Ideas, musings and inspirations.

Tonight, the Pittsburgh Pirates host their first playoff game in more than two decades, just a few blocks away from Elliance headquarters. What might anyone involved in higher education branding take away from the most surprising team in Major League Baseball? We offer 5 brand “signs” worth stealing from the Pittsburgh Pirates:

1. Be real… Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle never tried to sugar coat two consecutive late-season collapses, while always maintaining his optimism for the team’s future — an optimism grounded, he says, in the team’s underlying work ethic.

What’s the take-away for higher education branding?
Colleges most clear-eyed about their strengths and weaknesses have the greatest chance of realizing their one true brand voice, and building steadily upon its potential to attract prospects and energize alumni.

2. Be authentic … Pirate management and the fan base have embraced the “braids and tats” demeanor and personalities of stars like Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett, without sacrificing a hint of its broad family appeal.

What’s the take-away for higher education branding?
Colleges sometimes try hard to hide behind a veneer of comfortable sameness, whether it’s in the range of student stories they tell or faculty showcased. Better to relax in the truth that appreciating and negotiating differences — political, religious, philosophical, personal — comprise an essential part of the college experience.

3. Be spontaneous…. Pirates’ players have self-policed their celebratory “z” for Zoltan hand signal without crossing the line into self-indulgence or self-congratulation. Similarly, their late-season, playoff-clinching clubhouse celebration did not shake the team’s overall sense of equanimity — and they restored their workmanlike “game face” by the next morning.

What’s the take-away for higher education branding?
Don’t allow the deliberate and meticulous work of planning, communicating and policing a brand drain the culture of spontaneity and fun. We’re in the people business, and people tend to be less predictable than consumer package goods. It’s OK to go “off-message” for the sake of building community. If your volleyball team develops a mantra that could be judged as out of bounds somehow with your brand standards, put the standard’s rule book away and enjoy. What prospects crave most is a window into the life already in progress on your campus.

4. Be hospitable … Blessed with what many consider to be Major League Baseball’s most beautiful ballpark, Pirates’ management has done a consistently good job of matching the environment at PNC park to the overall fan experience.

What’s the take-away for higher education branding?
Look for new and interesting ways to integrate the campus environment and energy with the surrounding community. North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, offers a model for how town/gown can not just peacefully co-exist, but thrive together for the benefit of all.

5. Be agile … Pirates’ players and management have balanced an appropriate amount of regard for past greatness, without overplaying the nostalgia card, even through 20 losing seasons.

What’s the take-away for higher education branding?
Colleges must constantly balance regard for their origin story and past, with the subtle challenge of moving their brand DNA forward. One sign of a well-considered and agile brand is consistently great communication that surprises, reaches back and propels forward. Middlebury College comes to mind for its exceptional ability to refresh its brand voice with great story telling that enriches and sometimes dares to lead and stretch the larger school brand.

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