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Best Branding Practices--Avoiding Assumptions that Miss the Media Mark

Campaigns that deliver the best results always involve bold leadership and tough decisions
University Business, Dec 2008

As branding initiatives in higher education have emerged and evolved over the past two decades, the media-outreach segments of the plans often continue to miss the mark. The reason? The campus professionals who are responsible for strategic communication are often relegated to a back-seat role in the process, or are left in the dark until the branding campaign is ready to be rolled out.

My company is often brought in by the president’s office or by the PR team (or both) after the fact to help a university refine the key themes identified through branding -- and to promote those aspects of a university’s essence that move beyond advertising to represent what reporters, editors, and producers will actually consider for possible news coverage. We review branding plans, integrated marketing initiatives, and strategic communication plans and we see the same approach over and over again.

While the media-outreach portion of a branding campaign usually represents some of the project’s greatest and most ambitious expectations, we find that this part of the plan is rarely developed with significant input from campus PR professionals, which is a huge mistake. Instead, it is often created by people who do not really understand how these expectations can be met.

The president’s or chancellor’s office, trustees and others often assume that the firms that perform branding possess a deeper skill set in external communication than the senior members of the campus PR team. Despite the talents, resources and collective experience that a branding firm brings to the table, this assumption is typically flawed. Unless they are a very recent hire, senior public relations professionals can provide an insider’s perspective with accurate and extremely valuable input for the branding team. They should always be tapped to work in a partnership as a key player in the branding process.

If approached and executed the right way, branding campaigns can pay huge dividends. They can help an institution define and showcase its special place in higher education. Additionally, they often reveal specific gaps that may exist between the impressions of those on and off campus, and the return on investment to obtain this information and to craft an effective way to use it is generally good.

Because “branding” is such a powerful buzzword, some colleges and universities dive into a branding campaign for all the wrong reasons, and pursue expensive and overly ambitious branding initiatives that completely miss the mark. This can alienate key internal and external audiences, including faculty members and alumni.

The best-practice branding efforts typically succeed in answering the question: “Who are we really?” and then proceed to deliver a clear and strategic roadmap for colleges and universities to explain exactly what sets them apart. In positioning an institutional “brand” to the right audiences in the best possible ways, a university’s brand identity must be true -- and it must also be clear and easy to understand. The best branding campaigns are those that are not only relevant and powerful, but those that showcase a college or university’s identity accurately and consistently, and that really provide them with a long-lasting competitive advantage in the higher education marketplace.

The most successful branding approaches identify a specific “North Star” that can serve as a guide, a helpful beacon for integrated marketing, admissions, fundraising, advertising, media relations, and all outreach that serves to sustain and advance an institution of higher education.

In some cases, simply creating a campaign through which a consistent institutional image can be achieved via branding is in itself a wise investment of time and resources. This can serve to help a campus streamline and enhance the look and content of its web presence, as well as gain an otherwise elusive consistency in logos, letterhead, publications, brochures, and materials for its most important external audiences.

In some cases, smart branding can even go well beyond that, and can generate the type of attention, support, and understanding that may have been missing -- though desired by institutional leadership -- for years.

While the media-relations component of a branding campaign represents one of the most strategically important long-term assets, it frequently becomes the plan’s weakest link. Why? This is usually because of the PR or media-outreach recommendations that are not there. Those that eventually do become incorporated into a branding initiative have usually been generated by those connected with branding consultants or other professionals, who somehow become tied to the project, who possess little or no real experience working with the media. They often confuse advertising with efforts to secure story placement -- and this is where many branding initiatives in higher education hit a snag.

In many cases, the recommendations for media outreach fall many miles short of reality. The suggestions offered in the official final branding document for campus PR initiatives simply don’t line up with what can realistically be accomplished. The branding “action plans” often do not mention a strategy to identify and promote newsworthy themes, stories, messages, or ideas that truly resonate with the type of news media with whom these schools are seeking to connect.

University leaders should keep this in mind when the topic of media outreach comes up in the first ten minutes of a discussion with a branding consultant and a half-dozen university administrators, and their senior campus PR person is not among those at the table. It happens all the time. PR professionals owe it to their educational institutions to insist that they be involved in the branding effort early on. Those who are already stretched too thin should ask for and receive the additional support and resources from campus leadership that they need to play a crucial role in the branding process.

The branding committee might also be hesitant to fact-check -- or even fine-tune -- the PR or media-outreach recommendations made in a draft version of the brand strategy document with their PR department, for fear of alienating the key stakeholders whose input was solicited for the project. The result, then, is often a final institutional branding document that too often relies on random PR advice, nebulous goals, and off-target strategies and expectations.

Most campus branding initiatives include a great deal of engagement, and they cast a wide net in obtaining interviews and seeking input. Usually, the “key informants” whose opinions are solicited for the branding report include powerful alumni and other influential members of the larger campus community who typically argue that their institution is the “best-kept secret” in higher education. In many cases, these folks are among the first recruited to secure resources and promote the need for an institutional branding effort in the first place. Their views of the university can be quite lofty, and a much-needed reality check is something they may not welcome.

The branding campaigns that deliver the best results always involve bold leadership and tough decisions from the president’s office to streamline the process and keep things on track. Best-practice scenarios have typically also benefited from having a senior campus PR professional help guide the media-relations segment of the initiative. They understand change and the need for a good look in the mirror. In most cases, they also know their own campus, its players, programs, specific brand niche, and personality better than anyone else in the world.

Randell J. Kennedy is president of Academy Communications, a Boston-based national consulting agency that represents colleges and universities. Visit

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