Brand portfolio strategy is an often-misunderstood concept in higher ed marketing, if it’s considered at all. As many of you know, I’ve taken a new post at a different university. Prior to my arrival, the marketing department chose to follow what’s often called a “branded house” strategy. For those new to this concept, brand strategies typically fall on one end of a branding continuum often referred to as a brand spectrum. At one end, you have a “branded house” strategy, where the brand is firmly established and plays the driver role across all product offerings. Harvard is an example of a branded house (e.g. Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, etc.).
The “house of brands” strategy is on the other end of the continuum. My old school, Biola University, is an example of a house of brands strategy. It has Talbot School of Theology, Rosemead School of Psychology and The Torrey Honors Institute. Creating new brands or line extensions can help schools reach niche markets they wouldn’t otherwise be able to under their master brand. Toyota used this brand strategy when it created Scion to reach the emerging youth market that saw the Toyota brand as a brand for older people who were more interested in fuel economy than customization.
Some school brands, like the University of Pennsylvania, use a house of brands strategy (Annenberg School, Wharton School) but are closer to the branded house side of the spectrum.
There’s a tendency for smaller schools, like mine, to want to emulate established brands, like Harvard, Nike, etc., and follow a branded house strategy. But these schools often fail to realize the limitations of their master brands, especially when they attempt to reach niche markets. So they stretch their brands across their product offerings only to find that students don’t connect their brand with the product offering, like a Christian college entering the grad school market with a MA program in Artificial Intelligence. The only hope it has is a new line extension.
Granted there are merits to adopting a branded house strategy, like leveraging the established brand, lower branding costs, synergy, etc., but if your master brand cannot connect with the intended audience or make sense to them, then these benefits cease to be benefits. In addition, if you offer a new product under the established brand and it fails or goes sideways, then you could risk damage to the established brand. For example, those schools that started degree completion programs under a brand extension in the late 1980s are likely glad they did given the decline of the degree completion market.
So, it pays to think carefully about brand portfolio strategy and to understand that schools can’t simply adopt a brand strategy just because a well-known company did.