Quick tips on buying higher education brand work.

As a firm steadily building a reputation for higher education marketing and branding, we often receive phone calls and RFPs from colleges who quickly disclose a sense of urgency — “we need help” — without necessarily understanding what they want to buy or how a firm like Elliance can make a difference.

Given the sandstorm of confusion that accompanies any mention of higher education branding, it’s understandable. Much of the blame falls on those who claim to be branding experts. Too often they use doublespeak and proprietary methods to dazzle and distract buyers from their own better judgment. In my experience, the tools and habits of brand work are simple, albeit not that common.

Here are 8 simple rules or things you should expect from a quality brand firm or professional:

  • They should ask good, hard questions — dozens and dozens.
  • They should avoid their own confirmation bias or any other form of group think.
  • They should measure some, but not confuse data/analysis with actual synthesis and action.
  • They should take risks — and make you uncomfortable at times about your closely held assumptions. As someone once said, “sacred cows make lousy steaks.”
  • They should know that successful brands are built on firm strategic ground. In other words, who’s (buying) behavior will eventually be influenced, and why?
  • They should display grace and humility — nothing grand is being created here. If the elements of a brand prove to be substantive, then those essentials existed long before we intuitive and artistic types ever showed up.
  • Above all, they should listen. Listen without preconception. Listen just as much for what’s not being said.
  • Finally, they should not take forever to reach strategic insights or produce great creative work. As UCLA’s legendary Coach John Wooden liked to say, “Be quick, don’t hurry.”

I try always to remember the client’s urgency — it’s real. A college without a clear sense of its competitive positioning or ability to speak its own voice has good reason for feeling vulnerable. The least a branding firm can do in the digital age is to show some reciprocity — speak in plain English and solve problems at a steady pace.

This is not the golden age of three-martini advertising — and we are not living off a retainer that allows us to move at the speed of a slow pan camera across the sound stage of Mad Men.