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The Impact of Campus Branding on First Impressions

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I presented at the Midwest Association of Physical Plant Administrators (MAPPA) conference in Minneapolis, where over 200 participants from seven states represented in the region attended an array of education sessions and small group discussions related to the physical environment on campus.  From my understanding, it was very well attended this year, and the topics ranged from corrective maintenance planning to the presentation we gave, which described the impact that branding can have on helping to create the desired first impression on a campus guest.  Although a fascinating topic to me personally, another of my colleagues had standing room only in his presentation, whereas we were only moderately full, so I surmised that we might have been preaching to the wrong choir.  Therefore, I decided to summarize the presentation for this quarter’s newsletter in the hope that a broader audience may benefit.

At Performa, we believe that the welcome experience on campus should be intentionally designed to align with the institution’s Mission, Vision, and Values, which evidenced through consistent behavior becomes the organizational culture.  The welcome experience, like many other experiences, begins well before a guest arrives on campus, though, and is informed by the guest’s perception of what that experience will be like.  Once the guest arrives, their perception should be reinforced by the people they meet, the activities they engage in, and the place in which this all happens, ideally aligning with one another.  When a guest’s perception does not match the reality they encounter, the disconnect creates a much less positive or even negative overall experience.

Research suggests that a person forms a first impression about someone they meet within a fraction of a second just based on appearance alone, and it only takes a few more seconds of interaction or behavior to solidify that impression.  Recent research suggests that 27 seconds is the average time that it takes to form a first impression of almost any situation or experience.  Now consider what the initial half-minute of a prospective guest’s experience is like on your campus.  What do they see, feel, hear, and understand about you, and how does that match their perception?

Branding, and in particular environmental branding, has become more prevalent in recent years to address some of the gaps between perception and reality.   Branding is the process of giving a meaning to a specific organization, company, product or service by creating and shaping a brand in consumers’ minds, and is created through visual references, written and oral narratives, or any other feature that identifies that meaning.  A strong brand typically aligns with an organization’s culture and is evidenced in the physical environment if one exists.  Consider Apple, Disney, or Starbucks, which have strong brands that align with their purpose and culture that is manifested in the physical environments where the people and activities take place.    There are many obvious and subtle ways that branding is accomplished through the design of their buildings and spaces, which is referred to as Environmental Graphic Design (EGD).

Beyond the appearance of logos and other graphics in an environment, EGD focuses on the integration of the architecture, interior design, landscaping, and even industrial design disciplines to communicate identity and information, creating experiences that connect people with place.

Materials, color, geometries, textures, landscaping, furniture, and equipment can play a significant role in helping to reinforce a brand that is integrated into a holistic design for the environment.  The design of one of the most recent Apple stores located in downtown Chicago, for example, is simple, modern, transparent, with a roof that has the angle that their product cases all share.
The building and space are engaging, user-friendly, and intuitive, just like their products and people, which matches what most people expect from Apple, right?   All four characteristics of the experience – perception, people, products & services, and place are in alignment.

Although most higher education institutions strive to create this type of alignment with their welcome experience, it can only be accomplished if an organization’s mission, vision, and values are clearly understood and reinforced by consistent behaviors, which over time become the culture, and then the culture can be illustrated in external message in a way that is consistent with the actual in-person experience.  AND by the way, the first 60 seconds matter!


You can view the presentation slides online, here.  We would love to talk to you about your experience with campus branding and first impressions. Contact Carolyn Glime or Brian Netzel of Performa at (920) 336-9929.

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