Research can help answer it to a degree. Research helps you understand your historical value. It helps you understand your cultural value – now and perhaps into the future. But research can’t tell you why the world’s better for having your institution in it. Building a purpose-driven brand starts with clearly defining your purpose.
  • Don’t overlook obvious advantages. Does your school provide more research opportunities for the size of its student body? Do your students, as first-gen scholars, have a disproportionate amount of grit and determination? Observing advantages can inform your Patagonia-esque statement of purpose.
  • Consider your values. Your values aren’t your brand purpose, but your brand purpose should live harmoniously with your values. Values are a good gauge to know that your institution’s higher purpose is true to what your team believes in as human beings.
  • Be focused. Don’t get caught in the trap of being all things to all students, parents, and faculty. Multi-point mission statements don’t define your purpose. Part of the challenge with being focused is that quite often there are too many participants poking their fingers in the branding pie. Keeping things focused is often a product of keeping things simple, and keeping teams lean.
  • Be authentic. Your brand purpose must be true to your institution’s resources, or your planned resources. It must reflect the environment and architecture of your brick-and-mortar experience. It must reflect the personality of the people who teach and learn at your school. Virtually, or in-person.
  • Don’t be afraid to be bold. Defining or refining your purpose – especially these days – might require looking at the sum total of your resources in a new light. Don’t be afraid to be bold making a human statement about what your higher purpose is, or taking steps to bring it to life through all the parts of your brand. Remember, people want to align with like-minded institutions and brands. The people you want to attract aren’t boring, but dynamic. They believe in making change.
  • Live it and breathe it. Once defined, a purpose-driven brand isn’t a static expression of your beliefs. It is a living, breathing testament to the beliefs of your institution and its people. It is nurtured and grown through the support of student activities, faculty research, community service, and local economic development, to name a few things. You’ll know you’ve nailed your purpose-driven brand when people are inspired by it and make it their own. When students are running with it.
  • Be consistent from the top down. Brand guidelines that encapsulate your higher purpose not only create a stronger whole, but prevent any confusion or contradiction in the world. Consistency leads to both efficiency and strength in messaging.
  • Land on a brand campaign that is purpose-driven. A strong brand concept, including a tagline, is often a great first step to bring your purpose to life in an inspirational way. We worked with UMass Dartmouth to uncover their purpose. UMass Dartmouth provides more research andlearning opportunities per student than most other colleges. From their architecture to their curriculum to the wealth of opportunities they provide at a reasonable tuition, there is nothing ordinary about the value they offer to studentsand faculty. In fact, everything that UMass Dartmouth does is about being extraordinary. Not only does the tagline carry weight, but the executions with student stories is breathing life into the brand.

Just as you invite your students to invest in their futures, we invite you to invest in yours. We’d love to talk.

About Forge

At Forge, our mission is to help organizations who do meaningful work do more, and we’ve helped them do it for over 20 years. We’re a strategically focused brand, advertising, and digital agency that understands business goals and develops fast, purposeful, creative approaches to surpass them. At Forge, we do research and planning and build purpose-driven brands, creating multi-channel marketing campaigns and content to optimize your growth. We workshop. We iterate. We collaborate. We appeal to the better angles of all our natures. We drive results.