Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A practitioner's perspectives on branding Universities for success

A response to Brandchannels January 14th piece Two schools of thought in branding education.

OFD led the 1999 re-positioning and re-branding of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago, one of the foremost business schools in the world, and currently ranked #1 for an MBA by Business Week. . Our views are based on this experience and the extensive study of branding engagements for higher education.

1. The traditional vs. conservative dichotomy is helpful to a degree but in practice it’s an overly simplistic construct. In reality, strategists would not have to choose between an outer-facing, outer-oriented brand strategy or an approach that’s inner oriented and culture-based: the ideal route would combine elements of the two. David A Aaker’s Building strong brands provides a comprehensive single conceptual framework that does exactly this.

2. I agree with Schmidt that focusing on the trappings of taglines and promotional campaigns is “superficial tinkering”. I do not however concur that an entire organization should be incorporated into a holistic brand building process. This is where marketing (and brand) practitioners often misstep. Great ideas and strategy are not the result for canvassing a wide group of stakeholders. In many cases, people can only tell you what they know and the varied priorities across stakeholder groups are not naturally unified behind the motivation for solidifying something like a brand identity to benefit a school.

3. I disagree with Lux’s emphasis: It is not extremely demanding to create brands for institutions like universities rather it the management of the brand, particularly of brand actions (that speak volumes across multiple audiences) that is so demanding, precisely because of multiple stakeholders that comprise the typical university community that area difficult to orchestrate.

4. I would also caution against his rallying cry to “get as many people within the organization as possible involved in creating experiences that provide meaning and benefit.” What is needed rather is a clean brand vision, and a strategy that identifies which areas of influence shape perceptions most significantly, rolling out action plans which prioritize resources accordingly to this end. Involvement should not be denied to interest groups within the university that seek it, but it should be guided in such a way to ensure it works in harmony with the leaders that are initiating the identity, so as not to become agents of fragmentation.

5. As to Lux’s contention that it is the non-identical nature of a service organization with complex characteristics that make a traditional approach unsuccessful, ideologically I would suggest it is the shortcoming in the orientation of the traditional approach not characteristics of the context that are of issue. The value of a good strategist is in identifying an enduring and authentic basis that unifies multiple stakeholder groups with different interest.

To offer one perspective from the field, in developing a clearer, more compelling identity for the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, the answer began with a search for authenticity: identifying what in the enduring cultural fabric of the institution the university should be talking about, which had the potential for contemporary relevance (as yet under-recognized) which would reframe the value of the school in key target groups’ eyes.

It did not come from canvassing and seeking to include multiple stakeholder groups. It did not come from changing the institution. Quite simply, the institution did not want to change and with good reason: it is an environment that has produced more Nobel Laureates than anywhere else in the world. Brand identity and strategic development is not a momentum generating course for widespread collaboration. It’s a nice notion, but ignores the realities of this kind of context and worse risks weakening connections with enduring equities that have made the institution as great as it is today.

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