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Branding. It’s About Listening, And Then Being Creatively Authentic. Oh, And It’s Not Dead.

October 1, 2009

As a marketing and branding professional, I am a proponent of social media. The game is changing, and it’s vital for colleges and universities and other organizations to pay attention and to get strategically plugged into social media. But I haven’t drank the Koolaid. A few weeks ago, however, I found someone who has.

Augustine Fou, in his article, Branding Today: Why It’s Ineffective, Irrelevant, Irritating, and Impotent gives us a piece that reads like an argument for a wacky California ballot proposition. Not distinguishing between marketing and branding, or good branding and bad branding; not just being content to distinguish between today’s marketing environment vs. the Mad Men era of advertising, Fou simply declares that branding is dead because of today’s technology empowered consumers who will tell you what your brand is. Talk about overreaching.

I'm a MACEven his examples of brands that do not need branding are evidence of brilliant branding (e.g. Apple). His claim that colors, logos, and the like (for instance, costumes and art direction in the I’m a Mac television commercials) don’t matter to consumers, or make a difference in branding campaigns, flies in the face of research on consumers, media, and on how our brains work. Only someone operating with half a brain (the left side) could make such a case.

But Fou’s overall point about branding in today’s market bears truth. Truly, gone are the days when you could make up things about your brand and expect to get the public to buy it just because you said it. Social media today empowers your consumers to let you and others know how you’re doing with your product(s).

Thus, as Fou puts it, you must have or develop a “kick ass product” and maintain it. And I agree. Branding and marketing are muçh more than just promotion. It’s also about your product and organization. And that’s where expert “branding” begins.

Your product must be good. And your branding of it must be authentic. Social media will allow you to find out what your brand is in the minds of your consumers and constituencies, if you listen. And if you listen, you’ll be able to take the information you’ve learned to improve your product and business processes, and creatively craft a branding message and campaign that will resonate with your customers and constituencies and attract more fans.

Because the brand is yours. The message is yours. The logo, colors, and art direction are yours. The words you select to describe your brand and your products are yours. Your customers, students, alumni, etc. are not going to do that work for you. They’ll react to what you present. They’ll let you know if you nailed it or blown it. If you’re really good at branding and building community, your customers may feel like it’s their brand. That’s the goal. But they’re not the ones who are going to do the important work of branding the institution.

Those of us involved in marketing higher education know that social media isn’t going to take away our responsibility to brand our colleges and universities. For years, we’ve had communities of connected and vocal fans and constituents (e.g., students, alumni, faculty, etc.) who have been letting us know what they think our brands are and should be. But that has not killed branding or rendered it useless. Rather, we have found that our branding has the potential to build those communities and to build community, both of which attract new fans to the cause.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2009 6:22 PM

    Rick – I think you’ve got it exactly right. As you say, a brand image needs to ring true and have a great deal of authenticity, but that doesn’t mean you can do without a brand image at all. I think that folks like Fou forget how saturated our world is with images. We love, pray, learn, make future plans, etc. all in the realm of projected images. None of us can even imagine what it would be like to live in a world without images. The worst aspect of following thinkers like Fou is that you would leave the field entirely to large corporations who will certainly not be abandoning intensive brand projection any time soon. It’s important that institutions with true value, such as universities, project a persuasive image and not concede the field to corporations. Fou certainly doesn’t intend for that to occur, but that would be the result of following his line of thought.

  2. Rick Hardy permalink
    October 6, 2009 9:13 PM

    Thanks, Mark, for your insightful comment. I like your point about living in a world of images. It’s something we take for granted, but when you think about it, it’s really true. And you’re right, large brands will not stop branding. Universities should not either.

  3. October 7, 2009 8:31 AM

    Hear, hear! Excellent piece, Rick.


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