In the last installment of this four-part series, we talked about what your creative and marketing people bring to the table in a rebranding. This installment is all about you, the marketing directors, vice presidents, presidents and other decision makers.
It’s widely accepted that, if you do things the same way over and over again, you’re going to end up with relatively similar results. This is just as true about processes as it is about attitudes. But when you brand or rebrand your school, you want different results. You want to be perceived differently or increase awareness or fill more seats. And since you’re one of the decision makers, you’re going to have to change some of the decisions you make. Which brings us to our next consideration.
#2—You are going to have to stretch.
Maybe you’re a marketing director who is very hands-on with your staff. Perhaps you’re a university provost who strives to placate the vocal minority of faculty and staff who are change aversive. You might be a dean who finds marketing too pedestrian for intellectual pursuits. Or perhaps you’re a VP or university president who prefers to feel comfortable and certain about the risks you take.
Those are just a few of the attitudes and processes that will have to change along the decision-making chain if you want your image to change. Instead of being one of the creative team, a marketing director might have to learn to be more like a client. A provost or president may have to find a new way to manage the vocal minority. Deans might have stop seeing “marketing” as a dirty word. VPs may have to learn to trust their gut impressions. And all of you—ALL of you—are going to have to get used to the queasy feeling of risk and uncertainty as your campaign develops.
After going through this process countless times with businesses in pretty much every industry, here is what I know for sure—not everyone can shoulder a brand as bold as WONK or even one as playful as Fear the Turtle. And that’s OK. Going from zero brand (or an innocuous one) to a big, loud one is pretty ballsy and it takes some solid buy-in from the higher ups. But there is a whole spectrum of risk between “no brand” and WONK out there to explore. If you want to move the needle on your results even just a hair, you’re going to have to feel uncomfortable and you’re going to have to take some risk. In fact, feeling uncomfortable is one of the signs you’re doing things right.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a successful campaign or rebranding effort that didn’t make its creators and internal supporters nervous or even a little scared before it was released. Your creative team and decision-makers can fully believe in the strategy and thinking behind a campaign. You can have a clear idea of risks and rewards and where you’ll encounter resistance. But marketing isn’t a science. There are no guarantees. Guarantees come from a pattern of doing the same things the same ways and getting the same results. You simply can’t create change without some risk and uncertainty.
And here’s one last thing to consider while you’re stretching yourselves. Think of how your biggest competitor markets their school. Now think of how some aspirational school—the school you’d like to be—markets themselves. And now think of how the school with the best marketing markets themselves.
You now have three examples of brands that your school’s brand can’t be anything like. Differentiation is the whole point of branding. If you admire someone else’s brand, that’s great. But don’t try to model your brand against it or say the same thing in a different way. They’ve already claimed that position. Your job is to say something no one has or, even better, something no one else can.
WONK provides the perfect example of that last point. A brand is not just about what you say. Sometimes it’s about how you say it. And sometimes it’s about having the courage to say it in ways your competitors won’t and can’t. American University is a uniquely Washington, D.C . institution with considerable strengths in public affairs, politics, law and communications—the business of Washington. But Georgetown and GW University can say the same things. WONK is a uniquely D.C. word, characterizing the passion and focus of the kinds of people who work here, and is so much a part of AU’s culture. Could GU or GWU use that word? Sure. But would they? Not in a million years! Their reputation is too conservative. Only an iconoclast, only someone willing to shake things up and create meaningful change, would be so bold. THAT is AU’s unique position—a uniquely Washington institution for people with the passion and focus to be their best and create meaningful change. It’s not just about what the word means, it’s about the attitude and determination it takes to stand up and say it proudly. It’s a brand that only AU could claim in the marketplace and it encompasses everything the institution is and everything its students want to be.
The Washington Post once had a great campaign that said, “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” The same could be said about WONK. Branding is all about taking a stand. It’s about saying “this is who we are and if you like that, join us.” It’s NOT about saying, “we are everything everyone wants us to be.” So if your brand turns some prospective students off, then you’ve got a brand that differentiates. The goal is to connect with those you’re uniquely qualified to reach as an institution of higher learning—to bring qualified prospects to your doorstep so everyone can be their best and perform to their highest potential.
If your school’s decision makers are on board with everything you just read, then one of your biggest battles is already won. But what if some feathers get ruffled along the way? Find out in the next installment of “Four Things to Consider When You Rebrand Your School.”