50 Best Branding Ideas

50 Best Branding Ideas

How colleges and universities are successfully creating and communicating their brands
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SOME ADMINISTRATORS-AND EVEN MORE FACULTY-MIGHT ARGUE THAT BRANDING an educational institution takes away from its academic mission. But from where Steve McKee sits, institutions whose leaders clearly know “their specialty will prosper, and those that don’t will languish.” McKee, who is president of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based advertising firm McKee Wallwork Cleveland, says most colleges and universities have a differentiation problem when communicating with prospective students. With the backlash against tuition increases, the explosion of online education, and the increasing mobility of students, he believes competition is going to become more of a fact of life than ever before in higher education.

What about that mission issue? Done right, “institutional branding is meant to help propel an institution from its mission to its vision by creatively conveying the powerful strategy that will take it from where it is to where it wants to go,” argues Barbara O’Malley, chief communications officer at The University of Akron (Ohio). “When the strategy is clear and the creative and communication consistent and supportive of the strategy, branding is powerful and can benefit a university greatly.” Research has tied good branding to attracting students, faculty, and staff as well as to achieving success in fundraising and in getting media coverage.

The big challenge in branding a “living, breathing institution” rather than a product, says Blair Garland, director of marketing at Roanoke College (Va.), is that the lives of its students, parents, alumni, faculty, and staff are intimately tied to it. That’s why branding is serious strategic business. It shouldn’t just be “an exercise to develop a tagline or a great advertisement,” O’Malley says.

The staff of University Business has compiled 50 ideas for developing and executing a brand strategy. We hope they’ll get you thinking about the promises you make to your constituents and how those promises might be better communicated.

1. Ground your brand in truth. During a daylong brainstorming session, administrators at Indiana State University kept coming back to a comment a student made about why Indiana State was different. On move-in day, he had seen a sign about a need for student newspaper reporters. He stopped by the office and was immediately put on staff. He commented on how surprised and pleased he was to be given this experience from the first day of his college career. That comment became the inspiration for Indiana State’s tagline “More. From day one.” Since the brand launched four years ago, officials have heard stories from others whose college experiences have mirrored that of this student’s. According to Steve McKee of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, institutions tend to focus their identities on things like research capabilities and academic reputation, but that’s not necessarily what hits the emotional buttons of prospective students. When undergraduates are asked about their school selection, they’ll say things like “I just fit in here” or “It is close to home.”

2. Act on perception study data. A 2006 study of Bucknell University (Pa.) constituents?from prospective students and their parents, to guidance counselors, donors, leaders of peer institutions, and higher education groups?revealed its strong, yet poorly defined, reputation. Audiences indicated that messages about academic strengths often seemed hidden under messages about the institution’s comprehensiveness. The conclusion: Academics must be the priority message, with breadth of opportunity supplementing and extending that message, not overshadowing it. Now every aspect of the communications strategy, including story and photo selection and the use of new media tools, reflects that decision.

3. Team with other institutions to brand the local college experience. What’s it like to attend college in New York City? Seven private institutions and 21 City University of New York schools worked together to launch the website OneCampusNYC and tout the city as a university town. The site’s tagline?”The NYC college experience. Simplified”?and content shares what it’s like when the city is your campus. An FAQ section provides succinct information on housing, transportation, and what New York offers students that other cities don’t.

4. Make your place matter. Facilities help differentiate you from your peers, so make sure campus buildings reflect your identity. The Paul Barret Jr. Library at Rhodes College (Tenn.) incorporates symbols to reflect its connections with the Presbyterian Church and the college seal. When Roosevelt University, DePaul University, and Columbia College Chicago partnered to create the University Center of Chicago residence hall, the planning team gave each school a dedicated floor to help keep students immersed in their home culture. And administrators at The University of Akron (Ohio) took steps to make the campus more park-like, pedestrian-friendly, and wireless-enabled to support their “Landscape for Learning” brand.

5. Let the “secret” out. Located amid a variety of respected private institutions in the region, Western Connecticut State University has long been considered a “best-kept secret”?not the best of identities to have when competition is so tough. A new branding program positions the school as a center of artistic enterprise in Western Connecticut. Combining affordability (among the lowest tuition in New England) and a nationally recognized music, art, and theatre arts program (plus construction of a $97 million Visual and Performing Arts Instructional Center), Western is increasingly embraced by politicians, businesspeople, and thought leaders as a resource. Students attend by choice, not circumstance.

6. Be for some if you’re not for everyone. Warren Wilson College’s (N.C.) niche is its students’ strong interest in service-oriented and environmental causes. The college’s Triad Education Program merges fieldwork and community service with academics. This fall’s enrollment is its highest ever, with 923 full-time students. Its tagline is appropriate: “We’re not for everyone ... but then, maybe you're not everyone."

7. Be mindful of how brand campaign language may be perceived internally. The marketing department at Stonehill College (Mass.) was concerned the internal audience would resist the idea that one phrase could sum up the entire essence of the college, so instead of calling “Many Minds. One Purpose” a “tagline,” they distributed it as a “headline” to be used as a quick way to describe the essence of the institution. Wide acceptance led to banners on campus and a commencement speaker using the theme for his speech.

8. Play with words. Administrators at Georgia College & State University Macon boosted enrollment in the graduate program with the “Sum Up Your Education” campaign, playing on the abbreviation of the school name GCSUMacon. The campaign included tent cards placed on tables at local restaurants, T-shirts, candies, and sponsorship of local events. Enrollment increased from 211 students in fall 2006 to 650 in fall 2007.

9. Accept that there’s no single perfect phrase to sum up your institution. That’s what team members at Centre College (Ky.) had to remind themselves as they began their campaign, which carries the tagline “Personal education. Extraordinary success,” several years ago. What they understand is that saying a lot of things at the same time ends up saying very little to the public. But making a decision and being persistent in communicating that choice is what brings success.

10. Put your best face forward. Robert Morris University’s (Pa.) “Found Success Here First” campaign was not only about enforcing the school’s brand. Its goals were to build affinity with the university’s alumni and pride in its community, and to inform the public that prominent local business and civic leaders are RMU alums. On the “Choose Your Success Story” webpage, viewers can click on stories or download ads highlighting recent graduates or alums and their accomplishments. Similarly, the “I’m a Valpo Graduate” campaign for Valparaiso University (Ind.) touts the institution’s high job and graduate school placement rates via stories of alumni, many of whom are involved in global learning, civic engagement, and environmental causes. Posters, direct mail, radio spots, and the web are the communication methods, and parent feedback indicates that the campaign has identified the university as offering a quality education.

11. Fight misperceptions. Little brand recognition and an outdated image of a “girls’ finishing school”?not to mention a name that implied it was located in another state?had been challenges for Georgian Court College (N.J.) administrators for years. Achieving university status allowed for a complete transformation of the marketing plan and graphic identity of the school, now Georgian Court University. Planning for the transition offered a chance to articulate the institution’s unique qualities, including a recognition of its core strength: providing a values-based education based on a Sisters of Mercy education imprinted with social action. And just in case anyone wonders about its coeducational status, advertising includes photos of both females and males.

12. Use multiple meanings. Peace College (N.C.) is a 150-year-old women’s liberal arts college that has taken advantage of its unique name in a series of ads and branding initiatives that emphasize how the school enriches the lives of its students at a particularly unsettling period in the nation’s history. “Peace Strengthens” is the tagline for a series of ads that show young women pursuing studies in such fields as microbiology and anthropology. Each ad ends with the phrase “They knew I had it in me.”

13. Let students lead the way. Colleges can raise visibility and build their brand with their target audience by offering programs tailored to that audience. In the fall of 2000, Mount Holyoke College (Mass.), a women’s college, launched “Take the Lead,” a leadership program for motivated high school junior girls who want to make a difference in the world. After undergoing a rigorous application process, 40 girls are selected. They have spread the word about their experience and nominated others for the program. Some have even applied and matriculated at Mount Holyoke. In eight years, the program has attracted more than 5,600 nominations.

14. Adjust the branding message to the audience. Recognizing that the traditional age students it serves have a different frame of reference from its working adult and military students, Saint Leo University (Fla.) came up with two taglines. “You’ll love the person you become here” launched in 2003 for the younger generation, while “What you need for where you’re going” launched in 2004 for older students. Both are used in print and online materials as well as open house and recruitment events. In addition to increased enrollment, variations on those taglines have begun appearing in students’ National Survey of Student Engagement responses.

15. Make each constituent group feel valued. As separate groups, students, alumni, donors, and trustees should not receive information meant for a general audience. Sametz Blackstone Associates, a Boston-based strategy and integrated communications firm, has collaborated with a well-known private institution to ensure that different constituencies receive the appropriate letter, their own space online, and special access to people and ideas. Acknowledging the distance (or proximity) of constituents is a nearly cost-free way of solidifying and nurturing relationships.

16. Create a branding manual. The University of San Diego’s comprehensive but user-friendly manual promotes a consistent look and feel for all print and electronic materials. It offers step-by-step guidelines for the proper use of USD’s colors, logo, and writing style when creating everything from apparel to websites and PowerPoint presentations.

17. Make it easy for constituents to spread the word. For those at USD who don’t have the time to read the full manual, there’s an abridged reference guide in PDF form. Administrators at John Brown University (Ark.) provided sample paragraphs to faculty and staff for use in promotional and professional materials after student focus groups were conducted to test the “JBU Characteristics.” A branding process at Texas Christian University was used to develop a list of a few main themes identified by various groups asked to characterize the institution’s “competitive advantage.” The list was edited to fit on a single sheet and is referred to as the “Message-on-a-Page.” Sametz Blackstone used a similar tactic for one of its higher ed clients?ATM-sized cards that trustees, faculty, alumnae, and students could use to reference group-specific messages and be effective ambassadors in conversations with their peers.

18. Ditch the admissions viewbook. This year, Pacific Lutheran University (Wash.) replaced its viewbook for prospective students with U magazine. Published three times a year, it features real stories about students, faculty, and alumni that showcase what makes PLU special instead of the facts and figures found in a typical college brochure. The launch issue included stories about campus life and tips on arranging a visit and applying to college, plus some quirky pieces such as a professor’s philosophy on The X-Files and tongue-in-cheek recipes such as “top ramen parfait.”

19. Create a conversation starter with applicants to find those with the best fit. California Western School of Law used to get enough applicants but not enough who were truly a good fit, as its high attrition rates reflected. Working with CRANE Metamarketing in Georgia, the institution’s leaders created a brand identity reflecting its diversity, versatility, collaboration, compassion, academic rigor, and concern for ethics. A new motto, “What law school ought to be,” has been used since spring 2005 in a variety of marketing, outreach, and admissions materials. The campaign draws prospects into a conversation about how the school views the law, and those who aren’t the best fit now tend to opt out of the applicant pool. Despite a national decline in law school applications, the class that enrolled in fall 2006 is both the largest in three years and considered the best-fit group ever seen at the institution.

20. Use your admissions application as a branding tool. To help reinforce its image as a school that encourages individuality, St. Edward’s University (Texas) admissions staff craft unusual essay questions each year to grab the attention of smart, creative students. One example: “On a high school field trip to the symphony, you and two friends get lost and become trapped in a wolf pit with only a history book, a protractor, an iPod, and a note from Mom to save you. How do you escape?”

21. Show some serious service opportunities. With volunteer hours on the rise among high school students, many are interested in continuing their efforts in college. Valparaiso University tapped into that urge with full-page advertisements and direct mail to Lutheran high school students showcasing current Valpo students performing service projects abroad, along with quotes explaining how the experience affected their values and career goals.

22. Jumpstart your brand campaign internally. Ursuline College (Ohio) launched an internal campaign for its new brand “Good to Great” with a college-wide community day for 250 faculty and staff members. A notebook detailing every aspect of the campaign was distributed to attendees, who viewed a 60-minute educational presentation and heard about the opportunity to win a Brand Illumination Award. The annual award is given to students, faculty, staff, or alumnae who, individually or as a group, exemplify one or more of the brand’s selling points. In 2007, there were nine award nominations. Also, at the request of Ursuline employees, a link that recaps all brand initiatives was placed on the college’s homepage.

23. Make brand connections in the classroom and beyond. Bryant University (R.I.) leaders have incorporated their brand, “The Character of Success,” in the classroom, on the field, and in the community. Last year a Task Force on Character Development was charged with helping officials create opportunities for character development. The task force developed SIRR, an acronym to show what Bryant means by character: self-management, integrity, responsibility, and respect for yourself and others. A Bryant market research class surveyed family, staff, and students to provide a benchmark for measuring progress in the understanding about character.

24. Ensure that all staff exemplify the brand. Mohave Community College (Ariz.) has initiated an extensive rebranding program around the concept of customer service, with the slogan “We map futures and fulfill dreams.” Taking the words “map” and “dream,” administrators began referring to employees as “dreamographers” and provided each with a laminated card that espouses the core values of customer service: respectful, accountable, reliable, prompt, responsible, friendly, honest, and sincere. Research had determined that faculty and staff at Mohave did not feel empowered to make things happen for the students. “Secret shoppers” on each of Mohave’s four campuses gauge the level of service being offered, and each month an employee on each campus with exemplary customer service is awarded a giant stuffed bear.

25. Show your sense of green. The University of North Texas athletic teams are known as the Mean Green, but the nickname is now helping to build understanding and engage students, faculty, and staff in the university’s sustainability efforts. “We Mean Green,” an internal communications campaign, centers on sharing information by students, faculty, and staff online, on Facebook, on campus kiosks, on specialty items, and in event-type programs.

26. Walk the walk and talk the talk. California Polytechnic State University uses a “lean and green” paperless strategy for marketing to prospective students during the decision-making process, in turn maintaining its image as a tech-savvy institution. Video e-messages, phone and text messages, parent and student blogs, a student portal, virtual viewbooks, and telemarketing are currently used. California Institute of Technology leaders also work to show they walk the technology walk. The Industrial Relations Center for Executive Education’s website got an overhaul to better market professional development courses to executives at technology-driven companies. Incorporating Web 2.0-inspired applications, the site is designed for conveniently planning and booking courses online with quick navigation. Visitors can find information about course details, certificate programs, instructors, schedules, and other resources. Each course has its own page, providing its content and benefits, explaining who should attend, and sharing information about the instructor, hours, and credits.

27. Connect donor passions to institutional priorities. Marketing materials should allow development officers and others to begin and advance dialogues. Sametz Blackstone has collaborated with a major medical school to ensure that learning a prospect’s interests will lead to passing along further materials that progress a chat; increasingly specific stories and proof are on hand for the next meeting. Development officers can customize materials for each interaction, from high-production printed materials to ones printed on demand from templates. The goal: match donors’ passions with institutional priorities.

28. Capture thoughts on film. Marquette University’s (Wis.) “Project Green Screen,” a two-day effort, created video segments with students talking about everything from what they enjoy about Marquette to why they chose to attend the school. More than 30 videos were added to the Undergraduate Admissions landing page on Marquette’s website in late July. From August to October, two measures of web traffic?page views and unique views?were higher than they were around the same period in 2007; the time spent on the page increased by 44 percent.

29. Build a web portal just for alumni and students. Dubbed the “Infinite Connection,” the MIT Alumni Association’s interactive, customizable website serves more than 120,000 alumni as well as more than 10,000 undergrads and graduate students. Designed to reflect the university’s techno-culture and attend to the desire of alumni for intellectual inspiration and exploration, the website was created by Boston-based BigBad. Users are introduced to the online community through a puzzle challenge that requires them to delve deep into the site in search of clues.

30. Create a virtual tour with personality. Through audio, video, and graphics, online campus tours can provide potential students with a personal experience that identifies the unique offerings and culture of the institution. Virtual visitors to William Woods University (Mo.), for example, can’t help but walk away with a sense that the institution isn’t afraid to show its less serious side after exploring the “Got Duck?” tour. It includes slideshow presentations and videos of various spots on campus that are narrated by a self-absorbed duck, all designed to give prospective students a look at what people on campus are like.

31. Make connections to constituents’ daily lives. In September, Virginia Tech launched ThisIsTheFuture.com, a website designed to spread the word about how the university’s research programs are making a daily impact in the communities across the Commonwealth of Virginia. By clicking on orange-colored words, visitors can access stories about university research projects?ranging from developing alternative fuel resources, to improving medical or environmental conditions, to developing fraud detection software. Designed not just so that the university can let others know of its accomplishments, the site also encourages locals to submit stories about individuals doing some good of their own in their communities or tell how VT has impacted them. So far, about 160 stories have been submitted.

32. Mark your milestone. In preparation for its 60th anniversary in 2009, the University of San Diego has launched an expansive multimedia campaign highlighting USD’s past achievements and heralding its vision for the future. Promotional pieces include a variety of print materials, apparel and merchandise, television spots, and an anniversary website. Additional activities include a traveling historical display, a black-tie fundraiser, and alumni/community events across the country and around the world.

33. Consider product placement. Stevenson University (Md.) made an agreement with GEICO to lease studio space so the insurance company could tape a series of television commercials this past summer in exchange for the university’s name being featured in two of them. Building name recognition is a key part of early efforts in a branding campaign being developed since the 60-year-old institution, formerly Villa Julie College, changed its name in June. The 30-second commercials feature Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell. One being aired nationally now has the university’s name in the background, bringing the school exposure outside of the Baltimore area.

34. Give students the chance to contribute to the branding effort. To promote Juniata College (Pa.) as “A Great Education, Within Reach” to students from area high schools?who used to make up 80 percent of the student body and had in recent years begun to perceive the school as too pricey?the talents of current students were tapped. A series of four commercials, featuring students from local counties who discussed how the college went to great lengths to make it affordable, was written, edited, shot, and produced by current students.

35. Show you deliver on a promise. Various outlets for Ohio University’s branding campaign, “The Promise,” describe the institution’s history of helping students discover their own potential. Four television commercials featuring 12 young individuals (www.ohio.edu/promise) highlight the promise represented by the students and by OU’s people, programs, research, and resources. An alum even donated extensive billboard space throughout the state, featuring the students in the commercials. The campaign’s concept is now being used in departments besides marketing. For example, this year Admissions created four viewbooks on different topics that feature “The Promise.”

36. Go for humor. The University of New Mexico’s “Be a Lobo! Be Yourself!” campaign for prospective students and their families features Sam the Sheep, a “rebel without a cause” who is “tired of being your stereotypical ‘cloven-hoofed mammal.’" How did he land at UNM? “I want to get out and see the world, you know, really find my inner wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The campaign, created by McKee Wallwork Cleveland, has 30-second and 60-second TV spots (the 60-second one made its debut during the university’s first televised football game over Labor Day weekend). The campaign website (http://beyourself.unm.edu) includes photos of Sam and other characters around campus and allows viewers to comment.

37. Become a part of reality TV. Maybe not every college aspires to reality TV fame, but it can help boost admissions if it happens. The Bravo TV series Project Runway is based at Parsons, The New School for Design (N.Y.), and its episodes feature regular interior and exterior shots of the facilities?so the school must make itself available for filming. Reality TV might not be real, but it leads to name recognition, and now when the average person thinks of fashion education, Parsons comes to mind. Inside the Actors Studio, another Bravo show, is filmed at Pace University (N.Y.). The official website features a link to Pace’s MFA program.

38. Follow the crowds. Georgian Court University’s statewide image campaign took advantage of the school’s location in the most densely populated state in the country. It featured billboards on highways and major crossroads and in the center field of a popular minor league baseball team’s stadium, as well as large bus posters and train station platform posters. With New Jersey having one of the highest cable penetration rates in the country, the university’s 30-second spot gets high visibility?while being an efficient media buy compared to costly advertising on a major network.

39. Be prepared to jump on unplanned ideas that may drive the brand message. The University of Maryland’s “Fear the Turtle” campaign, which has helped put a spotlight on the institution’s research mission, sped up when a trustee (and alumnus) offered advertising space on 17 of his food company’s trucks. Thanks to the trucks?and to marketing leaders’ ability to grasp an out-of-the-ordinary opportunity?the institution has delivered millions of impressions as the trucks have traveled between Washington and New York City along I-95.

40. Give your vehicles a facelift. The University of San Diego took its brand on the road, literally. To capitalize on the recent success of the university’s baseball, basketball, and football programs, a sleek design was developed for the athletic team buses. Busing has not only bolstered the brand’s exposure but has also created a sense of pride and excitement for USD athletes and their fans.

41. Promote school loyalty. Big sports schools have a loyal following that goes beyond their alumni. The University of Connecticut has developed a website (http://alwayspartofu.com) that allows users to download the Husky fight song to their cell phones, post photos or videos, or join one of a half dozen UConn-related social networking programs. The site is featured in a 30-second commercial that will run during UConn’s football and basketball games through March 2009. In it, alumni are seen displaying their school’s sweatshirts, a diploma, license plate, and flags. Throughout the ad, the Husky song goes from the familiar marching band version to variations featuring a soft piano, guitars, and a Hawaiian lilt.

42. Riff on your strengths. The University of Kentucky leveraged its athletic program to increase pride in its academic program by telling people to “see blue,” a reference to the school colors.

43. Get a cute mascot. A recognizable visual beyond the school logo is another way for people to remember you. The University of Maryland based its “Fear the Turtle” campaign on the mascot and rallying cry for its athletic teams. Additional text in campaign materials highlighted student GPA and faculty accomplishments. And at Roanoke College (Va.), where there has traditionally been no mascot because it’s hard to personify the word ”maroon” (the nickname of the school’s athletic teams), administrators organized a contest to find a Maroon mascot to support the team as well as epitomize all that Roanoke stands for. Open to students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and friends of Maroons worldwide, the contest entries were due in this fall and a decision is being made now by school officials.

44. Sport a website that highlights all student athletic teams. Since its inception in 2005, California Lutheran University’s Cal Lutheran Sports website (http://clusports.com) has been attracting virtual visitors and prospective students due to continuous ESPN-style coverage of both women’s and men’s teams. The site has press releases and scores posted immediately after most athletic events. It also contains photos of players in action, team rosters and stats, schedules, histories, and records for each sport. As of late October, the site had reached more than 230,000 visitors. Direct mail pieces that promote the website have also delivered results. This fall, CLU experienced record enrollment in its freshmen class.

45. Strike while the iron is hot. Boise State University (Idaho) administrators launched the “Beyond the Blue” campaign in 2004. In 2007 the football teamed played in the Fiesta Bowl. In response the school sprang into action, scheduling interviews for the president and reaching out to regional media. Mailings to donors included newspaper clips of game coverage. George Mason University (Va.) experienced a similar phenomenon in 2006 when its basketball team reached the NCAA tournament Final Four. Website hits spiked, and hats and T-shirts flew off the shelves. The increased school pride helped boost growth plans already in place.

46. Play ball with local sports venues. Pro sports teams view colleges as a feeder for their business ranks and are getting more involved in institutional support. Students from Old Dominion University (Va.) have gotten internships with the Norfolk Tides baseball club, an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and several have landed full-time jobs with the organization. This relationship has grown to include a fundraising game between ODU and the Tides every spring, and seminars presented by Tides president Ken Young for sports management students.

47. Allow others to toot your horn. Most everyone knows of Gatorade. Recent TV commercials have highlighted the fact that University of Florida doctors invented the beverage to benefit the football team, effectively showcasing research and athletic programs along with the drink. Although a Gatorade effort, the commercials required permission from university officials, who supplied images and people.

48. Immerse students in the real world. Ball State University’s (Ind.) brand repositioning centers on student-driven teams working with communities, businesses, and government agencies to develop solutions to real-world problems. Last spring, students wrote the crisis communications protocol for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, for example. Created with a five-year strategic plan in mind, the overall branding effort will help attract students, faculty, and resources. Over the past three years, applications have increased 38.5 percent (reaching a school record last year), and retention has increased by more than 3 percent since fall 2006. Immersive learning is expected to be offered to every student by 2012.

49. Make a branding deal with vendors. With the University of San Diego’s preferred vendor program, participating vendors must complete a comprehensive training workshop to ensure they are properly using the university’s design elements, including the logos, colors, and fonts, and are upholding branding guidelines.

50. Stick with what works. After months of deliberation, Westminster College (Utah) decided in 2007 to retain the school as a college instead of changing it to a university?since the word “college” implies a personal, student-centered learning environment, which the president felt adequately characterizes Westminster’s appeal and value. Centre College officials, meanwhile, have kept their brand look consistent over many years. “Personal education. Extraordinary success,” its brand promise, is highlighted in print, web, and digital media, and with a program for graduates that aids in financing their advanced studies. In the fall, the college opened with more than 1,200 students for the first time in the school’s history. In the past five years applications have increased by almost 40 percent. Trying something new doesn’t make sense when the existing branding is working.

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