August 19, 2011
I think it was marketing guru Regis McKenna who once said, “Branding is everything.” I suppose he was trying to point out that branding—as a core discipline of marketing—touches every facet of an organization. And basically, he’s right. I get it. I live in the trenches, where we can see, hear, and touch the power of a great brand. But I find the concept of “everything” to be a little overwhelming. So when I heard one of my colleagues recently parrot Mr. McKenna (in front of a client, no less), I shuddered a little. Okay, a lot. “Everything” is a really big idea. I can barely get my arms around “something” on a good day, so “everything” is pretty intimidating.
But hey, isn’t that our job, as marketers? To connect all the dots? To deliver on the promise that a great brand is expressed through everything we see, hear, and touch? That it’s the ubiquitous and holistic brand that has the best chance of engaging a prospective student and making an emotional connection? Some experts call it experiential branding. Others call it living the brand. I just call it branding in higher education, because I can think of no other category where so many diverse branded pieces need to be choreographed, for better or for worse. The viewbook. The website. The campus tour. Facebook. College fairs. Athletic teams, their uniforms, and arenas. Advertising. The list goes on and on. I guess branding is everything, and everything is a lot. Like I said, it can be daunting.
“Fundamentally, a brand is an experience delivered against a common set of beliefs.”
And let’s face it, unless you work at Apple, Target, Starbucks, or one of a handful of other for-profit companies that seem to get it (and have employees trained to live it), building a consistent and integrated brand that impacts each and every touchpoint within an organization can be a tall order. And that doesn’t begin to describe the challenge in higher education, where institutions are organized (as one consultant put it) like medieval city-states, peopled by numerous stakeholders with competing agendas. And if you’re sitting across the table from a new university president who thinks a brand is just a logo, you may have an even bigger challenge. In most cases, this is the last person on earth you want to be trying to persuade that “branding is everything.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up on the ideal. I believe in the power of a holistic brand and have seen numerous case studies that confirm the strongest brands are the ones that deliver on their promise across all touchpoints, consistently over time. But not every university president or institution has the same level of brand acumen. So rebuilding or evolving a brand with a complicated range of communication channels and a large number of stakeholders can be like turning a battleship into the wind. And when we start out with the notion that it’s marketing’s job alone, we make it all that much harder. Simply put: we need help. Or, more accurately, we need alignment. To quote an old proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.
Why is alignment so important? Because fundamentally, a brand is an experience delivered against a common set of beliefs.
And for that brand to be authentic, those beliefs must be understood, embraced, and translated by the very people who deliver the experience day in and day out: faculty, staff, and yes, even existing students. Brochures, websites, and ad campaigns are just the tools of branding—the props in a play. It’s the actors who really make the difference.
But alignment isn’t only about delivering a consistent experience across many touchpoints; it’s also about delivering a consistent experience over time.
That requires our colleagues to really buy in and align their behavior with the brand strategy. To reach this goal, we need to engage them as early as possible in the brand development process and make them part of the plan from the very beginning.
Simply put, people support what they help create. So making every effort to include internal teams will truly result in a better brand and stronger implementation.
Bill oversees the strategy practice at Ologie and focuses his work on bridging the gap between a client’s business strategy and brand strategy, helping to create engaging customer experiences.
Before joining Ologie in 2002, Bill served as CEO of North America for Fitch Worldwide, a global branding and design agency. He’s passionate about his antique brass horn collection, jazz music, and strategy frameworks— which he can draw at the drop of a hat. Through his years of experience, he’s developed a strong point of view on the power of sharing a brand internally—an often overlooked audience.