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The Roles of Brand, Branding, and Identity

June 12, 2011

Higher education marketing leaders sometimes have to navigate what may be a highly political environment of concern for institutional identity. Just launch a branding campaign that is perceived by some as being out of sync with the identity of the institution, and you’ll see what’s been brewing below the surface. 

In this first post on the subject, I’ll define brand, branding, and identity, and the role of a marketing leader in navigating all three at an identity-concerned institution that is wrestling with market dynamics.

Before I begin, let me define the terms:

Brand – It’s externally focused. It’s what your customers (e.g., students, prospective students, alumni) have experienced you to be, or know/heard you to be. Any claim of brand position or promise (i.e., branding) better resonate with the market.

Branding – Based on market research, the process of strategically communicating product, brand, culture, etc. to market segments based on what is important to each segment. For students and alumni, branding may simply reinforce what they’ve experienced you to be. For others, branding plays a role to introduce your brand, reinforce its reputation or to work against a negative reputation.

Institutional Identity – It’s internally focused and developed to guide the institution as it carries out its mission. For faith-based institutions, it is historical, cultural, and theological. For many, in light of becoming more market-driven, it’s true north for their institution. Increasingly, colleges and universities are articulating multiple identities as they attempt to reconcile identity, mission, and market.

There’s a lot at stake. When institutional leadership doesn’t understand that identity is internally focused, and brand and branding are externally focused, the identity discussions on campus tend to cross over to branding decisions without the external data and experience necessary to have those discussions and make those decisions. And that’s when it gets difficult.

However, the bottom line is not one of internal considerations vs. external realities. It’s not identity vs. branding. Even if the approved institutional identity is not entirely relevant to today’s student, there are bound to be external constituencies–market segments–that agree with it (e.g., older alumni). And it is the marketing leader’s responsibility to communicate to those market segments in ways that will connect the current university with their long-held values and experiences.

Thus, it is also the marketing leader’s responsibility to thoroughly understand both identity and brand so that brand is understood by administrative and academic leadership, and branding is authentic to the identity of the institution. 

But such a challenging responsibility does not come by silently waiting on an identity committee to issue its statement. A successful navigation of the identity/brand discussion on campus requires an intentional process to engage leadership on the subject.

Participation in the formal identity dialogue on campus

That marketing leaders are sometimes not invited to be a part of the formal identity conversation is a curious thing to me. One would think that a person ultimately responsible for connecting the institution’s values to what’s important to its various markets and constituencies would be asked to serve on such committees, even if it’s in an ex officio role. But invitations to participate in the dialogue don’t always come, largely due to either a lack of trust with past or present marketing leadership, and/or because of a failure to view marketing as a comprehensive process.

Participation in the informal identity dialogue on campus

Whether or not a marketing leader is invited to participate in formal identity discussions, it is vital that he/she have productive working relationships with influential committee members and other leadership so that they understand a market perspective and the impact bad branding decisions can have on the institution.

Given an either-or choice, I’d say these informal interactions are more important than the formal dialogue because a marketing leader will be able to communicate (i.e., listening and talking) within productive working relationships, rather than committee deliberations that may include posturing and politics. Give me an hour and a cup of coffee with a colleague any day.

These conversations are vital to building trust and educating campus leadership on the roles of identity, brand, and branding. And it is trust and education that are essential to keeping on track a market-driven branding strategy that is authentic to the institutional identity. Sitting on the sidelines is just too risky.

Next in the series on Brand, Branding and Identity:

Part Two: An Identity No Longer in Search of a Market 

Part Three: Lead with Brand, Not Identity



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