Branding… dead in the digital era?

Branding: Traditional Campaigns are Dead.

“Branding is dead” is one of the subheads used by Augustine Fou in a recent ClickZ article, “A New Definition of Digital.”

For traditional marketers, that’s pretty scary stuff. Many still don’t accept it.

For more than 15 years, colleges and universities throughout the land have been spending major dollars on efforts to establish or change brand identities. Some have had success. More have not.

Here’s Fou’s point:

    • “Most people’s first impressions of a brand are what they find in search results or what they read from other people in reviews. Hence, branding as we know it is dead.” 
    • And first impressions, like the “curb appeal” impact when searching for a home, are hard to change. 

Yes, Everyone has a Brand

Just about every institution, of course, has a brand identity with someone. And it isn’t all that hard to learn what it is. Just tap people on the shoulder and ask them to tell you what you are. Record the answers. Smile or cringe at the results.

If you enroll traditional students and take the ACT or SAT, checking brand image is even easier. Check the quantity and quality of self-reported test scores.

Why Brand Campaigns Fail in Higher Education: Old Reasons 

Most brand campaigns over the years suffered from two problems:

    • Not enough resources to run the campaign long enough.
    • An impatient, unrealistic expectation that what people think of their “brand” will change significantly with a few months of concentrated advertising.

Before the advent of the digital world, presidents and trustees might at least dream that a stream of one-way messages about the wonders of their university might indeed result in more applications of higher quality, more alumni donations, and more favorable press stories.

Why Brand Campaigns Fail in Higher Education: New Reason

Today, in the digital world, the impact of one-way messages is dead.

People have too many ways to check on any organization or product that might interest them. The online world is filled with RateMyProfessors websites where people can get first-hand information about professors at a university. Yes, some professors are arrogant and selfish, concerned more with their own careers than helping students. 

Fortunately, if you pay close attention to RateMyProfessors, you’ll see that good and great professors outnumber the wicked ones. But you won’t find that in many admissions viewbooks or at many college websites. Bad for the brand image.

We’ve been in the “reality marketing” era for about 10 years. A few places in higher education were early adopters.

    • One of the pioneers in student blogs, Lewis and Clark, names their blog spot “Real Life” and has never feared entries that might not be PR perfect. 
    • Muhlenberg College for at least 12 years has had a web page explaining “The Real Deal on Financial Aid.” If Muhlenberg wants someone special to enroll, that person gets a “preferential” finanacial aid package. Must be true. Says so on the website.

My friend Brian Niles at TargetX campaigns relentlessly for “authenticity” marketing, another way of talking about “reality marketing.” How do you convey authenticity? Trust students to speak about the real experiences of attending their college or university.

Brand in the Digital Era

Let’s get back to Fou:

    • “Start with a true understanding of consumer habits and expectations — digital — and you will quickly find yourself cutting or placing a lower priority on marketing tactics that are one-way, or shout messages at consumers disrespectfully, or hit a ton of people many times (reach and frequency).
    • “Instead, you will gravitate toward techniques that cultivate genuine and open dialogue with customers, where brands humbly listen and learn, and then respond with new features and innovations continuously to better match the needs of the customer.”

In the digital era, your brand depends on your abililty to “match the needs of the customer” and “continuously” change. As Brian says, doing that requires a “revolution” in higher education. It will be interesting to see how quickly that revolution moves along.

That’s all for now.



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