Brand Matters – The Power of Strategic Identity

Brand Matters – The Power of Strategic Identity

The following content was presented at the AIRI 2017 Annual Meeting. Click here Marshall_AIRI_Presentation-2 to download a PDF of the slide presentation itself.

Brand has many definitions, and most of them line up within marketing and advertising.  In this presentation, I hope to shed some light on the power of strategic identity – being true and clear about who you are as an organization and why you matter. This should have influence over all an institute says and does, from who it hires, to how it fulfills its mission, and of course, how it engages, and inspires support from, its critical audiences.

Here’s one important reason brand matters to research institutes: The top ten federally funded institutes depend upon government funding for 71% of their budget on average. But our government appears to value research less and less.  In fact, according to AAAS, “The FY 2018 funding cycle has been rather mixed for Science and Technology on the whole, with many more agencies looking at reductions than increases.”

What this means is, a good portion of an institute’s budget is necessarily going to need to be replaced by other sources of funding.  Where is that going to come from?  Who is going to understand and value these institutes enough to participate in their future?  Why should they?

The challenge is even bigger than funding.  It is about awareness, relevance, and perceived value to multiple audiences, including new research talent, partners and collaborators, and the public who this research is intended to benefit. While in the past, your accomplishments may have spoken for themselves, now you’ve got to ensure that you are understood, appreciated and supported – in an environment that is more competitive than ever. You need to become a “preferred” place to invest in, to work for, and to rely upon for new knowledge.

Definitions of Brand and Identity

Every organization, especially focused research institutes, have a promise they make to themselves and the world.  We call this your identity – because it is the reality of who you are and your purpose is in the world.

On the other side, there are perceptions – how you are thought of by your own stakeholders and by external audiences.  Brand is the connection created at the intersection or promise and perceptions – if you make a clear promise, you create clear perceptions.  If you deliver on the promise, those perceptions are reinforced, and you build a strong emotional connection, known as a brand.

There are some forces that make this intersection a challenge to optimize.  For instance, there what if not enough people even know or care that you exist?

You could have a very meaningful promise and a strong focus on fulfilling it.  But not enough people know about it or understand it. These brands are underappreciated.

In other cases, you get overhyped brands. That’s when an overblown image is manufactured, usually by advertising. When it turns out you are not as good as you said you were, people are disappointed. 

The ideal is to be known and appreciated for the reality of who you are and why you matter. In that case the overlap between promise and perceptions is compete, and your brand is strengthened, because people – whether researchers or staff, funders, partners, or the general interested public – come to you for the right reasons.

Now that identity, that reality is not just what you are, it is why you matter.  It is critical to get this right, otherwise you will be undifferentiated from other organizations who pursue similar work. What Is it about you and your promise and your unique organization that provides a unique and promising value to your stakeholders and audiences?

Challenges to Brand Thinking

Some of the challenges to building a strong institutional brand might be similarity in mission to other institutes, lack of process or funding, or a history of thinking in a particular way.

Many of our research institute clients have also expressed frustration with sentiments including “marketing is beneath us” or “everyone who needs to know about us already knows.”  It’s not surprising to hear these reactions, especially from researchers, when so much of the “branding” we see in our daily lives is the overhyped variety. 

To overcome these objections, and express a meaningful, ownable and valuable promise, we recommend that research institutes consider four critical strategies when using strategic identity to their advantage.

Four Strategies for Successful Institute Brands

  • It’s more than a campaign – it’s a culture

This goes back to identity being your reality – it is neither short term, nor surface. It has to sustain and build over time, which requires alignment with your culture.

Every institute faces the need for campaigns, but I suggest that when supported by a true sense of identity, those campaigns can help build a strong brand presence for all an institute does.  The following case illustrates how culture became a defining aspect to an organization’s identity, and really set them apart.

Many of you know Rockefeller University – a biomedical research institute in Manhattan, with an astonishing number of Nobel Prizes and Lasker Awards for its size. Within the Academy, there is no question of their excellence. 

But this did not satisfy them – they were thinking about the future. They had plans to grow the campus – to become a more connected and influential force in biotechnology, and to put New York on the map in that regard. These accomplishments would require investment, new talent, and more effective communications. 

Wealthy New Yorkers know the Rockefeller name, but they are not as familiar with the University as they could be. In fact, many philanthropists who give to other health research organizations in New York have not considered giving to Rockefeller University, perhaps partly due to perceptions – created by its name – that the institute is entirely self-funded.

Even more importantly, the Institute was losing out on promising new research talent, especially from abroad. These students had a choice: they could go to Harvard or Stanford or a place called “Rockefeller” that had very little academic brand presence overseas.  This was not fair, but it was the result of not having effectively communicated their promise in a way that would create clear perceptions among a broader audience.

Fortunately, Rockefeller has a very strong culture that was expressed internally from the very beginning.  We worked with them to surface and articulate the differentiating aspects of who they are, that make them an institute to bet on.

First there are Rockefeller Scientists – this is a rare breed of researcher who deserves a unique distinction. Secondly, they foster a culture of encouraging and rewarding risk-taking – something that is not often possible within large research universities.  They are structured to support this culture, and having created what they consider to be the very best environment for achieving breakthroughs in biomedicine. 

We set clear objectives: Elevate Rockefeller Scientists to a new level of visibility;  Embrace and communicate the unique culture and structure; Highlight the dramatic impact that Rockefeller has had and will continue to have as a result of these factors.

The resulting positioning strategy encapsulated the Rockefeller Advantage, comprised of science, culture and environment, the factors that enable Rockefeller to excel beyond others in biomedical breakthroughs. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, and Rockefeller had all of the ingredients, they just needed to express them in a way that set them apart, made a unique promise, and encouraged participation.

This idea of the Rockefeller Advantage, supported by Rockefeller Scientists, Rockefeller Culture and the Rockefeller Environment, became the north star of all communications and initiatives. Because it captured the culture of the institute, it enabled authentic, influential and effective audience communications.

  • Brand comes from the community

This second strategy is critical – it is difficult if not impossible to impose a brand upon an institution.  It is after all, your collective identity that really matters.  If your leadership, researchers, and staff do not see themselves in this story they won’t accept it.  You’ll find yourself in that overhyped situation.  We found that very struggle at Caltech.

Caltech is arguably one of the most successful research universities in the world, but alarmingly, they are one of the ones who exceed that 70% threshold when it came to the portion of their budget dependent federal funds. This was a major area of focus for a reorganized and renewed development effort.

The impetus of our work together was the fact that although the Times of Higher Education had ranked them the number one research university in the world, their reputation ranking (how they were thought of by others within and outside academia), was much lower. Say what you will about rankings and the methods publishers use to arrive at them, they have an effect on internal and external perceptions.

Simply put, the achievements and contributions of Caltech faculty, students, and alumni were not widely known outside the communities of science and engineering. Of course, when it came to the faculty – the essence of the community, their response was simply “everyone who needs to now already knows.” There was an aversion to telling Caltech’s story, for many reasons – its undignified, the marketers will just get it wrong, or this isn’t the way academics communicate.

We asked the community, what do people actually know? What is Caltech, and why does it matter? There were few commonalities in the answers we received back. Some were descriptive (what we do), some metaphorical, and some quite concerning. For example, some people told us “We are like MIT, but smaller and on the west coast.”

Its’ always disappointing when a prestigious institution defines itself in terms of another institution’s identity. When we asked the Provost how he defined Caltech, he said “I have no idea.” He was not being facetious – he was acknowledging that while the faculty, students, staff and administrators all know why they are at Caltech (which in themselves are myriad reasons), they cannot accurately say what the community represents.

As part of an effort to engage the community, we conducted a survey, and asked them what their top priorities were.  It came as quite a surprise to them all that after saying “everyone who needs to know already knows”, their second priority was “to raise the public profile of the Institute.” While sustaining the excellence of the academic community was still the top priority, it was clear there was a need to be better communicators – to make a clear promise and create clearer perceptions.  This data was a revelation. It created a great deal of receptivity among our stakeholders to finding a new way to tell the Caltech story, to meet these important goals.

Four key themes emerged from our research: A focus on science and engineering; the strength and integrity of the community, a commitment to leadership, in terms of creating new fields for the Academy to pursue, and magnitude, or the outsized impact Caltech has on science, knowledge, and the world at large.

That led to a very simple and clear idea, that everyone agreed they could get behind: Caltech pioneers audacious science and technology that transforms our world.

“Audacious science” became a phrase that the Provost found himself repeating – and liking. It fit. It expressed something unique about his community that he felt comfortable expressing. There are many institutes of science and technology. But if it isn’t audacious science and technology, it has no place at Caltech.

  1. Brand Inspires Behaviors

A lot of organizations have values – but we believe strongly in behaviors.  What you do matters as much as what you say – including desired behaviors as part of your brand strategy enables you measure how well people understand the promise you make, because they act accordingly. This also highlights an important word – inspire.  The best way to engage the stakeholders within your institute and make progress toward building a stronger brand, is to inspire them.

Consider UC Berkeley.  Widely known as one of the world’s greatest public universities, but one where autonomy and freedom are prized above all else. Every department and program had their own separate communications initiatives, and they liked it that way. “You can’t put us in a box,” they would say.

But an analysis of the communications of all the departments revealed a major weakness.  Despite their independence, the vast majority of departmental and program communications contained a dominant theme of budget cuts. This undertone gave external audiences a reason to doubt UC Berkeley’s ability to sustain future excellence. Another major theme was a reliance on facts and figures, which do little to set any one department – or the whole university – apart, because everyone has leadership facts and figures of their own to tout.

External audience research showed that while UC Berkeley was perceived to be at relative parity with other leading universities in academic excellence, access to high quality faculty and students, and other tangible measures, it was differentiated by its character and its culture. In other words, UC Berkeley’s tangible attributes, were both non-differentiated from other universities, and perceived to be at risk due to funding challenges. It was those “intangible” attributes (character, culture) that really made the university what it was, and fueled its success.

We determined the intangible attributes were the key to making a promise of future excellence.  It is the collective culture and character of the university that drives it forward, not the individual independent pursuits and facts of its many departments. We articulate that cultural energy in in one two-word phrase: “challenging convention,” and created the simple promise:  UC Berkeley reimagines the world, by challenging convention to shape the future.

When it came to communicating – all we suggested was that each department or program use their independent stories content to describe how they were challenging convention, and how they were shaping the future.  Despite the many independent stories, the collective impression would be that of a university on the move, not one in need. While simple, these behaviors would enable a communicator to capture, telegraph, and embody the promise of Berkeley.

  • Brands are never finished.

Bill Bowerman, the legendary co-founder of Nike, was known to say “There is no finish line.” In essence, the work on building and sustaining a meaningful and valuable brand is never done. You’ve got to continue to find new ways to renew your promise through new stories, initiatives and ideas that lend freshness and a future orientation to your promise.

Ways to continue to improve your brand promise and its expression include finding and cultivating stories that exemplify your promise, identifying brand ambassadors within your organization, and encouraging a body of people responsible for evolving your message and responding to external opportunities and challenges in a consistent and coherent way.

Another key to success in continuing to keep your promise fresh are to measure the effects of your communications and behaviors, through awareness levels, the success of certain initiatives and campaigns, observable behaviors as mentioned before, and your influence in the media.

Try to stay ahead of your field, not just scientifically, but communicatively.

By continuing to grow and adapt your promise, and measuring your success, you will find you have a great deal of power in expressing your identity and building strong brand presence with the audiences critical to your success.

In our experience, organizations who have pursued these four strategies have seen tremendous success, whether measured as internal enthusiasm or spirit, external awareness or success with fundraising. With a new (or renewed) appreciation for who they are and why they matter, they communicate, and operate, in advantaged ways, and enjoy greater appreciation from the audiences critical to their success.  May you take advantage of these strategies within your own organization, and experience the rewards.

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