Ideas, musings and inspirations.

Too often, a college or university approaches a brand development exercise unprepared for the journey ahead, and unable to fully realize the rewards at journey’s end. We offer a 5 point checklist to ensure a better experience and outcome at every step.

1. Know Your Motivation
A strong, clear and authentic articulation of your brand can accomplish great things. It helps if everyone agrees on the primary motivation before beginning the process. Resist sugar coating. Be as real and as specific as possible. If it’s about a president’s legacy, be candid. If the current enrollment mix and tuition discounting threaten the school’s bottom line, come clean with the data. If alumni have grown distant and disenchanted, invite your most vocal critics into the process. If you want to raise your research profile, know the key departments and labs. Yes, quantitative surveys might confirm and further inform what you know — but rarely do they surprise anyone or change the primary driver.

2. Appraise Content Assets and Talent

Your brand will rise or fall based on your ability to identify, create, curate and sustain great content. Other things matter, but nothing matters like content.

  • Compelling and concise program pages.
  • Story-driven videos both impeccably orchestrated and carefully paced.
  • Headlines aimed at rifling through message clutter.
  • Photos of such rare compositional quality and emotional impact that even the busiest or most distracted user drops into the moment.
  • Honest stories.

Everyone will argue for “getting by” with substandard content. Do you have a voice in the room strong and respected enough to awaken your team from content slumber?  Project budgets will limit your ability to throw vendor money at the content challenge — the sheer volume of content required almost always catches everyone by surprise. At some point, you will have to retrain and/or rebuild a robust and talented in-house content team. Arguing the case for new hires in times of tight budgets may cost you a layer of skin — but more than any other investment a strong content team will determine the long-term impact of a brand.

3. Listen to Faculty

The raw material for every higher education brand emerges from that singular encounter between teacher and student. However impressive your intellectual capital, research prowess, alumni enthusiasm, sports success or overall institutional might, your brand needs the renewable energy that only comes from teaching and learning. By engaging your best teachers — early and often — you will be stress-testing the brand development process. They will ask tough questions and reveal fault lines. They may even test your will to take on such a challenge. Welcome early input — even the most cynical doubter. You will emerge standing on firmer ground.

4. Study your Origins.

Many colleges see a brand development project purely in terms of moving toward a desired future. It’s important though to inform that future with a detailed understanding of your past. Discard the thin layer of “glory” that colleges tend to recycle in their mythology. Dig deeper into the milestones and obstacles, the disagreements, wrong turns and missed opportunities. Understand your college the way a grandparent might grow to understand their still developing young adult grandchild. Gain perspective. Embrace good and bad equally. Interview anyone who might have lived through the transitions. This is not a passive exercise in remembering. It’s about choosing what matters going forward. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, “Life isn’t about finding yourself; Life is about creating yourself.” Some key raw ingredients may have been around since the start.

5. Set a Far Horizon

Once you declare your motivation, assemble the talent, recruit faculty, and discover your origins — there is just one more step. Talk openly about expectation. A much-anticipated brand rebirth may be 10, 25 or even 50 years in the making. The atmosphere is often charged. A college may be at a tipping point. A new brand could be seen as the difference between ascent or decline. Excitement and anticipation, or, conversely, fear and tension may rule the day. Almost always, expectation is out of alignment with reality.

Extraordinary responsibility falls to the internal brand leader. You may have collected 100 books on leadership — but this is the crucible that will define your career. In my experience, the key is to stand tall in the storm that is change and say with steady calm and authority … “relax.” Remind those above and below you in the chain that the opportunity to claim a new destiny need not come wrapped in big pronouncements, rallies, t-shirts, billboards or social media storms. It’s about a quiet, steadfast and ongoing commitment to staff development. It’s about cultivating new and better habits.

Hype is the kryptonite of long-range thinking. A genuine brand will work for a generation. It will not need any hype — the brand itself will do the work of galvanizing interest.  If you want to make a fuss, spend your post-launch money on bringing four great story tellers — writer, poet, filmmaker, painter — to campus as a way of nurturing a newfound appreciation for all forms of compelling content.

Congratulations. If you’ve read this far you’re already way ahead of the curve. You will never forget or regret the pursuit of a nuanced, human-centered and memorable brand.

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