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Good News, You Have a Brand; But Do You Know What It Is?

Ensuring your institution has an established and recognized brand is only half the battle. Once that brand is established, colleges and universities must go above and beyond to ensure their marketing plan is being carried out and received successfully.

The effectiveness of branding—in fact the need for branding in a highly competitive environment—is common knowledge.

We know successful branding. Southwest Airlines, the no frills airline which is on time and does not lose luggage, immediately comes to my mind. Wal-Mart rolls back prices; we do not expect fantastic customer service but we do expect consumer savings, and they are true to their brand. Many colleges and universities, particularly in the public arena, lament the lack of resources available to create their brand. Others aggressively pursue advertising designed to create a brand that attracts students. But every college and university already has a brand, or more likely several. The sad fact is that most of us are unaware of what that brand is, and perhaps would be appalled at the reality.

In Tom Peters book In Search of Excellence, he touted the factors needed to create a good brand. One of these was management’s role:  walking the talk, and being aware of the “moments of truth” that create the brand. True story: while checking out university programs for a friend, I found a public university with a seemingly awesome curriculum for a Master’s degree in applied communication. The course offerings were phenomenal. I spent eight weeks attempting to get someone to return a phone call or answer an email. I finally received a response by voice mail, staying that “new applicants can apply by March 13, 2013 for the following Fall semester.” This is a moment of truth and a brand burned in my mind for that university and their communications offerings—and in this case, it wasn’t a positive one. This same university last week sent me a survey from a marketing company asking how well their marketing campaign was working. Another university was busy selling me on their PhD program. My neighbor, unbeknownst to me, attended that university. She needed my help in composition for her first course. Seeing her course and the total lack of involvement of the faculty member, I branded that university.

“Moments of truth” define our brands. An enrollment counselor may get the student in the door, but if that student cannot work the classroom, does not have the basic skills needed to pass the class, and has a faculty member that is working from a misguided or negative brand, these issues stand out as moments of truth. Social networking makes many of these brands “viral.”

This brings us to the story of Dell. Michel Dell founded Dell based on giving the customer exactly what he/she wanted, when he/she wanted it, providing more reliable products at a cheaper cost than the competitors. This was the core value of the company from its inception and every marketing effort touted that. According to Bernoff (2008) Dell suffered a major setback in public perception of its customer service as a result of a blogger’s, Jeff Jarvis’, poor customer service experience with Dell. The experience went “viral” and caused Dell to lose its number one spot in customer service, which it still has not regained to this day. Dell now has 700 employees worldwide who monitor the internet and respond to technology forums, social media, chats, bloggers, or anyone else who could interact with Dell in the future.

I do not know any college or university that can staff 700 employees to monitor the internet and put out the positive brand. The alternative is that a massive effort to change must be undertaken if one is serious about creating a brand the represents who or what you want to be known for. Every employee at every level must not only know what the brand is, but be able to see the behaviors exhibited from management at every level throughout the organization. The pivotal importance of “moments of truth” and each employee’s role in creating moments of truth needs to be driven home. Every communication with every employee, student, potential student, and community needs to be in line with your brand.

What do you do about the brands that are already out there? My experience is that if you do the above, create a critical mass, and control the moments of truth, replacing the bad with the good will happen. Yes, on average an individual tells five or more people a negative experience; an individual with a good experience tells maybe one other person. Make turning that around part of your branding strategy. Encourage ratings on your website in areas that impact your brand; reward those who participate by responding with a thank you and addressing any negatives. QVC—the shopping channel— does an amazing job of this on TV. Customers rush upon receipt of a purchase to post the rating on the web. Many retailers are doing so now as well. Personally, I read all reviews of products. I have not seen many on schools.

Universities that spend money on a marketing firm to create a brand, then fail to check on the effectiveness of the marketing program wind up wasting a lot of money.  I am sure the marketing firm did its job; it was one of the “big” firms, but the university must take some responsibility to ensure the marketing plan is succeeding. Since my experience with the university that I described above, I have heard from six others who tried to get in over a period of several months and had no response.

What is your brand? It is being created and reinforced every day.

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