Brand Discovery: How to Design for Signal Over Noise.

As revenue pressures grow across higher education, so do board- and cabinet-level imperatives to “define the brand.”

Easier said than done, true. But also worth every ounce of effort. At its best, a brand discovery should yield an authentic and durable brand position (with a 10-year shelf life).

Better yet, a brand discovery (well planned and executed) should liberate your institutional voice — a bright new vocabulary that establishes an emotional connection with prospects and other stakeholders; a way to articulate, with clarity, verve and imagination why you matter.

Getting the brand and voice right can test any school and potential partner. Brand discovery is where you begin to look more closely at hidden assumptions and unexamined bias — on your way to a clearing where new light allows something fresh and unforeseen to emerge.

Choose quality over quantity

How you approach brand discovery, especially the rationing of scarce time on campus, will have a big impact on results.

A frequent misstep when shopping for or planning a brand discovery is to confuse quantity (50 interchangeable interviews) with quality (five prized insights).

Success depends less on the interview roster (directors and vice presidents), and more on the nuanced understanding that you set out to achieve.

Scoring RFP Responses

In the opaque world of brand development, the question “am I getting my money’s worth” is always present.

Avoid scoring brand RFP responses by the bulk weight of proposed focus groups. Resist being swayed by the clever nomenclature of a firm’s “signature brand discovery process” and its accompanying jargon.

Your evaluation of a brand partner should center around the creativity and angle of their approach and sensitivity of the listeners that they assign to the work.

Presidential Priority

It takes a brave and willing college or university to partner with a serious outside brand firm. Only a very engaged president and VPs (enrollment, marketing, advancement) have sufficient clout and cover to streamline and shepherd the brand discovery process.

Choose Wisely, Not Politically

One of the first reflexes to fight is a tendency to clog the process with too many cabinet members, faculty leaders, enrollment staff and student tour guides.

FACT: Clear brand signals rarely come from senior staff or more vocal/visible students and alumni.

Brand insights and cues more often arrive as faint signals from unlikely sources.

Wesleyan College President Michael Roth, observing the gap between where marketers tend to look and where proof can be found,  writes: “The richness of the curriculum and high quality of the instruction may receive a nod, but they are rarely celebrated. Promoting everything except what happens between faculty and students may be good for short-term appeal, but the result is to make the entire enterprise of higher education more fragile.”

True Brand Messengers

The best brand messengers, I find, are faculty and students who naturally embody your origin story and carry on the mission without fanfare or self-awareness. These folks mostly fly under your radar, and thrive in the nooks and crannies of academics, service learning, and student affairs.

When you lean on focus groups and title-heavy interview subjects, you risk discounting these essential voices or missing them altogether.

Contrasting Mindsets


There is something in the rational mind that craves the simplicity and reassuring hum of a drive-through car wash or robotic vacuum. Yes, those machines look tireless and efficient— programmed as they are to treat all particles alike. But should we evaluate a brand partner with the same criteria?


What if, instead, we chose a brand partner the way the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines select trusted military working dogs. The dog handlers look for the right mix of reward-centered temperament and proven skill that makes these animals invaluable. The animal’s genius is tied to its ability to change course — it’s unpredictability — and that aspect of the process is not just acknowledged, but highly valued.

United States Army General David Petraeus said of military working dogs: “By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory.”

The same could be said of those who bring a simple skill of solid reporting to any brand discovery. I rank reporting as the single most undervalued skill and habit to be found within a college or university, or among higher education marketing firms that serve them.

Story: Canary in the Brand Mine

In many respects, the state of a college or university’s flagship publication(s) and digital content will reveal an overall readiness for a robust brand discovery.

While quantitative data adds real value to those trying to define a brand position and give it voice, it’s the qualitative findings — real-time observation and institutional memory — that light the way.

Colleges and universities that nurture and value great story telling, and the candid conversations and robust reporting behind those stories, already understand what’s required to articulate an authentic brand.