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Shifting Perceptions of Branding in Higher Education

Higher educationIn one of my colleague Jon’s recent posts, he wrote about one sign that you may need to reconsider your identity: your industry is changing. One industry we work in frequently—higher education—is currently going through significant change. Societal trends, shifts in funding priorities and emerging technologies are all contributing to increased competition: for the best students, for top faculty, for funding, for leadership and for reputation. Against this backdrop, branding and identity are increasingly important.

The Importance of Branding

“[A] properly constructed brand is essential for any university competing in the modern global education market,” wrote Ian Pearman, CEO of the UK’s largest ad agency, in a recent piece on the importance of higher ed branding (“Universities are brands whether they like it or not”) that accompanies a global study of the 100 most powerful global university brands.

But branding and higher ed have an often uneasy relationship. Research conducted at the University of San Francisco looked at the impact of branding on California institutions (including several of our clients) and found positive correlations between branding and campus identity, enrollment and foundation initiatives. In spite of this, many don’t see a role for branding and positioning in helping their schools achieve greater success.

Overcoming Reluctance

In our work with higher ed clients we’ve sometimes encountered a sense that academia should be above branding. For some, the word itself is synonymous with marketing or advertising, and there is the perception that this cheapens the important work that educators and researchers do. A development campaign created by our client UC Berkeley matched students’ portraits with quotes on what the school meant to them. The fact that “We are not a brand” was graffitied on a poster installation reveals strong opinions about brand in the context of higher education.

There are ways to navigate around this. When working with higher ed clients, we often refrain from using the word “brand” and instead talk about “identity.” This focuses the conversation on the key issues: who you are, what you do and why you matter. When put in those terms, we find that many in academia are comfortable with, even enthusiastic about what our work can help them to achieve.

Helping to Navigate a Complex Landscape

As the educational landscape becomes more and more complex, it’s increasingly important that higher ed institutions think hard about how they can frame their offerings for perspective audiences. I think back to my own experience as someone trying to decide where to attend graduate school. I was living in Southeast Asia at the time and ill-equipped to form a consideration set for what would be an incredibly important life decision. Institutions of higher learning may want to keep themselves above the fray of “marketing,” but by communicating a clear sense of identity, they can certainly help their audiences understand who they are and what they have to offer.

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The Beauty of the United States’ Identity System

American flag

Courtesy Kahunapule Michael Johnson

This 4th of July, it’s worth taking a moment to admire and be inspired by the U.S. Identity System (naming and design firms unknown). What lessons can we who are in the business of brand identity draw from the U.S. system?

An aspirational and inclusive identity: The system is based upon the universally desired attributes of Freedom, Justice and Equality. The system is not intended to favor, or to appeal only to any single cultural, ethnic or religious group. It is not intended to balkanize the U.S. into separate groups with interests prejudicial to others, or to allow one group to abuse other groups.

A cohesive architecture: The U.S. system allows for increasing levels of loyalty. U.S. citizens can be proud Americans, but they can also be proud citizens of Texas or California and proud citizens of Dallas or Houston and Los Angeles or San Francisco, and The Mission District or Pacific Heights. These loyalties to states, cities and neighborhoods under the United States umbrella provides plenty of room for individual identities within a collective identity. In addition, we benefit from the cultural contributions of African Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans Hispanic Americans, Gay Americans, Catholic Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, liberal Americans and conservative Americans and many more. Large companies with dispersed operations, multiple products and diverse customers should hope to achieve such a cohesive yet diverse and vibrant identity.

Unique and evocative naming: The names of U.S. states provide a rich tapestry of stunningly beautiful and unique names. How could names be more wonderful than: California, Texas, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Colorado and Alaska? The uniqueness and beauty of these names stand as a mighty challenge to those in the business of naming companies, divisions and products.

Clarity of purpose: The U.S. also has major Divisions, and each has a clear and powerful mandate: Justice, Energy, State, Treasury, Budget, Agriculture, Commerce, Trade, Small Business, Labor, Health, Veterans, Housing, Transportation, Education, Environmental Protection, Defense, Interior and Homeland Security.

Great graphic design: The unique graphic impact and flexibility of the American flag’s stars and stripes are unlimited. There have been beautiful applications of blue fields with white stars and vertical or horizontal uses of red and white stripes and combinations of both. We have a wide range of authoritative seals and symbols (some better designed than others).

People who embody the “brand promise”: And, we must never forget the brave men and women in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, each with its own uniforms, units, symbology and rousing anthem, who protect and defend all that we enjoy.

How did we get so lucky?

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3 Signs You Need to Reconsider Your Identity

 

Courtesy Brian Talbot

Courtesy Brian Talbot

We’ve written before about the ways that a strong identity benefits leaders. Identity work can have tremendous positive impact on internal audiences, but it’s more likely that clients will come to us because they’re being misperceived by their external audiences. Here are three of the most common scenarios that signal it’s time to reconsider your identity:

  1. You’re losing business because of how you’re perceived: We’ve seen clients have multimillion dollar deals killed at the last minute because of how the brand was perceived in the marketplace. Other times, misperceptions can slowly erode your relevance with key audiences.
  2. You’re too narrowly defined: We’ve had clients with a great set of services and products, but they’re known for only one thing. If you’ve made your name in one area, great. But it might be time to communicate that you’ve got more to offer.
  3. The market you’re in is changing: Maybe you’re in an industry undergoing significant change. To stay relevant you need to be ahead of that curve when markets shift.

Transforming Into Something New
When you do change your identity, whether the change is evolutionary or revolutionary, it needs to be communicated in a way that is relevant. An identity change signals to both internal and external audiences that something is fundamentally different about your company. You need to make that difference as clear as possible.

One of our clients had acquired several regional cold-chain supply companies to create a cold-chain logistics company with national connectivity. The challenge for this client was that even though they were bringing together multiple smaller companies, they didn’t want to be perceived as a big, impersonal corporate roll-up and lose the family-owned, regional heritage of the acquired companies.

We created the name Lineage Logistics to convey a sense of history and legacy coming together to form a fully connected, forward-looking service business. The new name communicated to employees that the heritage of their companies was important to the new company, and signaled to customers that existing relationships weren’t going to go away. The benefits of the new company–increased efficiency and coast-to-coast continuity–were established without sacrificing regional understanding and local relationships.

Making Change Successful
An effort to change your identity involves more than changing your logo or tagline. To make the shift successful, you must understand how it will affect your people, your culture and your customers. When you communicate a clear a reason for change, you can effectively engage both internal and external audiences. Customers, prospects and clients understand where you’re going, and your internal audience sees that there’s something they can believe in and get behind.

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How to Retain the Uniqueness of Acquired Brands

Picture of moving boxes
What happens when a brand that people trust and feel strongly about is acquired? Loyal customers have a strong emotional attachment to it; often they’re watching with trepidation, worried that the small brand is going to get big and “corporate” and lose what made it special. We’ve been thinking about this as we watch what’s happening with Tumblr. Fans are afraid that the Yahoo acquisition is going to ruin what makes Tumblr unique—and after seeing what happened to Flickr, another Yahoo acquisition, they may have good reason. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, went as far as to say, “We’re not going to screw this up.”

Questions for Acquiring Companies
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for smaller companies to be acquired and gain access to the resources of a larger entity. Often the move can provide a jolt of energy for both the acquired and the acquirer. Our enterprise clients face this challenge frequently. How can they retain and foster the spirit of the companies they’ve acquired?

Any acquisition has to be handled carefully from a brand management perspective. As an acquiring company you need to ask yourself:

  1. How does the acquired brand add to, or build upon, our own brand essence?
  2. Which attributes may be at odds with our brand?
  3. How much of that unique character do we want to keep?
  4. How are we going to elevate what we have decided to retain?
  5. How do we ensure that our new people feel valued and part of their new environment?
  6. How do we communicate these decisions in a meaningful way?

When the unique essence of a brand is important to preserve, acquiring companies have some options they ought to consider:

  1. Let the acquired brand stand on its own: In some cases, this makes strategic sense. Zipcar has been acquired by Hertz, but you don’t see any mention of Hertz on the mobile app or the website. Hertz is a largely invisible presence. The Zipcar brand is about independence and sharing: You just need “wheels when you want them.” It is a brand appeal to a very different kind of consumer and circumstance, one that Hertz would have trouble delivering under its existing brand. That independent appeal can be made stronger now that Zipcar enjoys the operational efficiencies and national reach that come with being part of Hertz.
  2. Demonstrate how you are better together: In the technology space, many successful acquisitions have shown how two brands coming together created more value than they could have on their own: Amazon with Zappos, for instance, or Google with YouTube. These companies didn’t try to simply absorb the acquired brand and its customers. Instead the attitude was, “Wow, we bought something incredibly special here, and it makes us all better. Let’s let it develop.” Having this complementary view is important if you want to retain the people, both employees and customers, who love the brand.

When done right, acquisitions of beloved companies appear almost seamless, but it’s  rarely easy. But behind the scenes,  parent companies must make careful, considered decisions about what makes the acquisition unique—and how to retain what it is that made the brand worth acquiring in the first place.

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