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Mad Men and Good Brands (continued)

And now a response to the Mad Men piece from yesterday that appears on one of my favorite blogs, The Educational Marketing Group, Inc.

Michael Armini of Northeastern wrote an engaging viewpoint piece for Inside Higher Ed last Thursday:  “Beware Higher Ed’s ‘Mad Men.’”

It’s a nicely-written opinion piece that warns institutions to avoid quick-fix branding from “mad men” marketers, a reference to the AMC cable show that caricatures Madison Avenue of the 1960’s.

And Michael is right, to a degree.  Building a reputation or changing how you’re being perceived takes lots of time and commitment.  Sustainable brands aren’t created through pretty pictures, trendy designs, catchy headlines, or slick advertising campaigns.  Neither are they created by having “consistent” publications or a persnickety application of the graphic identity.

And it’s also true, as Michael notes, that an influx of corporate marketing agencies have turned their sights on higher education in search of new clients during the economic downturn. Many of them don’t really understand higher education, and base their work on high-impact creative campaigns instead of on deeply held core values and unique advantages.  And while more than a few colleges and universities have been beguiled by this creative-campaign approach, most are disappointed by the results.

But here’s where Michael goes astray.  He seems to believe that because a few slick advertising agencies say that what they’re doing is “branding,” it must be true!  Well, not really.

Effective branding is all about developing a framework through which to express genuine differentiation and an internal process for focusing organizational improvement.  Anyone who thinks you can build a brand without having everyone – faculty, staff, students, alumni, administrators, board of trustees – delivering on what you promise is kidding themselves.

Why has the Disney brand been so successful?  Certainly not because of their advertising, publications, or website, even though they’re all first-class.  It’s because the organization has made a significant, focused commitment over years to carrying out Walt’s original vision.  Behind the curtain, the Disney brand platform and strategy are documented in exceptional detail.  Everyone who works there – from corporate executive to part-time theme park worker – has been trained and tested to be a representative of the brand.

Here’s another example:  The lovable Wall Street baby in E*Trade commercials doesn’t define a brand.  But he does catch attention (the baby has garnered something like 10 million combined views on YouTube, and has helped E*Trade gain significant market share), and conveys the company’s fundamental market position of an online trading platform that is so easy and convenient even a baby can do it!

Is the baby the brand?  Of course not, and if E*Trade does not deliver on its promise, no amount of baby-buzz will help.  But contrary to Michael’s position that paid advertising is no match for good old-fashioned public/media relations, good marketing is extraordinarily effective.

But brand marketing is effective for colleges and universities only if and when the “brand platform” reflects the institution’s genuine core values and its shared vision of excellence.

A brand cannot be handed to you by a creative advertising agency.  It must be built from the inside out, based on institutional strengths and core attributes. It doesn’t change with the seasons or with a new CEO, but endures, building an earned reputation over time by focusing on and expressing your unique distinctives.

Branding is no quick fix, to be sure.  It’s something you have to live and deliver, day in and day out.  It brings an institution together and provides focus.

Dr. V. Lane Rawlins, former president of Washington State University, was one of the rare CEO’s who truly understood the nature of sustainable branding.   Just before stepping down from WSU’s presidency in 2007, he said:

“Branding isn’t so much about talking to all of our different audiences.  It’s about convincing ourselves of what we are, and what we can become.  It has beginning, but it has no end.”

So I’m afraid that Michael simply failed to distinguish between developing an enduring brand and just launching yet another creative-driven campaign.  They are not the same.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 31st, 2010 at 10:59 pm and is filed under Brand Development & Strategy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Passion Rules!


1 Bob Brock { 06.04.10 at 7:38 am }

Hey Joe, you are so concise! I love that.

And many thanks for your kind comments. To return the favor, this blog is always one of my “must reads”. As Andy Careaga sometimes tabs me…I tend to be a “lurker.”

Also, have a look at Jim Ebel’s comment on this post…most interesting take on HE, coming from the “real world”!

2 Gene Pinder { 06.04.10 at 7:50 am }

People talk about brand as if there is a common definition that marketers and communications professionals agree on. Is brand a “promise”? Or is it the product or product name? Is it a symbol like a logo? Is it all of these combined? The AMA uses one definition (and it’s not “promise”); marketing professors (Aakers) use another. Ad (men) and women often define it on their own terms, often with no basis in reality. The result? It has so many interpretations and meanings it has no meaning. It’s like a ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a vessel without walls. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to find. Nobody knows what they’re looking for.

3 Q { 06.07.10 at 9:02 pm }

Oh, c’mon, let’s not overthink it.
As in love….
Advertising is the effort you put forth so that one is attracted to you.
Branding is your commitment to that effort which makes one want to stay with you.

4 Bob Brock { 06.08.10 at 10:45 am }

I like Q’s approach to this issue! But Gene also has a great and very important point! We find dozens of different interpretations of “branding” in our work. It often leads to wildly different expectations – as shown in the Armini’s article that began the conversation. So we try to be very careful in discussing branding and marketing issues.

5 David Hunt { 06.10.10 at 4:33 am }

Strictly speaking, a brand is a name, symbol, design or combination of those that identifies a product or company and differentiates it from the competition (I knew there was a reason I took that marketing class!).

In the context of this conversation, I think we’re focusing on the ways we can market our university to a particular audience or audiences by associating the brand with key messages and ultimately emotions.

“We all go to NC State” is certainly one way to build the brand. It promotes a sense of ownership and family and ties the work of the university to larger issues like solving problems and safeguarding the future for the next generation.

That said, I never had the negative reaction to “Red Means Go” that some people did. I think the message that we’re action oriented and driven to get things done made sense and was accurate (which is never a bad thing in marketing). I’m not sure “edgy” plays well inside the organization so I suppose we’ll dial it back to something a bit more traditional in the next campaign.

Let’s just try not to look and sound like every other university because, in my opinion, we’re not.

6 keith nichols { 06.10.10 at 5:39 am }

Interesting piece in the chronicle on this subject. Here’s one of the more salient points:

Yet brands fit the reality of higher education less snugly than they seem to. Every Banana Republic in America will sell you the same merino sweater. Even closer parallels in the intellectual-property business have identifiable standards. A randomly selected album issued by Matador Records will almost surely feature fine indie rock. So too with Basic Books, with its roster of nonfiction books by distinguished authors, or the Met, with its renowned operas.

What you get from a college, by contrast, varies wildly from department to department, professor to professor, and course to course.


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