5 Questions to Boost Your Higher Education Brand Strategy

When we examine higher education brand strategy, specifically, it’s the communications that often get the glory. It is the exciting stuff. What we fail to recognize, or at least celebrate, is the craft it took to get there. 

Smart brand strategy is fundamental to effective creative execution. The rigor – or the questions we ask to direct our research – should be framed in a way that guides our efforts in the best way.

And like most marketing fundamentals, it’s best to look to the past to provide direction for the future. In this case, it’s to return to a little-known book, Developing New Brands, published in 1973 (I found mine courtesy of a book sale at a small school in Washington).

In this short but illuminatingly stout book, Stephen King outlines the fundamentals of developing a brand, which he would later expand in his 1974 Planning Guide. Combined, both provide a 5-question model that represents the continuous nature of strategy. It’s the framework that creates the guideposts for strategic rigor.

1. Where are we?

“Where are we?” is perhaps the most important question. It sets the tone for the development of strategic priorities as well as ensures you are moving forward with clarity. It’s at this stage that you should seek to understand your brand within the context of the market. 

To do so, begin by culling relevant research around four key pillars–brand, category, consumer and culture–seeking to understand market advantages, brand perceptions, competition, shifts in buying behavior, trends, changes in policy or technology, and market opportunities. Below are sample questions for each pillar.


  • What parts of our history may inform our future?
  • What do our current communications say about us?
  • Where is the brand in peoples’ minds?
  • What is our current brand promise?


  • What’s the decision/purchase cycle?
  • Are we the first choice?
  • How are our competitors communicating?
  • What’s the impact on us?
  • What are the conventions in our category?
  • What trends directly affect our brand?


  • How do they make decisions?
  • How do they consume media?
  • What are their current attitudes towards our brand?
  • What benefits define our category?
  • What interpersonal and nonpersonal influences shape their decisions?


  • What cultural factors do we need to be aware of?
  • What’s happening in the world that may impact us?
  • What macro trends could impact us?


Taken together, these questions should form an accurate picture of what is going on in the market, what problems underpin your current state and how your brand is perceived in relation to competitors. 

2. Why are we here?

After culling key research into the current market factors, this next question seeks to form a narrative around your current state. 

Have you lost relevancy in the market? Is it because society lacks trust in what you deliver? Are there new entrants in your competitor set or has new technology disrupted how your product is distributed? 

Whatever factors have caused the need for a new strategic direction, your narrative should clearly define the strategic drivers–the forces that will ultimately shape your brand strategy. 

For example, Oatly found that offering a dairy-free alternative aimed at rational health benefits was making the brand essentially invisible in the market. Similarly, their packaging was reinforcing those very same customer perceptions. The company decided to reposition themselves in the marketplace as more than a milk alternative, as it was their packaging that played a major role in their current state. 

3. Where could we be?

After you’ve clearly defined a hypothesis of your current state, it’s time to develop a direction for your new brand strategy. King was quick to point out that he used the term “could” purposefully. It means to imply both “where we hope to be,” but also “realistically end up.” 

Questions to ask that that can help develop a desired brand position:

  • Which groups of people are more likely to influence the brand’s success?
  • What do we want them to believe, think and feel about the brand?
  • How does that differ from their current beliefs? 
  • In what way are these responses different from key competitors?


The goal is to land on a single inflection point and very clearly define the problem and the strategic drivers that should be leveraged as the solution. 

To extend the example of Oatly, they asked the question: Can we grow the category by positioning ourselves as being not just good tasting–owning our oats origins–but also unapologetically good for the environment and for people? In a sense, Oatly grows by becoming a beacon for changing people’s attitudes toward what’s good for the planet and themselves. 

4. How could we get there? 

While not as comprehensive from an assessment perspective, this question determines how the achievement of objectives will be met, deciding on the role of marketing and communications and the creative strategy needed to express the brand strategy. 

The goal is to ensure alignment between the brand platform and the necessary communications. It’s also the stage where the role of advertising should be established and campaigns developed to support overall strategy. 

Questions to ask:

  • What is the appropriate marketing mix?
  • What media is needed to meet our objectives?
  • What is the best combination of media to ensure appropriate reach?
  • How should feedback and new learnings be incorporated?

Questions to ask about advertising:

  • What do we want each audience to notice, believe and respond?
  • What media can be leveraged to achieve these results?

5. Are we getting there?

This stage is really an extension of the previous two. As objectives and marketing activities are being developed throughout the planning cycle, how you’ll measure success should become more clear. 

Questions to ask:

  • Are we seeing the results or desired response?
  • If not, are we reaching the correct audience?
  • Is the advertising effective?
  • Have we been in the market long enough?


At Up&Up, we believe brand strategy is a continuous process. It’s a refined process. But what’s most important is that we’ve asked the right questions, probed far enough and are realistic in our discovery, so we have a clear understanding of our current state and the strategic drivers that are most impactful. The questions we’ve provided at each stage aren’t meant to be exhaustive. They simply reflect what we feel provide a core to get you started.



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