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Finding Your Brand

March 22, 2010

When I began marketing higher education 22 years ago, I was fresh from the faculty. Our small struggling institution, desiring to grow and compete, had just created a chief enrollment management officer position, and I was it. The institution already had engaged the services of a marketing agency that was going about the work of “branding” our college.

Branding for this agency and for college leadership was entirely publications oriented. It was a tagline, logo, and graphics. So, the agency submitted a number of tagline ideas and we narrowed it down. They then tested the final selections with focus groups.

We became Southern California College, The Leading Edge. A logo, viewbook and various brochures were developed and it all looked great.

Just one problem. We weren’t even close to the leading edge of higher education. We just made it up.

So it goes with many colleges and universities and other organizations. Branding is simply a logo, tagline and graphics. It’s a campaign. Followed by another different campaign. Branding becomes a pejorative term as internal constituencies grow weary of changing graphics, and frustrated as more and more money is spent on rebranding.

It all fails miserably in defining your brand and helping you establish a competitive market position.

If you’re in a leadership role in higher education or any other industry, you’d better know what your brand truly is. Not some made-up marketing language and graphics. And you’d better know exactly what it is for your entire organization. It’s the only way you’re going to be able to creatively and strategically find your competitive brand position.

So, what is your brand?

courtesy of the lab blog at

Who better to ask than your constituents. Because your brand, while managed by you, is firmly planted in the minds of your consumers–your students, alumni, donors, community leaders, etc. They know what it is. They’ve experienced it.

Your brand is who you are between the ears of your constituents.

So, how can you find your brand without talking to those who really know what it is?

Through traditional research methods and social media, listen to what your constituents say about you. Once you do, you’ll find that a lot of what they’ll talk about is related to values and experience. Sure, they’ll talk about left brain stuff like preparation for grad school and career. But if your brand resonates with them emotionally, they’ll talk about values, relationships and community. They’ll talk about right brain intangibles that will help you position your brand positively different from the competition.

As you listen to your constituents, you’ll find that there will be words and phrases that you’ll hear over and over. These may find their way into your branding messages as you develop a matrix of brand messages for your multiple and various market segments.

Fortunately, The Leading Edge was a short-lived campaign. We were able to learn from our initial failures in branding, and undergo a process of finding our brand. By listening to our constituencies, we identified and kept important brand values as we launched a major name change and reorganization for our institution, propelling our university forward in market position and enrollment growth.

Finding your brand is an essential step in the process of developing an effective branding and marketing plan, a pre-requisite for effectively positioning your institution to attract new students, donors, faculty and friends.

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