Mobilizing effective brand ambassadors

by Meg Fowler Tripp for Call to Action (Inside Higher Ed)

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

If you’ve followed the last seven posts in this series on brand-building for academia, you’ve learned about the importance of managing your brand with intent; gained an understanding of how research drives informed decisions; crafted messaging that resonates with your different constituencies; developed a visual toolbox that will differentiate; made strategic choices around methods and materials; mapped out a holistic digital strategy; and have begun to build your brand mosaic.

But all this hard work won’t help realize your strategic and tactical goals unless what your brand means––the attributes you want associated with it, your value and values, your differentiated place in the competitive landscape––moves from planning to execution, and into the heads of your different constituents.

To get your brand out there (or in there), you have a wealth of mosaic tiles to employ, including print, digital, social, environmental, and media placement. But to get the most out of any of these efforts, you need trained, enthusiastic people to commission, evaluate, make, and distribute them. And for those who communicate informally––your board, advisory groups, alumni––it’s important that they also have the tools (and comfort level) to be effective ambassadors.

Document your brand

Brands are built through consistent expression, and documentation will help you to share both brand strategy and tactics with people who communicate on your school’s behalf.

Clearly detail the goals and challenges that drive your branding initiative: publish agreed-upon brand attributes and values, internal brand relationships between the parent organization and any component schools or centers, your new messaging and visual frameworks, examples of your brand in action, and any specific tools and templates you’ve created. People are much more likely to work “in brand” if it’s easier to do so than not––and if they understand how to do it. Documentation will also help prevent people from going rogue––and hopefully cut down on program brochures constructed with type and colors outside of the new system.

Documentation can take the form of wire-o bound book, a PDF, or, for more complex organizations, an extranet website.

Roll out your brand widely

Your colleagues, board, alumni, and students are much more likely to jump on the “brandwagon” if they feel they have a role to play in advancing your institution. Structure a wide rollout in a setting where everyone can join you—perhaps at a couple of different times, to ensure maximum attendance. Divide the presentation between several brand champions, and be sure to start with the “why” and the “so what” before you get to the “what” and the “how.”

And don’t forget students. Yes, most of the stuff in the campus bookstore is ordered by a national chain that seems to think that all schools use one slab-serif typeface (with outlines). But with perseverance, you can get materials that express your new visual system on the shelves, and then onto backs and water bottles. Orientation sessions and other cross-campus events are also good opportunities to introduce students to the new brand.

Build fluency through hands-on workshops

An enthusiastic rollout is important, and documentation is critical, but people need to start using the brand to get comfortable with it. Meet with specific functional groups (enrollment, development, student life, etc.) to help them to connect the brand thinking and tools to their jobs. You could leverage a current project or invent a new one as a workshop focus. Then get down to work: have breakout groups make choices from the brand system to connect with their constituencies; have the different groups present to all; then discuss why this choice might be better than that one. Each piece of writing or design should be measured against your agreed-upon attributes and values.

For board members, the approach is a little different: secure time at a scheduled board meeting—or at a special session—provide refreshments, have members break in to small groups, and present two problems:

  • Your institution has a lingering, negative attribute of x. How would you use the developed attributes and messaging (with some storytelling, perhaps) to convince someone across the aisle on a plane that their perception is outdated?
  • A board member knows someone who is an excellent prospect for a major gift, but is unsure how to give a good overview of the school. Again, using what’s been developed, craft a high-level intro to your organization.

The breakout groups then present to each other, debate strategies and choices, enjoy more refreshments, and leave feeling enabled to be convincing ambassadors.

I wrote in the first post of this series that brand building is a process, not an event––and one that a wide range of people need to be engaged in. Best intentions to one side, you won’t be able to change perceptions if marketing and communications are doing all the lifting. But by engaging different people across the campus (and beyond) in spreading the word, you’ll accelerate the brand-building process––and generate some positive buzz on campus at the same time.

Articles in this series