Going Beyond the “Brand-Aid”

By Matt McFadden | Jul 05, 2017

This year, we’ve been invited to bid on a number of brand strategy projects for schools large and small.

It’s a pretty big honor for us to get those calls. While we don’t win them all, we learn a lot about each school in the process. While there are vast differences from school to school, there’s a common thread. “Brand” is nebulous enough that internally, it’s pitched to solve more problems than it realistically can.

Let’s unpack a few of the common symptoms & discuss what it takes to make a new brand project a real success and not a “brand-aid.”

Who started it?

This is symptom number one. Nobody really knows how the brand project got started. Sometimes there’s a new admissions goal, so a brand project is a queued up as the remedy. The problem is that it typically falls to the MarComm team to execute and they don’t have oversight (nor should they) over admissions. Some schools have really collaborative MarComm and Admissions teams, but many operate very independently.

Sometimes it comes down from the President, sometimes with no defined goals but a great understanding of the impact of a unified message. Other times it’s something batty like boosting U.S News rankings in 3 months (not saying this is a true story, but I’m not saying it’s not). Sometimes it’s because the President is new and she knows that because a brand emanates from the values and the mission of the university, a new brand strategy is a great way to articulate her vision both internally and externally. No matter the reason, I’d get shit in line quick.

Hell, we’ve even seen it come down from the Provost. But even in that case, once we peeled back the onion, we found it was an out-of-state admissions marketing problem and not a brand problem.

How should a brand be measured?

Let’s distinguish between brand and marketing. Brand is someone’s collection of experiences with you that ultimately result in a feeling, good or bad. Marketing is placing an offering in front of the right audience at the right time in the right place to move them to action. Brand is wide. Marketing should be as narrow as possible.

So how should it be measured? Since brand is about someone’s perception about you, it’s best to test perception over time, as well as before and after a new brand strategy is launched. Did it get more positive year over year? Did something like net promoter score go up? Sweet, go get beers.

Enrollment boosts can come out of new brand projects as well, but I’m not convinced that this is the best way to measure the success of a brand rollout. Because of the impact of new creative and marketing collateral, the new brand can’t and shouldn’t be given all of the praise. If a lift in enrollment is the major measurement of success, it may be better to start with a full blown marketing audit and get your analytics in place to see if there are more efficient paths to improvement.

Who owns it?

Given the circumstances above, this won’t be an easy decision. Presidents don’t have the time to own it. MarComm makes the most sense but also has the least measurable outcomes. Admissions should be selling and that’s too narrow a field for brand work. Welcome to the strangest paradoxical triangle North of Bermuda. But if you want this to really succeed, someone needs to take ownership. Here are a few clarifying questions for the group to help you start moving forward.

-In three years what will make us all feel like this was successful?

-Do we have the budget to make that happen? If not, how do we start that process now?

-Do we have the internal resources to make this a success?

-Are our departments aligned enough to make this a success? Do we have the communication, support, and processes to knock this out?

-Is the President engaged enough to make this happen? If not, what are the legal ramifications of a coup? Just kidding. But seriously, she or he needs to be on board.

You’re ready. It’s time to go beyond the “brand-aid.”

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