Don’t panic! How to navigate creating your Higher Education sub-brand…

Ben Leeves By Ben Leeves

Sub-brands articulate your department’s identity. They position you within your overall institution’s brand architecture, keeping everything consistent, and they make a specific promise about what you offer to a refined audience. But it’s fair to say that realising a university sub-brand is challenging.

Your institution probably has the population of a medium-sized town – which means your project will be contending with a lot of internal voices.

Then there’s the external stakeholders. Academics, students and staff aside, even a smaller unit like a university department has a huge array of audiences, from alumni to prospective students, parents to funders.

...but don’t panic.

In 15 years of helping the UK’s leading Higher Education Institutions distill their identities, we’ve learnt a few things. Here are my three top tips for your sub-brand project to help you realise your school or department’s identity smoothly.

1. Define your project’s scope

The scope of your project seems deceptively simple. You’re discovering your department’s identity, then you’re deciding on the messages you’ll be putting out into the world.

But remember: you’re branding a department, not your overall institution. Without careful control, your project could lose this focus.

That’s why, first of all, you need to define your limits. Your parent brand is sacrosanct, and establishing your institution’s existing constraints will define your project’s parameters. This is a sub-brand, not a fresh identity for your whole university.

For example, you won’t be aiming for a new logo when your university’s one is globally recognised. Instead, you might be commissioning a visual identity for your department that sits within the master brand. Think of these limits less as constraints, more as a framework to guide you. There’s always space to be creative within this framework!

Second, be realistic about how much of your new sub-brand you’ll be able to realise in the development stages.

Which touchpoints do you want to explore? Will it be execution of your sub-brand for digital ads, a landing page or print direct marketing? These answers form your creative brief.

When I’m running a sub-brand project with a university, I make sure we visualise how the new identity works on a range of channels. But you’ll never satisfy all your stakeholders – and introducing too many elements before the sub-brand has been finalised risks sidetracking your whole project.

2. Iron out your process early

A sub-brand project means dealing with a daunting range of internal stakeholders, probably with a range of seniority. Getting the right people round the table throughout is tough.

In my experience, formalising your process is the way forward. Set up a project team from the off, and plot out your timeline. Then, book in all the meetings you’ll need from beginning to end.

You’ll know as well as anyone how busy academics are during term-time – and how they’re often absent outside of it. But by booking meetings early, you’ll minimise the risk of delays getting feedback and making those critical decisions. Plus, it's easier to cancel a meeting than to schedule an extra one at short notice.

I’ve also found getting specific people to commit to meetings extremely effective. Discourage people from delegating attendance to others in their team, because if new voices get involved at unpredictable points, decisions could stall.

A thorough write-up of every project meeting guarantees everyone is crystal clear on progress at every stage. And by recording the decisions you make, you make sure everyone – your internal colleagues and your agency – is confident to move on developing the project.

3. The holy grail: achieving consensus

Let’s face it – you’re likely to encounter strong feelings in any sort of branding project. Brand identity is so emotive and accessible, it’s inevitable.

My advice is simple: turn this to your advantage.

Your colleagues care about the sub-identity you’re trying to articulate. They live it each and every day – so their voices matter. I’ve always found sub-brands are so much truer to a department’s identity when everybody’s views are taken into account early.

That’s why I recommend getting an ambitious project team together, with stakeholders from all key teams together at the kick-off meeting.

For most agencies, a roomful of 20 people with opinions about a sub-brand is terrifying.

But in 15 years working in Higher Education I’ve learnt that consensus about the finished sub-brand will only be achieved if the range of views in your institution are respected.

That’s not to say taking every thought into account. Rather, we use the kick-off brainstorms and what we establish about your colleagues’ particular needs to rationalise the finished product.

For example, if your colleague runs student recruitment in a particular region of the globe, demonstrate how the identity you’ve distilled makes a promise that is intelligible to that audience.

Believe me, consensus on a sub-brand project is possible.

So – over to you.

If you’re preparing for a sub-brand project – or even if you want to chat Higher Education branding more widely – I’m just a phonecall away.

At Consider, we’ve been developing department identities for universities like LSE and Imperial College London for 15 years. We’ve established a winning recipe for branding projects, from helping you build a timeline through to insight gathering, creative development and roll out with assets and brand guidelines.

Ben Leeves

Ben Leeves

Co-founder & Senior Partner

One of the co-founders of Consider, Ben is our digital media adventurer. He's always on top of the latest digital advancements in creative and has been behind a fair few of them himself. He’s been one step ahead for the last 20 years. The latest digital insights from Ben are on our blog.