The word brand in the field of advertising dates back to the 19th century. But the first time I heard the word brand on a college campus was only about five years ago. Does anyone else remember the time when the “b” word was carefully avoided in discussions with faculty members and typically not viewed seriously by senior leadership? Well the times they are a changin’. In the past 12 months, I’ve heard professors talk passionately about the brands of their universities and also observed campus executives advocating strongly for investments in marketing for their institutions.

What about you, are you up to date on the concept? Really, any marketing and communications professional needs some background about branding. Time to do some summer reading.

I’ve read Marty Neumeier’s book, The Brand Gap, twice now. It’s short, clear and a great start if you are looking for some brand basics. I recommend it.

From the beginning pages, The Brand Gap addresses the definition of “brand.” Many people misunderstand the concept and refer to logos or identity systems or even products as brands. In fact, a brand is none of these. Instead:

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”

So you may have a brand platform that describes your university as a public university that can offer an exceptional liberal arts college experience with a global curriculum. But if, when asked, people describe you as the flagship state university in Maryland, that’s your brand. Neumeier says it best:

“It’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

How do you build a brand and gradually influence the public to see it your way? According to Neumeier, you need the focus that comes from concretely and clearly answering these three questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Why does it matter?

Question 3 is consistently the most difficult for companies and organizations to answer. Neumeier goes on to say that:

“An unfocused brand is one that’s so broad that it doesn’t stand for anything. A focused brand, by contrast, knows exactly what it is, why it’s different, and why people want it.”

As I was reading this section, I thought about my son’s college search. Whether in print, on the web, or during a campus tour, we quickly noted startling repetition among the schools he was considering. All of them described themselves in similar ways. They all had:

  • Exceptional faculty who would devote a lot of time and attention to students
  • Opportunities to do undergraduate research
  • Study abroad programs
  • An interdisciplinary and global curriculum
  • A commitment to community service
  • And a real sense of community on campus

Distinguishing your college or university from the pack of higher education institutions out there means tackling Question 3. It means knowing that what you think is unique might also be true about many, many other campuses. The Brand Gap makes the case that “focus is difficult to achieve because it means giving something up.” We’ve got some work to do on the brand front, higher ed.

What am I reading next?
Soon, I’ll begin 22 Immutable Laws of Branding written by Al and Laura Ries. It’s likely that I’ll summarize some thoughts about that book here later on.

Branding on the mStoner blog…
These posts about brand management from my mStoner colleagues are also worth a read:


mStoner Staff

AUTHOR - mStoner Staff

mStoner, Inc. helps clients to tell their authentic stories by clarifying their unique brand value proposition, creating a content strategy to communicate the brand effectively, and implementing compelling and dynamic communications across the web, mobile, social media, print, and other channels. We focus on research, data, and results.


  • Andrew Careaga

    The Reis book is a must-read for anyone interested in branding. Good post.

  • Mary Ann Hill

    Terrific post, Susan. Having recently helped my oldest child through the college search process, I had same experience regarding the repetition of schools’ “what make us special” messages.
    The “why does it matter” question is the thorniest indeed. It’s much easier (but not more productive) to go to the quick fix of a new logo or color scheme.

  • Ted Rubin

    Great post. The following is what I use as my guide… We are defined by what people remember, not necessarily by what we do… our Brand is what we do, our Reputation is what people remember.

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  • D'Arcy

    Susan great post, this goes hand and hand with the class; when you speak of Branding in so many terms people think of naming rights which are very similar in meaning.  When colleges have branding involved with athletics it is consistant with individuals giving monies to the a specific sport.  You touched on some great topics that go hand with how universities and society in a whole has turned to without the “B” lol. 

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