The Branding Process

Posted: February 16, 2015

This week, we’re speaking at CASE III in Orlando about the impact a clearly defined brand can have on an institution. What starts with distilling a compelling brand message — articulating your institution’s differentiators, honing a new visual mark, refining your brand promise and creating content to carry that promise to your audiences — can lead to cultural change not only in your marketing group, but across your institution. Sounds great, right?

The key to a successful rebrand is all in the process. Taking the right steps and involving all the right people is essential to showcasing what your institution has to offer and what sets you apart from the competition. We could spend hours going through the details of our branding process, but here’s a quick overview of the phases we use to help transform brand engagements into catalysis for cultural revolution.

Strategy and Research

Research and a well-formulated strategy are the foundation of any successful project. Throughout the research process, the most important thing to remember is to listen. Contrary to popular belief, an institution’s brand is not determined by the school’s MarComm Office. A brand is your audiences’ (both internal and external) perceptions of who you are and what you stand for as an institution. So, we start by hearing what those audiences have to say.

In order to become more familiar with an institution’s previous branding efforts, our research begins with reviewing the current state. We look at all marketing materials including the website, traditional advertising, print collateral and so on.

Next, we review the landscape. What are your competitors doing? What are they doing well (or not so well)? How do they position their differentiators and their institutional experience? More often than not, we find that higher ed institutions are not alone in their branding challenges. Identifying gaps among the competition helps us understand how best to communicate your school’s unique value proposition. Every institution has something to offer, it’s important that this unique value is visible to your audience.

One of our favorite parts of the branding process is Stakeholder Interviews. This is what we call the time we spend on campus meeting with real people to hear their experiences (both good and bad) with the institution’s brand.

Once we’ve gathered all of our research and developed a thorough understanding of the brand, it’s time for a workshop. A typical Brand Workshop lasts 3-4 hours and involves stakeholders from across the institution (leadership, faculty, staff, students, etc.). We go through several exercises to help define where the brand is now and where it needs to go. The outcome of a Brand Workshop is a long list of words, phrases and themes that must be narrowed down to clearly define what makes the institution unique.

The final deliverable of the strategy phase is a Strategy Brief. It details out the specific strategies that will inform all future actions. Think of it this way, if goals are the beacon for every decision throughout the branding process, then the strategies are the guiding principles or the game plan. Good strategies should capitalize on strengths and opportunities, accommodate weaknesses and ensure that each tactical choice will serve to accomplish a goal.  The Strategy Brief documents the game plan and brings everyone in agreement on how to move forward.

Developing the Brand

The next phase in the process is to develop brand messaging. The components of a brand’s message include pillars, attributes, a tagline and a positioning statement.

  • Pillars are the foundation on which the brand is built. While each pillar may not be completely unique, when used together the pillars represent a dynamic combination that set the organization apart.
  • Attributes are words or short phrases that encompass the personality of a brand. We often describe them as the personality traits of the institution that are unique and memorable.
  • The Tagline is a short but memorable phrase that represents the brand. It should ultimately serve as a mantra that all brand advocates know and support.
  • The Positioning Statement is like your elevator pitch. It demonstrates your unique value proposition to the target audience.

Designing the Brand

Once the brand messaging has been established, we move to designing the visual elements of the brand. The logo will be the most recognizable symbol of your brand, so it needs to make an impact. It will help tell the story of your brand and should communicate and symbolize all of the elements (pillars, attributes, etc.) of your brand promise.

“A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what is means is more important than what it looks like.” – Paul Rand

We like to begin with a brainstorming process that moves into hand-drawn visual explorations and sketches. Collaboration is key here, as you will need total support from everyone involved to create the best final product.

Several rounds of revisions are usually necessary to finalize the shape, color, font and all other graphic elements of the logo. Getting everyone on board and in full support of a new logo is always a challenge, but we cannot emphasize enough how important that support will be in implementing the new brand.

Once the logo has been finalized, we create various visual representations that can be used across campus. From business cards to t-shirts and travel mugs, your logo needs to make a lasting impression to serve as a representation of everything your institution stands for.

Delivering the Brand

The final phase in any branding project is to deliver the brand to your target audiences. Everyone from leadership and faculty to students and alumni should understand the brand messaging in order to communicate a consistent brand story.

There is no better way to kick off a new brand than with a spectacular launch! This event can take a variety of forms, but it should be something special. It should also be well planned and anticipated, not a surprise party. We recommend scheduling and promoting far in advance to ensure it is well attended and the purpose is understood. Be armed with t-shirts and giveaways. If possible, create an opportunity for leadership to show their support of the brand.

Once you’ve officially kicked off the new brand, it is essential to ensure that the visual elements and messaging are used correctly. That’s where Brand Guidelines come in. These guidelines should include everything from logo use in print and on the web to tone and voice for written materials and social media. We recommend building these as you go so that once the brand is launched you have the comprehensive document in-hand and ready to use.

As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into developing and brand for an institution. If you’d like to know more about our approach to branding feel free to contact us. We’d be happy to share the slides from our CASE III presentations to give you an idea of how brand can impact institutional culture, enrollment numbers and more!