During the past seven months, I have twice had the fortune of hearing Dr. Robert Moore speak at conferences. Rob is President and CEO of Lipman Hearne and author of The Real U: Building Brands That Resonate with Students, Faculty, Staff, and Donors.
Rob provides a useful template – including illustrations – for a brand platform, and he always underscores the value of differentiation. This second point is summarized nicely in one of the books he references below (and during his presentation):“Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage. It is not discretionary.” – Theodore Levitt, Thinking About Management
I thank Rob for answering my “5 questions” and sharing his expertise on higher education brand marketing.
1. What constitutes a strong academic brand?
There are two keys to a strong academic brand: authenticity, and differentiation. For authenticity, you really have to understand who you are, what real services you deliver—not what you wish or hope or tell yourself when you’re trying to keep away the night sweats, but the reality of what your stakeholders experience—good and bad. And your differentiation, for it to be effective, has to be based in what your stakeholders want or need from you, what they value. There’s no ground to be gained by differentiating in terms or attributes that don’t matter to your audience: the response to that kind of differentiation is a big “so what?” shrug of the shoulders.
2. While several colleges and universities try to present a clear, compelling, and authentic brand, many institutions often look and sound the same. Why is it so challenging for college and universities to differentiate themselves in ways their target audiences value?
Institutions often make the mistake of presenting a “category” and thinking it’s a distinctive brand. An example would be a liberal arts college that stresses small classes and close interaction with professors—both of which are (or should be) true, but added together all they do is describe the category: liberal arts college. The real issue, though, is that many institutions develop their brand positioning by focusing primarily on their internal audiences, and trying to please them. The result is a politically pleasing, yet essentially boring, restatement of the mission or category—often resulting in a brand expression that is simultaneously smug, dull, and dead.
3. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the importance of internal communication. What is the role of internal communication in brand marketing?
Internal communication is of huge importance—in fact, it may be the most important aspect of successful brand marketing. Faculty and staff need to know how they are assessed and understood by the marketplace, and how the institution is putting forth the specific value proposition that they have to fulfill. And deriving and sharing market research is probably the most powerful tool in the toolbox when it comes to internal communication strategy: the people who work in higher education are smart and quite used to analyzing data. Use this strength in your favor.
4. How are you seeing institutions effectively leverage the social web to build their brand?
Only modestly. There’s a fair amount of “shiny new toy” syndrome at work—and not enough strategy. “I tweet” is not a social media strategy, nor is “I’m on Facebook.” An understanding of institutional brand positioning would need to be developed first in order to form the fundamental basis of a social media strategy. A high-tech engineering institution (say, Cal Tech) would need to have a very different social media strategy and develop very different content from an arts school (University of the Arts), or a liberal arts college (Amherst), or a comprehensive university (UNC Chapel Hill). In each case, tactics (including social media) should follow strategy.
5. In addition to The Real U, are there other marketing/communications-related books that you would recommend to higher ed colleagues?
Made to Stick (Heath), Open Leadership (Li), Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes (Goodman), The Tipping Point and Blink (Gladwell), The End of Marketing As We Know It (Zyman), Reality Check (Kawasaki), Ogilvy on Advertising (Ogilvy), Branded Nation (Twitchell), The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (Ries), Thinking about Management (Leavitt).