Boring old brand-building

Brand building is boring work. What works best is absolute consistency over an extended period of time.

Al Ries and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

The Rieses are right. Building a brand can be tedious work.

And who likes tedious? Certainly not creative people like us, right? We want variety. We want new.

And certainly not academic schools, departments, research centers or programs that want to do their own thing  — “make a big splash!” — rather than stick with the university brand.

Tim Nekritz wrote about this issue recently. He describes it as a personal branding issue. Which it certainly is. Personal branding applied to academic programs is a new twist, and one I hadn’t thought about before Tim wrote about it.

But this issue of everyone wanting his or her own brand — of every department, every program, every student group, every sports program — is even more deeply entrenched in our culture. Because it’s embedded in our human nature.

We humans are easily bored.

We get tired of the same old thing. We crave something new.

Think about it. What graphic designer would be content to merely enforce an institution’s graphic identity standards, day in and day out, without desiring a more creative outlet of some sort? That’s why they’re doing freelance work at 1 in the morning. (More about that in this infographic. But I digress.)

The most successful brands are those that find a distinctive niche in the marketplace and stick with it. Which means they must be consistent — in their messaging and identity. Even established brands, when they make changes, are most successful when those changes are not jarring to the customers. (Contrast Starbucks’ successful minor tweaking of its graphic identity in 2011 with the great Gap logo debacle of 2010.)

One of the key takeaways from the recent CASE Summit, which I wrote about in my previous post, was “routine matters.” People notice the regular, not the irregular. This applies to the world of branding as much as it applies to our behavior.

Safe sports cars?

Or consider an example from Al and Laura Ries in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

“Volvo has been selling safety for thirty-five years,” write Al and Laura Ries. (My edition of this book was published in 2002, so tack on another 11 years to that figure.) And selling safety has worked for Volvo. Even when Consumer Reports ranks some other make and model as the safest brand, Volvo is usually perceived as the standard for safety.

But “every once in a while,” the Rieses write, “someone at a company like Volvo gets a bright idea. ‘Why should we limit ourselves to dull, boring, safe sedans? Why don’t we branch out into exciting sports cars?'”

A Volvo sports car? (Yes, there is such a thing. To Volvo’s credit, they stick with their brand messaging, pointing out that the C30 Sports Coupe provides “large car safety in a smaller package.” Still, I’m not sure the two ideas — safety and sports cars — go together so well. I agree with the Rieses here. Volvo has diluted its brand by expanding into the sports car line.)

The higher ed example

Let’s apply this principle to higher education. The president of a liberal arts college decides it should add engineering programs, because STEM is all the rage. I think we see some schools jumping on the MOOCs bandwagon because they’re either 1.) afraid they’ll miss out on a hot trend or 2.) wanting to be perceived as a leader in the brave new world of higher education. But does the question ever occur to them: Will this dilute our brand?

“You should limit your brand,” advise the Rieses. “Your brand has to stand for something both simple and narrow in the mind. This limitation is the essential part of the branding process.”

Maybe that’s why colleges and universities have such a tough time with branding. They don’t like the idea of limiting themselves. That’s just human nature.

But “Limitation combined with consistency (over decades, not years) is what builds a brand,” say the Rieses.

Decades, you say? That’s a long time to be doing boring brand work.

But if we stick with it, it will pay off.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

8 thoughts on “Boring old brand-building”

  1. Amen, Brother Andrew! As I tell students in my class on advertising/media writing/branding, the best brands can be described in a very small number of adjectives (sometimes nouns). They are rarely exclusive — terms like “reliable,” “fun” or “affordable” can’t be — which may seem dull to those interested in shiny branding, but as consumers we go with things that make us comfortable.

  2. I. Love. Branding. People don’t get that it’s everything we do. They usually don’t get that it’s the primary use for social media at our institutions. Interactions, our print materials, how we engage with students face to face and where our alumni end up all play a part but are not the be all and end all. It’s forever an intangible that we can only hope to manipulate by what we choose to be a part of and to spot light. It’s fascinating and hateful all at the same time. Because we can’t really finalize it or make people ‘get it’. We can only influence it continuously. Great post.

  3. Excellent blog, as always! It is hard for many in higher ed to come to the realization that you can’t be all things for all people. It is a good thing to limit not only what you do, but what you say. Saying a billion of the greatest things about your university 1) takes too much time 2) isn’t realistic and could be perceived as fake or overselling 3) doesn’t set you apart from your competition.

  4. But one of the biggest things we have seen is that because of turnover and change in staff responsibilities in higher ed, keeping brand consistency over a long period of time is becoming harder and harder.

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