Think Tank

Feb 27, 2020, 10:18
Building a Program Brand Through Perception

Building a Program Brand Through Perception

27 February 2019

Create a compelling brand that adds tangible value by offering students a culinary education that is inspiring, unique, current and future-oriented.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

How is your program perceived by others (your public brand) and how do you want to be perceived (potential brand)? Perceptions are important, but even more so is the image that you want to portray. If there is a gap between your brand design and how you are perceived then it is time to create a new communication strategy. If participant perception in education is not how you envisioned your brand, then it is time to work at those perceptions, accept how you are perceived, or change the brand altogether. Timing is critical.

“When we shift our perception, our experience changes.”
-Lindsay Wagner

One of the challenging things about brand is that perceptions can be changed. If you wait too long, perceptions become beliefs and without active engagement in adjusting those beliefs they eventually become part of a culture that is nearly impossible to change. May well-known brands failed simply because they waited too long to drive a shift in perceptions. Look at Sears, Penny’s, Radio Shack, Payless Shoes, and Necco Wafers just to name a few.

Think about these perceptions in relation to your brand:

  • A degree in culinary arts is far too expensive
  • I don’t want to spend the next 15 years paying off my school loans
  • I can learn much more on the job than I can sitting in a classroom
  • School is boring – I want to get out there and start doing things
  • The best education is experience
  • Culinary graduates are coddled and not able to handle a busy station
  • Culinary graduates think they can step into a chef’s shoes right after graduation
  • Culinary school kitchens are unrealistic environments
  • I can’t afford to stop working for two to four years just to get a degree

What are you doing to create a compelling brand that adds tangible value and cannot be found in any other environment? What are you doing to dispel any of these perceptions? What is your brand experience?

“Your premium brand had better be delivering something special, or it's not going to get the business.”
-Warren Buffett

As you look to define or redefine your brand, it is important to look at the overall experience of your educational model. We are living in an experience economy that equates to brand perception. Amazon is a brand experience that allows a patron to purchase anytime, anywhere; expect delivery in 24-48 hours; and anticipate there will not be any charge for the delivery. As Amazon adds brands - their focus is not just on the product, but on the process and feel of buying, renting, or owning that experience. The same is true of FedEx, Apple, Carvana, Wegman’s Markets, Eataly, Napa Valley Wines, the French Laundry, or LL Bean boots. Education should be no different – it is and will continue to be the experience(s) associated with that educational content and delivery that drive participation and loyalty.

“The strength of brand loyalty begins with how your product makes people feel.”
-Jay Samit

Marketing your brand is extremely difficult in a highly competitive market so your experience should always be focused on creating loyalty. Imagine how effective your brand can become if every graduate from your program left as an avid ambassador intent on finding other students to take his or her place? Effective brand development will result in loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing.

So, what can you add to your list of desired perceptions that will help build a brand experience? Considered some of these:

  • How extraordinary is your extern/internship program? Do you have a dedicated person assigned to working with exceptional restaurants, resorts, and clubs with culinary staff dedicated to training and acclimation? How will these sites look on a graduate’s resume?
  • Do you offer a first-class international experience for your students? Is this a hands-on work experience that will help to enhance a student’s skills?
  • Do you offer “life-long” learning connections with your graduates that are focused on keeping their knowledge and skills up-to-date?
  • Do you stay actively involved with your graduates as career guides?
  • Does your curriculum offer the flexibility to add current topics and processes without an extended process of internal and external approval?
  • Do you offer training programs that are not focused on degrees, but rather a quick process toward skill competence?
  • Do you offer user-friendly schedules that allow students to work full-time and still matriculate toward a degree?
  • Do you offer online, cutting-edge programs?
  • Are you able to provide mobile programs that provide training at alternative sites rather than have students come to you?
  • What are you doing to help employers in your region reach their goals?

It is important in an educational environment where culinary education is lock-step and becoming a commodity, to set your brand apart from the pack and offer something inspiring, unique, current, and even future oriented. It is important to engage and support the community around you, especially the community of food providers who will benefit the most from your programming and delivery. Marketing your brand can and should become the responsibility of that community.

Questions like these should have answers and data to back up your claims at the ready: How will you describe your brand uniqueness? How will you describe the experience of student engagement in your program?

“As a brand marketer, I'm a big believer in 'branding the customer experience,' not just selling the service.”
-John Sculley


Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC, president of Harvest America Ventures, a mobile restaurant incubator based in Saranac Lake, N.Y., is the former vice president of New England Culinary Institute and a former dean at Paul Smith’s College. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..