Brand. It’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.

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 colleagues at mStoner are also worth a read:

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Author: susantevans

Susan T. Evans is director of corporate and foundations relations at the College of William & Mary. She is a proven strategic leader with deep expertise in advancement, communications, brand management, marketing, digital strategy, technology, administration and organizational development. She is known for creative and strategic approaches to challenges within higher education, nonprofits and business.

One thought on “Brand. It’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

  1. Thank you, Susan!! Number Three is definitely the issue. In the years since higher ed started jumping on the BrandWagon, there have been so many misconceptions that I wonder if our heads will ever stop spinning. But don’t get me started…

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