Brand consistency and higher education websites

MSU website on October 27, 2009 from ArchiveWeb

Michigan State University’s website on October 27, 2009.

MSU website on July 2, 2010

Michigan State University’s website on July 2, 2010.

Recently, Michigan State University (MSU) unveiled a makeover of their website.  The new design is fantastic. It’s much less cluttered than their previous site, the design is more contemporary, they have their latest advertising campaign prominently displayed on the front page, and the site is much easier to navigate. However, as a fellow marketer in higher education, I was curious how deep into their subwebs this redesign went. The answer was: not too far; a single click to the Admission area or the University Advancement area and a different web design appears.

But is this a bad thing? Should a university have a different look for each of the departments on their website or should they strive for brand consistency?  Conventional marketing wisdom would say that all materials within a brand should have a similar look and feel to maintain the brand. Under this wisdom, the web should be treated no differently than maintaining a similar look and feel throughout a college or university’s publications. However, the web is unique in that having variety, keeping interest, and including elements of fun are expected. Under these expectations, college or university departments having some variety in their look may be appropriate.

My belief about branding and higher education sites is that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Brand consistency is important on the web and can be accomplished through the use of templates and style sheets.  But there also needs to be room within those templates and style sheets for some customization for each department to suit their individual needs. As a marketing manager, I tend to be very conservative about this. The college I work for is very small compared to a large university and so I really stress the importance of maintaining a high level of brand consistency and “one voice.” However, where that line is and what amount of customization is appropriate, will have to be determined by each higher education institution as they consider their unique situation, including their size, mission, political landscape, etc. (as I’m sure MSU did). The key is to consider all of the relevant factors and then work towards the level of brand consistency that is appropriate.

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