Why Academics Need Branding

Today, many professors share the same responsibilities as our counterparts in other industries. We need to answer emails, attend mandatory HR trainings, and have conversations about recruitment, retention, and image. But one thing we don’t usually have is the staple of many in the working world: An ID badge to be worn while at work. At the most, we have something like this, a name badge used during “open-house” events where members of the public, or new students, may be in attendance.

My Delta State name badge

When asked* to wear our badges, we generally grumble and dig them out of our bags or desk drawers, reluctantly put them on, and wander out to the event.  Most professors consider them a nuisance, however I’d argue that, when used effectively, they are far more important than we think. They are a visible way we show our affiliation, at a time when higher education (whether it wants to or not) needs not only affiliation, but brand presence.

How does a name badge advance a brand? Well if executed poorly, it doesn’t. I’ll give you an example of good execution (in my opinion) first. At Delta State, all of our name badges have the same size, shape, and style: Black lettering on a gold background. Each year there are very subtle differences depending on the shop that we order from, but unless you hold badges side-by-side you won’t really notice the font shift, bolder letters, or 1-2 point size differences in text. When ‘outsiders’ come to an event, all Delta State faculty and staff are immediately recognizable about a mile away, which means that people have no trouble asking us questions ranging from “Where are the bathrooms” to “Do you teach here?” to “Can you tell me about the XYZ program?”. We appear organized because our badges match, even if sometimes we might not have all the answers. Last week, for example, a new orientation student who was visibly confused flagged me down asking for help understanding her schedule. 2 minutes later and a quick look at her schedule and she was off happily, profusely thanking me.

Contrast that to a previous institution I was at where name badges were a very informal thing. Each year the design changed rather markedly – the background was white one year, red another, white again the next. Sometimes the logo of the school was on the badge, sometimes it wasn’t. Folks who had been around 10+ years had a much older design with just a single bar and their name, while newer badges had the same information mine does above. And unless you mentioned it a few times, you might not even get a badge (I never did), even as a full time faculty or staff member. While I’m sure the administration cared about them in theory, in practice it was a free-for-all. To the public, this sends a message of disorganization (Which at that school was more accurate than desired), and while we had a quality product to offer, we didn’t appreciate how the little details mattered.

The DSU Division of Counselor Education & Psychology at the Greater Memphis National College Fair, September 2014.
The DSU Division of Counselor Education & Psychology at the Greater Memphis National College Fair, September 2014.

At DSU, branding seems to be doing it’s job in terms of recruiting students in tough times. Last year we had our first year with increasing enrollment in over a half-decade, and we’re hopeful for another increase this year. When we go to academic / college fairs, our tables look uniform, our faculty and staff are easy to spot, and we project an image of professionalism that many other institutions lack. As academics, our number 1 priority is, and always will be, providing a quality education to our students. But we cannot become so jaded as to believe that appearance, marketing, and branding have no impact on our abilities to do our jobs. People notice if your logos are different, business cards vary greatly, and name badges don’t match. And what can admissions folks tell to those people when they ask “Will my son be able to graduate in four years or will an advising error happen like it did to my daughter at ?”. They can assure them that we take advising seriously (and at DSU we definitely do), but if it looks like they can’t even coordinate their own letterhead, will they be believed?

** I originally wrote “required”, however if you’ve spent time in academia, you know that there are always a handful of professors that will laugh in the face of such ‘requirements’.