Branding … You Keep Using That Word
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.