One of the most pressing issues facing university marketing teams these days is branding. As more and more colleges and universities carve out their unique position in the marketplace, those that sit safely on the sidelines start to look like they lack “that special something” that turns a “maybe” into a “yes”.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at a different aspect each week to consider as you move toward branding or rebranding your college or university. This week’s consideration addresses just how important your internal team is to the entire process.
#1— Your people are your secret weapon.
Often schools feel like they need to outsource the whole tamale to a big advertising agency. That’s not only cost prohibitive, it’s just not true. The creative and marketing people you have on staff are stars just waiting for an opportunity to shine.
Before I worked in advertising agencies and before I became a freelance copywriter, I was one of those in-house people. Deborah was, too. That is, in fact, how she and I met. And we were both cut from the same cloth—we were bursting to go above and beyond, longing to spread our creative wings. But every time we started to emerge from the box we were held within, the lid unceremoniously shut down on us.
In one of these places, I worked with a really talented art director. Together we gave the high-end furniture retailer we worked for their first brand. They thrived through a recession with the ads we created. The ads were beautiful, creative, unique and got a lot of attention. Better yet, the customers loved them. We had proven ourselves! Yet when the opportunity came up to do television spots and even slicker work, our boss decided his in-house people were not up for the challenge. It was soul crushing.
What I learned from working in house is that you often learn quite quickly how high you’ll be able to fly. You’re told “no” so many times that you pick and choose your moments to shine very carefully. You learn what will and will not get approved and you work within those bounds in order to please the people in power. For better or worse, that’s how it is. It’s not that your people aren’t capable. It’s that they don’t have the space and permission with which to fly. If you want to brand or rebrand your school, it’s the perfect opportunity to let them fly.
On both Fear the Turtle and WONK, I was the only outside consultant on the brand teams, attending their regular meetings and helping to get creative conversations going. Often universities have plenty of editorial writers on staff, but no advertising copywriters. So I also filled that gap on the teams. In essence, I became the person who was unafraid of throwing ideas out and looking stupid, so individuals who weren’t used to the brainstorming process would feel more comfortable speaking up.
It didn’t take long to get everyone talking once they knew they had permission to forget about “the rules” for a while. And once your people start talking, they will create the most fitting brand for your school, because they are the ones that know it best. It takes outside people much longer to really get a grasp on a school’s identity because they only know what you tell them. Your existing team lives, eats and breathes your school every day.
What I have observed time and time again through this process is art directors and photographers and videographers and all manner of creative people change from being shy, quiet and unassuming into some of the most colorful and creative talents I know. These are people you have already invested in. They hold a vast storehouse of intellectual capital about your institution, the likes of which simply cannot be fully transferred to an outside source.
Give them their voice. Give them permission to color outside the lines they’ve been working within for years. Then get out of their way and let them do what they’ve prepared their entire careers to do. Make their investment in you pay off and your investment in them will pay off exponentially.
Bringing in a fresh voice or two can help jumpstart the transition, as it did with the WONK and Fear The Turtle teams. Your people can learn how the brainstorming process works at the branding level. They can claim ownership of what they create and subsequently have to execute for the next year or years. And, best of all, it’s a MUCH lower risk than signing on with an agency. It takes a lot of work. It takes some late nights. And there’s a whole lot of frustration in between. But you’ll see—that just makes the victory all the sweeter.
If you’re a marketing director, dean, provost, president or other decision maker when it comes to branding, what will be your biggest challenge in this process? Find out next week in the second installment of “Four Things to Consider Before You Rebrand Your School.”