Branding … You Keep Using That Word

Posted by Deborah Maue on 11.4.2013

In my daily review of tweets, Google Alerts, and assorted publications, I see the word “branding” tossed around a lot. It gets defined broadly (as a synonym for marketing). It gets defined narrowly (as a synonym for advertising). And it gets defined in ways that are incomplete (as a synonym for market research.)

Often, my reaction to these “branding” definitions is, to quote Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The definition of branding can be slippery — just when you think you’ve gotten hold of it, it slides out of your hands. But here are some important principles that hold true for higher ed institutions thinking about refining their brands:

1. Brand is a noun, not a verb.

Unless you’re a new institution, you already have a brand. The goal of a branding project is not to come up with a new one. It’s to understand the brand you have and to articulate it in a unique and compelling way. That’s not to say that brands can’t evolve. But it’s a slow process that must start with knowing where you already are.

2. A brand is not a tagline.

A tagline is part of the external, creative execution of your brand — a creative execution that could be around for a long time. But it is changeable. You could theoretically swap out one tagline for another. A brand, on the other hand, is enduring. It may evolve, but it can’t get replaced by another brand overnight. In some cases, a tagline has existed for so long that it actually becomes part of the brand. Some people think this is a bad thing. I don’t happen to be one of them. In these events, the tagline is an important brand equity. But it’s still not the brand.

3. Your brand and your mission are not the same thing.

Your mission is a statement of why you are in business. Of why you were founded. Of what you intend to do. Your brand is what people think you do, the promise that you make to your audiences. Sometimes the brand and the mission are closely related. But often they need to be different. Imagine that you are a hospital that was founded to serve the poor. I may think that’s wonderful. But if I’m sick, I want to know that you have the best doctors. Even if you pride yourself on an access mission, prospective students want to know that they’ll get a great education that allows them to achieve their goals.

4. You may have different audiences, but you have only one brand.

This is a tricky one, because your different audiences of prospective students, alumni, and donors may want very different things from your institution. Therefore, your brand promise may be different to different audiences. But if those brand promises don’t ladder up to the same brand, you’ll be sending mixed messages and creating confusion.

5. It doesn’t matter what you think your brand is.

It matters what your external audiences think your brand is. Your external audiences pay the bills. Their perception is what matters.

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Posted by Deborah Maue on 11.4.2013
Additional Posts by Deborah (9)
  •*/*/*/CEO/top100 Urs E. Gattiker

    Dear Deborah @debmaue:twitter

    Thanks for sharing this blog entry
    Of course, we probably agree that a strong brand does not always result in a strong reputation and vice versa.
    I love the quote:
    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    I quote from one of my earlier blog posts, if I may:

    Looking at the above examples, we can take two or three insights:
    1) brand – corporate brand – reflects what the corporation aspires to be while the me brand reflects what I as an individual aspire to, in turn,
    2) reputation – the other side of the coin – is how people feel about the company or the person.
    Unfortunately, in practice brand and reputation are rarely if ever treated as separate constructs. This is a dangerous mistake to make.


    After having read your post, Deborah, I am still curious how do you define the concept brand?

    Thanks for sharing

    Urs E. Gattiker from CyTRAP Blog Rank (click to get data for the MStoner Inc. blog)

  • Mary Ann Hill

    Terrific post, Deborah. “You already have a brand,” is particularly important for a school’s internal audiences to hear. Faculty, in particular, tend to be wary of “branding exercises” because of concern (often based on previous experience) that an outsider or the communications staff is going to create a brand.

    It’s important at the outset of any branding or positioning effort to emphasize that the goal is understanding the brand and articulating it in a compelling, consistent, and shared way. Developing that shared language for talking about and showing the brand is a key part of the exercise.