Norfolk State University is at a crossroads as it charts a course to rebuild its “brand” in the wake of the image hits it has taken over the past few years. The discontinuance of the school’s associate degree in nursing program due to low passing rates on the national licensing exam; the firing of a president; and, most recently, being placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), an accrediting body that oversees NSU and colleges in 10 other states, are incidents that have had a profound impact on how prospective students view the school.
The university’s marketing team is in the process of searching for an outside partner to help create a “unified brand identity.” But the team needs to be careful and meticulous in how it goes about the process. “Brand” is an enormously dynamic thing. There are two vitally different areas of perception to deal with: those within the university’s control and those outside of its control.
Brand standards—the colors and designs, what is said and how it is said by the university—can be controlled. Brand position, how NSU identifies itself as different from or even better than other schools, can be controlled. The physical properties—academic programs offered, facilities built or being built, as well as which are promoted, can be controlled. But brand image, the perception that students, prospective students and even those not connected with the university have of the school, is beyond the control of any school or company.
Brand image is the perception that lives within people’s minds and is formed based on the individual’s experience with the brand (or school). Forget about what the brand is saying, what matters is the experience. An appliance dealer can scream all day long that they have the lowest prices in town, but if my experience in the showroom is one high price after another, my brand perception is very negative. And brand perception, the consumer’s image of the brand, is all that matters at the end of the day.
The university holds what I assume is a fairly comprehensive proprietary study detailing the perception held by prospective and current students. Hopefully it contains opinions from alumni and those not necessarily connected to the school as well. The new outside partner will be privy to the information in that study, and it will be critical in creating a successful plan to achieve growth, particularly since enrollment has dropped more than 15 percent since 2012.
The brand message and the brand experience have got to align for NSU to be successful in building its image and building enrollment. Make no mistake, there are a lot of good things happening at NSU and a lot of truly positive momentum. The nursing program overall is vibrant, bolstered by a brand-new 140,000-square-foot nursing and classroom building. NSU will play the lead role in a $25 million effort to educate a new cybersecurity workforce at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the school is ranked among the top 30 HBCUs in the nation, and new facilities continue to energize the campus.
So with all of that, NSU has to continue to focus on delivering an experience that is relevant to prospective students and relevant to the Hampton Roads community. The University is an educational system that sees the need, for students as well as employers, and is building programs and facilities to meet demand. That alone is a strong focus on improvement.
Do the research within the market. Pinpoint and focus on the careers here in Hampton Roads that are in high demand. Then find the academic programs that Norfolk State has built and is delivering in excellent fashion (cybersecurity vaults to the top here.) Build the brand position and messaging around that, so that the experience is one of a high-quality, in-demand education.
The next step in ensuring growth and sustaining the experience for the future is to focus NSU’s academic development on those needs and careers that are in high demand, but where the university is not quite ready to claim excellence. Admit that. Chart the course to achieve excellence. Communicate the steps that are being taken and manage the expectations of current students as well as future students. Readiness for the future is what higher education is all about. NSU is at a pivotal point of growth, and it starts with aligning the message with the experience. That will build a unified brand for Norfolk State University.