The interpretation of brand varies wildly depending on who you ask. For some it pertains to colour and logo, whilst for others it is a series of linked values and ideas. Without a confident understanding of what brand is, it can be difficult to define your organisation’s identity and inspire aligned behaviours across the institution. At The Brand Education, our experts have been working in distilling and communicating brand for decades and we thrive on sharing this expertise with others. We have created our ‘Breaking barriers to brand’ series to pinpoint challenges within the sector and offer our solutions to help you navigate successfully through them. In the first of the series, we start at the beginning, defining the essence of brand itself.
We recognise that branding for universities remains a fairly new concept, and the perception of the word ‘brand’ is definitively different to those working in the cultural or corporate sectors. This is understandable when you consider the trajectory of most universities in the UK. Historically many have laid their foundation by enrolling those from the local community, then building their reputation and leveraging this to recruit from further afield, relying on word of mouth or the prospectus to disperse their brand. However the increasingly commercial market triggered by the tuition fee increase, as well as the highly analytical new audiences, now necessitate greater understanding and application of brand principles within universities.
To begin, we need to overcome the elephant in the room and the interpretation of brand as a dirty word synonymous with selling and shouting. This is not reflective of the true nature of brand, which in its purest sense, is distinguishing who you are and what you stand for, in a tangible way that can be understood by all. It’s not just about changing logos or your colour palette. Whilst these may be pillars to brand, there is much more to be done before jumping to change these. The first conversation should always start with defining who you are, what you do, the audience you are serving and what your mission is. Conducting an audit to establish your current position and uncover institutional and reputational issues can be a helpful first step to guide your response. This approach can help you avoid change for change’s sake or overhauling everything unnecessarily.
When starting out on the journey to define the essence of your brand, we highly advocate involving leaders and decision makers early on in the process. Whilst we recognise that VCs are incredibly busy and often the last thing they want is upheaval, their absence can become a major problem and impact the degree of success of distilling and implementing your brand. It is important to have someone with a vision, who understands the process and can make decisions quickly to steer the ship. Without this, those involved can find themselves continuously going around in circles and the process risks becoming both longer and harder for all involved. It is important to have the vision set out early from the key decision maker(s) so the committee or team know the direction of travel and can achieve the best results possible. Where internal pressures dictate it can help to have a brand manager or brand agency to support in bringing the mission to life. Handing responsibility for the consistent and confident adoption of brand values to an individual or team has many benefits. As they are led by brand and are undistracted by competing responsibilities, they can nurture the talents of digital design, photography and copy writing to ensure that the tangible sense of the institution is consistent across all touchpoints.
If you are up for the challenge to distil the essence of your brand, but would like inspiration to guide on the process and benefits, then the charity sector is a fantastic place to start. Like universities, charities are competing in a crowded arena and seek to build emotional relationships with their audience that are highly personal and last a lifetime. Parallels can also be drawn in the historical struggle with the concept of brand and the justification of its importance amongst other organisational priorities. However, there are lots of examples of where investment has paid off, not least for Macmillan Cancer Support who have become the most successful charity in the UK. In 2005 this charity was struggling to shred the entrenched misperception that they solely existed to give end of life nursing care. They wanted to educate the audience on the full range of support services on offer, change attitudes to cancer and make it part of our everyday world. So in 2006 they undertook a full rebrand, changed their tone of voice to be less corporate and became bolder and more assertive. This was incredibly successful and propelled them to become one of the most recognisable and well thought of charities in the UK. But they recognised that as the world continues to change so they must too. They therefore undertook a further refresh in 2014 to reflect the changing cancer story and respond to the shift in how people talked about cancer. New principles were developed and centred on being ‘for and by real people’, ‘straight forward’ and ‘inspiring action’, providing a more effective platform to allow people’s voices to be heard. There is lots that the higher education sector can learn from the audience led and constantly evolving approach of Macmillan. However, perhaps the greatest lesson lies in the importance they give to ensuring that everyone who is part of the Macmillan family feels they own the brand as well as a sense of responsibility to build the brand in everything they do.
If you are interested in exploring how you can establish the essence of your brand and evolve this in line with your institutional objectives then get in touch with us here at The Brand Education. We offer thought leadership and workshops and we’re always excited to hear from you.