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Lead with Brand, Not Identity

June 25, 2011

This is the third post in a series on the relationship of brand, branding, and institutional identity. 

Sometimes faculty are so concerned about their college drifting from its founding identity that they become ad hoc keepers of the flame. They guard against it being blown out by winds of change, and may advocate communicating it in certain terms that result in branding the institution incorrectly.

This is particularly true for faith-based institutions. In fact, when religion is involved, identity becomes tied to theology and there is no debating it because the original mission of the institution has been canonized. To hold an alternative viewpoint is to contribute to the dying of the light, a reference to a book written in 1998 that has been a rallying cry nationwide for those concerned about where their institutions are headed–The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches by James Tunstead Burtchaell.

The battle for institutional identity takes place on two fronts–the mission statement and faculty hiring. But eventually it winds up on the doorstep of institutional branding where words are weighed heavily. And it’s serious business, as in the case of my previous institution, when tension over it escalated to levels that contributed to a president leaving his office.

I am not opposed to staying the course with a long-held institutional identity. But before you take words and phrases from your identity or mission statements and use them to brand your institution–without using market research–I have two cautions for you:

1. Meanings of words are found in people, not in the words themselves

Words used decades ago to describe institutional identity may not mean the same thing in today’s culture. They may even now have negative connotations. Furthermore, generational differences are huge in branding. I guarantee you, Millennials experiencing your faith are doing so differently and describing it differently.

At my previous institution, after a long period of sustained enrollment growth with a large number of new faculty added to the ranks, the university had just gone through an identity process that recognized our denominationally-owned university had become a multi-denominational campus because of our mix of students, faculty and staff. As the institution began to experience internal conflicts and an emerging crisis, The Dying of the Light was mentioned somewhat often by those who strongly believed that the institution’s identity had drifted and that branding across market segments should lead with our denominational ownership, or with a word tied to the theology upon which the university was founded. It was one of a number of tactics that identity advocates hoped would shift the university back to its denominational roots.

As chief marketing officer, they did not find my support. While we were certainly telling people who we were in publications and on our website, and while such branding was appropriate for older alumni and church publics for whom those words held positive meaning, we knew from market research and experience that it was not wise to position our institution denominationally in southern California because there were just too many differing perceptions of what those words meant (even many of our denominational churches in So Cal had changed their names.) Furthermore, it wasn’t our brand (reputation) for many market segments, and it wouldn’t have resonated with them–the reputation of the denomination’s brand culture differed from what some of our market segments had experienced us to be. It wasn’t us.

2. Leading with institutional identity may bring unintended consequences

When I arrived at my present institution, an identity-driven Lutheran university, I found a university with an identity phrase as a part of its logo: “Commissioned by Christ.” For our institution, this phrase has deep meaning expressing the institution’s founding commitment to educate students to follow Jesus’ words to “go out into all the world and preach the gospel.”

However, that is only part of our mission as a diverse academic community committed to a Lutheran principle that we all (everyone–you and me) have vocational callings for which God has equipped us. This principle guides both academic program development and an admissions policy that allows students to be admitted regardless of their faith.

By leading with that identity phrase in our branding we were getting unintended consequences, sounding like some of our Fundamentalist competitors who are more restrictive and exclusive than our institution. Consequently, we were attracting some who really wouldn’t fit at our institution, and then losing them in the admissions process or during their freshman year. And we were losing potential new students who would fit on our campus before we even had a chance to talk with them because we sounded like what they didn’t want in a college experience. For still others, they had no clue what those words meant.

Now instead of branding our entire university with “Commissioned by Christ” in our logo, we use it with those constituencies (market segments) that understand it and resonate with it. Our university and undergraduate admissions branding has shifted to highlight the truly distinctive Christian university experience we offer in our market because of our Lutheran identity.

The bottom line is to be authentic to who you are as an institution. But base your branding on external data that tells you what your market segments are looking for, and what words and phrases hold positive meaning for them. Connect your identity to your market segments using that information.


The Roles of Brand, Branding, and Identity

An Identity No Longer in Search of a Market

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2011 4:59 PM

    Wow, you are so right about choosing branding that is specific to your industry (identity), then recognizing that identity, so you can brand towards it specifically.

    Let me explain what I mean. If we all generalized our self with only one identity group it would be very limiting. It would stifle relationships, and hinder open conversation. In your case, it could push away the students that could be reached for the gospel, which is the goal of the college. If an athlete likes one of your programs, but is afraid to go identify with the university because he/she feels the religious beliefs are too strong, that person may be persuaded to look to another university for education. Or may even be pushed away from hearing the gospel completely. If that happens you wonder if putting the identity in the forefront is backfiring and pushing people away, therefore taking you away from the goal of – “go out into all the world and preach the gospel.”

    Branding, on the other hand,, allows us to be culturally specific and lifestyle specific. While branding something we want to first identify a group i.e. Spanish culture, the financially minded, baby boomers, athletes, artists, dancers and THEN identify with them.

    If you fit into one of those categories you are normally able to look at a person and recognize whether or not you are currently part of their “group” (We are all insecure and like feeling like we can identify with people just by looking at them in a crowd.). Maybe it’s by how they dress, culturally specific or lifestyle specific. What language do they speak? These are strong obvious identities. If we understand their identity, branding then lets us go deeper and connect with each group specifically, connecting with their religious beliefs, allowing them to grow their desire for spirituality, or allow them to become the Christian they have always wondered about being. Branding is reaching out and connecting to each groups identity and letting them know that you understand their culture and lifestyle beliefs.

    • Rick Hardy permalink
      July 2, 2011 10:45 AM

      Awesome, Mark. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      What’s interesting is that what’s common with the Gospel and a traditional college experience is the idea that both need to be lived out in community. The Gospel is not about taglines and bumper stickers. In fact, sometimes people’s perceptions of the Gospel is negative because that’s all they see. Community allows the Gospel to be authentic. What separates for-profit and online college experiences is community. Without that, students can get the information themselves.

      In traditional higher education, each community has its own culture. And it’s during the admissions process of first perusing, then inquiring and applying that prospects can find out if they fit in your particular culture. Branding has the opportunity to communicate what the culture is at the top of the admissions funnel. But it is further down the funnel that they experience it. To your point, why should we alienate those who may very well fit in our community, especially when we welcome a diversity of students? Brand in such a way that encourages prospects to enter your admissions funnel so that both institution and prospect can explore if there is a fit.


  1. Higher Education Marketing Links of the Day : TWG Plus

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