Friday Five: Immutable branding laws, revisited

Posted on January 18, 2013

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ImmutableLawsAs 2012 drew to a close, I spent some time revisiting some reading material that has informed my life, both personally and professionally. One of those materials was a book by Al and Laura Ries called The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (affiliate link). Perhaps you’ve heard of it? In my opinion, it is one of the most important books ever written on the subject of branding, and anyone who does any sort of marketing, public relations or brand management for a living should read it. For that matter, anyone who does any sort of communication work who wants his or her message to stand out should read it.

The Rieses present in concise form, chapter by chapter, 22 branding “rules to live by” that organizations ignore at their peril. They cite example after example of big brand names that follow or violate these rules, and provide plenty of evidence of why a brand’s tactic worked or failed, in the context of one of these 22 laws.

Before going forward, it’s important here to distinguish between the ideas of branding and marketing. I find that people, even people in our business, tend to use the terms interchangeably. The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding is not a marketing book, although the laws it contains do matter — greatly — to marketing people. Just bear in mind as you read on that branding is about an institution’s identity and its promise to the customer, while marketing is about delivering the product or service that institution offers to the customer. With any luck and strategic forethought, the products and services being taken to market also embody the promise of the brand that offers those products or services.

As the Rieses point out in chapter after chapter, companies have seen short-term success by violating a branding law or two. (For example, when Bayer introduces its Bayer Select line of “aspirin-free” products, in violation of law No. 10, The Law of Extensions.) But the damage to their brand eventually outweighs those short-term marketing victories. The lesson for marketers and brand managers is that what may look appealing from a marketing standpoint in the short term could do permanent damage to the brand in the long term. As the Rieses write in the very first chapter:

Marketers often confuse the power of a brand with the sales generated by that brand. But sales are not just a function of a brand’s power. Sales are also a function of the strength or weakness of a brand’s competition.

Substitute “gifts” or “students” for “sales,” and you see how this applies to higher education marketing.

My copy of this book was published in 2002, which means that many of the examples cited are outdated. Also, there’s an additional minibook at the end titled The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding which, being published in 2002, doesn’t take into account the changes wrought by social media. So if you pick up this book, I wouldn’t put too much stock in that section.

Like many branding experts, the Rieses talk about big, recognizable brand names. You won’t find any reference to colleges or universities in the book.

But that doesn’t mean these branding laws are irrelevant to higher education. If they’re immutable for the commercial sector, they should be immutable for our organizations, right?

Here are five of those laws that I think are most relevant to higher education. At the least, they serve as a reminder of best practices for our higher ed brands.

1. Law 1: The Law of Expansion.

The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope.The tighter a brand’s focus, the greater its success as a brand.

This is the big one and the most important law. No wonder they put it first.

Think about the most focused colleges and universities in the nation. How strong is MIT’s brand? How about Oberlin’s? Fashion Institute of Technology’s?

Now, think about how many “comprehensive universities” there are in the U.S. (There are a lot of them.) How many of them have strong brands for being “comprehensive”?

Certainly, comparing the number of degrees an institution offers to the lines of toothpaste Crest offers (38 at the time Immutable Laws came out) isn’t fair. But there’s an underlying principle that applies in both cases. If a college or university is known for something very specific, as MIT is for engineering, it could do some damage to its brand by extending into areas that are unrelated. (Obviously, MIT has very strong programs in business and other areas, but the connection to the institution’s emphasis on engineering and science is strong.)

The strongest brands are the most focused. (See also: Law 2: The Law of Contraction and Law 10: The Law of Extensions.)

2. Law 5: The Law of the Word.

When people think of your institution, what word or phrase comes to mind? A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.

Back in the 1990s, before the university I work for changed its name from the University of Missouri-Rolla to Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Missouri System conducted a series of focus groups around the state in an effort to find out how much people of our state knew about each of the system’s four campuses. When focus groups were asked about our institution, the most common response was that we were known for “engineering.” That was the word we owned among the public of Missouri in the 1990s. And it’s the word we own today — even more so, now that we have a name that better reflects the intrinsic nature of our campus.

What about MIT or Oberlin? Does MIT own “great engineering school” on a national scale? Probably. Does Oberlin own “great liberal arts”?

In building a brand, Ries and Ries suggest you “forget about the laundry list of wonderful attributes your product has” and instead focus on owning a word in the customer’s mind. “The mind gives meaning to visual reality by using words,” they write. “To get into a consumer’s mind, you have to sacrifice.” This is hard to do for any organization, but especially for higher ed.

3. Law 7: The Law of Quality.

Quality is important, but brands are not built by quality alone. Here is where the issues of affordability and accessibility come in to play today, and will in the future as The Great Disruption in higher ed continues. (Moody’s negative outlook for the entire U.S. higher education sector, announced on Wednesday, will obviously play in to public perceptions of U.S. higher education as a “quality” product.)

One of my favorite TED Talks, which I’ve written about previously on this blog, is Life lessons from an ad man, by Rory Sutherland of the Ogilvy Group. Sutherland talks about the importance of advertising as a means of adding perceived value to products and services. He even talks a bit about the perceived value of higher education.

“The point is that education doesn’t actually work by teaching you things,” Sutherland says. “It actually works by giving you the impression that you’ve had a very good education, which gives you an insane sense of unwarranted self-confidence, which then makes you very, very successful in later life.”

Sutherland is exaggerating to make a point, and it’s a bit like saying the role of higher education is to be like Wizard of Oz and confer credentials in the form of a diploma to straw men. But the perception of quality is an important component in branding, and as The Great Disruption continues to turn educational products into generic commodities that can be purchased cheaply, or even obtained free of charge, institutions that emphasize quality will have to think about just how well they are selling this intangible to prospective students, as well as how great the demand is for such a, well, quality. And also, whether your brand is really built on quality.

“If you want to build a powerful brand,” write the Rieses, “you have to build a powerful perception of quality in the mind.”

The notion of affordability often flies in the face of quality. Institutions need to decide whether to build on quality or some other factor. You can’t be both cheap and great.

“The customer who wears a Rolex watch doesn’t do so to be more punctual,” write the Rieses. “The customer who wears a Rolex watch does so to let other people know that he or she can afford to buy a Rolex watch.”

4. Law 11: The Law of Fellowship.

Brand managers like to talk a lot about differentiation, about how our brands are distinctive. And this is important (see Law 22: The Law of Singularity). But in reality, you don’t want to be the only one of your kind in the marketplace. Then you wouldn’t have any competition.

Coke needs Pepsi. Staples needs Office Depot and Office Max. Southwest needs American Airlines and United. And so on.

In order to build the category, a brand should welcome other brands.

When the leadership at our university was building the case for changing our name, they developed a classification of 16 technological research universities — institutions that, like us, were heavily focused on the STEM disciplines but also conducted research and had graduate-level programs. (This process allowed us to exclude fine, undergraduate focused engineering schools like Rose Hulman and Harvey Mudd, so that we could further narrow our scope.) By focusing on these 16 institutions, we intentionally limited ourselves to a ‘fellowship” of similar universities. (We compete with others not in this grouping, but we differentiate ourselves from those institutions by our focus. We are one of an elite group of 16 — and the only one in the Midwest.)

5. Law 13: The Law of the Company.

Brands are brands. Companies are companies. There is a difference.

From my perspective, as one who works for one of four campuses that are part of a university system, this law bears great importance when it comes to building a distinctive campus brand apart from the system brand.

Think of a multi-campus university system as the “company” and the individual campus as the “brand.” (For example, the system is like Procter & Gamble and the campus is Tide.) Does the company name need to be part of the brand? Would Tide be a stronger brand if it were marketed as “Tide, by Procter & Gamble” or “Procter & Gamble’s Tide”?

Taking it down to a campus level: Maybe the brand is a school or college and the “company” is the campus itself. Does the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications have a stronger brand identity than, say, “Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications”?

Sometimes, this law conflicts with other laws, such as No. 10 (The Law of Extensions). And when the brand managers (and deans) individual schools or colleges of an institution see their organizations as brands that are distinct from the academic institution, then problems arise. (See Law 14: The Law of Subbrands. What branding builds, subbranding can destroy.)

So Law 13 can be a tricky one to navigate, because companies are employee-oriented but brands are, or should be, customer-oriented.

Your turn

Have you read The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding? If so, what are your takeaways from the book? What law or laws that affect higher education have I omitted? Please share your comments.

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