A guide to brand building

by Roger Sametz for Call to Action (Inside Higher Ed)

Article one in an eight-part series on how to craft an authentic, differentiating brand.

Not too many years ago, a school’s brand — not that many people used the “b” word — just was. A college or university went about its business, accrued over time what we would now call brand attributes (party school, really hard to get in to, innovative curriculum, career-focused), and, through word of mouth and the aggregate pursuits of alumni, earned its reputation in the higher ed landscape. Communications and marketing didn’t play a huge role in the process.

The task is to manage your brand with intent. The slow-cooked method is no longer applicable.

That was then. Now, with education costs steadily increasing for both institutions and students, demographic shifts, ever-blurrier distinctions between the offerings of private and public institutions, noisy chatter about the ROI of an expensive degree, less geo-centrism, and increased competition for both tuition and contributed dollars, more and more administrations and boards have come to understand there’s no time to let reputation-evolution take its course. Natural selection also de-selects.

Brand, once a taboo notion within campus gates, is now a buzzword and a must-have in academia — even if some of those buzzing are not exactly clear what a brand actually is, or how to “get one.”
Simply put, your brand is what you mean: your value and values, the expectations people have of you and those you set for yourself, attributes associated with you, and what differentiates you within your competitive landscape. (It’s not, and has never been, your logo or seal, although when effectively paired with what you want to mean, these symbols become useful shorthand for your brand.)
Importantly, this assemblage of meaning doesn’t exist until it moves from your conference table into your constituents’ heads––and it gets there through a mix of what you offer, your history, your messaging, your visual expression, your behavior, and the communications you craft in addition to the communications you can’t control.

Far from being an academic construct, your brand provides direction for, and amplification of, more tactical marketing efforts: every marketing dollar goes farther because materials share and reinforce desired meaning and affect. And brand plays a big part in decisions made by parents, prospective students, and would-be supporters. Which school to visit? Which of the different acceptances to accept? Is the higher tuition worth it? What are my giving priorities? All of these are brand-influenced decisions.

The task is to manage your brand with intent. The slow-cooked method is no longer applicable.

In the seven posts that follow this introduction, my colleagues at Sametz Blackstone Associates and I will be your brand-building guides. We’ll start by outlining a set of research methods that will help you look inward and outward to get calibrated. From there, you’ll learn how to construct a resonant messaging framework — something deeper and more useful than an elevator speech. Next comes the process of developing a system of visual expression grounded in your desired brand attributes — a system that will provide both consistency and flexibility for your design efforts.

In connection with that visual system development, you’ll discover the importance of methods and materials: they, too, send a message. Then we’ll move to the digital realm, where we’ll help you make sense of all the different, and sometimes daunting, channels available to you. The series will round out with tips for configuring a communications architecture that makes the best use of your limited resources — and thoughts on how to create a comfortable, fluent corps of brand ambassadors from your faculty, staff, and board.

Building your authentic, resonant brand is a process, not an event. And as we all continue to hear about schools whose meaning and reasons for existence don’t seem to be clear or compelling enough to attract the students and support they need to survive, we’ll aim to help you craft a brand that resonates with the audiences that matter most to you.

Articles in this series