Branding and symbolism

According to wikipedia’s definition:

“A symbol is a mark, sign or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences. All communication (and data processing) is achieved through the use of symbols.

Symbols are the basis of all human understanding and serve as vehicles of conception for all human knowledge. Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live, thus serving as the grounds upon which we make judgments.”

Let’s just think about this for a moment.

ALL communication is achieved by the use of symbols.

Symbols facilitate understanding of the world in which we live and are the grounds upon which we make judgements.

In other worlds, we see the world in terms of symbols and communicate our understanding of the world through symbols.

More than that, they enable us to make connections and carry concepts across boundaries – a lion as a symbol of strength, for instance, or the colour red as danger or passion, a flower for growth and so on – and symbols speak to us at a deep, philosophical level.

This is of fundamental importance to the role of brands.

What the truly successful brand does is create a universe of symbols around itself which speak to its purpose, its vision and its promise to customers.

These are deeply important in people’s perceptions and create a “drawer in the mind” which contains all the symbolic signals they have received about you – from your logo, to colours, to tone of voice, to advertising messages to how you respond to enquiries and so on and so on.

Right back in the early days, a “brand” was a symbol on cattle which reflected the ranch they came from. Over time, that symbol also came to represent what people thought of that rancher – was he reliable, was he honest – and that symbol could be projected through communications to build reputation and attract people.

If we see the world around us in symbols, and if we use symbols to facilitate understanding, it follows that perception is everything and everything is perception.

Everything you do, everything you say and everything you use in communications must be consistent, it must say something about you and your company and – above all – it must be honest and reward our interaction with you.

Symbols are about trust.

So the next time you are considering a “brand refresh” or a logo change or a change to how customers access your services, be aware of the depth of your brand and the conscious and unconscious impressions you will be attempting to re-engineer.

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The product – the forgotten dimension of University branding

I have been involved with many conversations about branding with different Universities, most of which revolve around Institutional values and mission and brand architecture/sub-brands. Where the “product” is mentioned, it tends to be at a faculty or course level in a recruitment context rather than as an integral part of the University brand offering – why are we here, what do we offer and why do we offer it?
Kotler’s model of the dimensions of the product is well known and consists of:
Core Benefit – This is the basic level that represents the heart of the product. Here, the focus is on the purpose for which the product is intended. It answers the question ‘What is the buyer really buying?
Tangible Product – The tangible product is the physical product or service offered to consumers. This represents all the characteristics of the product like quality, features, design, brand name, packaging, etc.
Expected Product – Following on from the tangible product, this is a set of attributes and conditions buyers would normally expect when purchasing the product.
Augmented Product – These are additional customer services and benefits such as warranty’s etc. and are very important for a firm operating in a competitive market.
Potential product – finally, this represents how the product could evolve in response to technological changes or changing consumer requirements.
Looking at Universities with this model in mind can help illuminate the nature of the product they offer and how it should underpin any discussions about brand and positioning.
For instance, up until the 1992 education act which transformed the former polytechnics into “New” Universities, Kotler’s model as applied to a University would have said:
The core benefit was about getting a degree as a marker of having achieved a certain level of education, but without necessarily having an expectation or link to getting a specific job (outside areas such as medicine or the Law)
The tangible product was therefore a teaching and learning process leading to a certificate of having achieved that degree, along with the grade achieved. At a time when only about 10% of the population went to University, this was enough to take graduates into good positions with large companies via the so called “milk-round”
The expected product was all about teaching and learning and the facilities to do so. There was relatively little expectation about career content or skills development.
In terms of augmented product, Universities attempted to enhance their offer through sports and learning facilities, access to distinguished academics and networks of alumni.
Finally, the potential product took into account changes to technology in terms of teaching and research, but did not anticipate fundamental changes to the academic model i.e. a three year degree and a follow-on post-graduate qualification.
In this environment “brand” related to Institutional reputation as a whole – a “degree from Oxford” or whatever – was as important as reputation for a specific area of study.
This product model has fundamentally changed over the last 15 years under the impact of fees and needs to be explored within the context of developing an institutional brand strategy.
If we look at Kotler again:
Core benefit – not only about getting a degree as a marker of having achieved a certain level of education, but now also expectations around the degree leading to a specific job or employment opportunities. This has changed the dynamic around what a degree (and therefore the University) is for – it’s about employability
Tangible product – similarly, the tangible product is still about a teaching and learning process leading to a certificate of having achieved a degree, but now also includes a requirement for employer contact, some kind of work experience, and projects
Expected product – Now includes not only Teaching and learning facilities, but work experience built into the course, and academics with experience of industry etc. and links to major employers
Augmented product – under the impact of fees, Universities are looking at ways to augment the product with facilities, new buildings, improved accommodation and also the opportunity to work with employers
Finally, in terms of the potential product, there are discussions about virtual learning, shorter degree courses, degree apprenticeships etc. but the fundamental product has not really changed and is very robust.
What does all this tell us?
It is clear that aspects of the expected and augmented product have moved into the core product. It is not just about the degree but also the need to include work experience, connections to employers and degree courses which meet their needs along with those of the student.
It also brings into question who is the customer for University degrees? There are a number of stakeholders including students who are paying for the product, organisations who are employing graduates and government who are focusing on the skills agenda.
Indeed, the “product” of today’s Universities could be said to be employable graduates, not the degree course per se.
The key issue is that the dynamic of Higher Education has changed such that Universities are now seen as engines of economic development, growth and employability. In many ways, we have gone “back to the future” where Universities are being encouraged by the market and government to adopt a model not dissimilar form the polytechnics i.e. practical degrees and supporting skills and employer engagement leading to graduates well-equipped to enter the world of work.
The post-92 Universities have a remarkable consistency with that vision and they need to recognise that heritage and strength.
Given the potential product now has to include economic, wealth and societal benefits as well as academic achievement, it is clear the delivery of Higher Education has to adapt. The three year degree and post-graduate qualification has been very resilient and resistant to change.
But the future product must take account of employer needs and involvement in content; shorter more focused degrees; virtual learning and the role of technology; a real commitment to degree apprenticeships and different modes of study including sandwich courses.
Should we be talking about 21st century polytechnics?

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5 step brand strategy template

“Brands exist because they make choice easier, more certain and more rewarding.”

Naomi Klein No Logo

 A brand is the most important asset to any company. A good brand strategy template not only articulates what the company offers and allows clear and consistent messages, it also acts as a rallying point for staff and improves engagement.

The best definition I have seen of a brand  is:

A brand is far more than a logo – it is a promise kept.

Any successful branding process will take a “deep dive” into the organisation and ask some searching questions about what it is and what it does.

There are many different models for developing a brand strategy – my preference is to structure it around the following topics and questions:

Brand Vision

What type of organisation do we want to be? What are we in business for? This is perhaps the most difficult part of the process and is about the “Why”

Why should customers want to engage with you?

In today’s market place, some of the most successful companies are those with a clear value proposition, a raison d’etre. Whether it is Apple with its core values of we want to think differently, challenge convention and work for consumers or Nike everyone can be a hero and achieve their goals, offering customers the  “why” is the most powerful part of your brand strategy

Brand Values

It’s about how we behave and what we hold dear

This is important both to your customers and staff: following on from your vision, the values reflect how you will do things and the way the organisation (and staff) responds to customers.

To go back to the Nike example, their values are about exercise being fun and about everyone reaching their potential or Apple thinking differently and challenging convention.

Virgin values are about fun, Value for Money, challenging convention

So what are the core values in the business which will help deliver your vision?

Brand Positioning

At this stage, we are looking at how we would like customers to feel about us and how can we benefit them. So the next step is to articulate the brand in two parts – brand essence and proposition.

The brand essence takes all the work done so far and articulates in a few words the core of who you are and how you benefit customers.

Think of Nike “everyone can be a hero and achieve their goals” or Virgin “challenge perception”.

This leads to a proposition which is the offer you are making to customers. Think of it as the corner of their mind you want to occupy. When they think of your brand, what immediately comes to mind?

Nike’s proposition is “if you have a body, you’re an athlete”

Virgin’s Proposition is “Don’t just play the game, change it for good”

These simple statements can be given to communications agencies to develop powerful brand messages. Tesco’s proposition “no one tries harder for their customers” led to the incredibly successful “Every little helps”

Brand Strengths

What are the strengths the brand has or will need to deliver the vision?

Here we need to carry out SWOT analysis, look at customer perceptions, carry out competitor audits and examine our operations.

Are we in a position to deliver the brand and the promise we have articulated? What do we need to change or improve in order to do so?

Brand Personality

Only after we have done the previous steps can we turn our attention to the visible brand identity – the feel, tone of voice and corporate identity.

The brand personality concerns the overall image of a business in the minds of its stakeholders and has three  components: Design (logos, colours); Communication (advertising, Public Relations) and behaviours (Personality, Values, Mission )

These need to be based on the proposition and values and presented coherently and consistently.

To sum it all up, I have a simple formula which is credibility+visibility= profitability.

This is the essence of a good brand strategy.

Good luck!

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When bad drives out good – reflections on Oxfam


The torrid situation at Oxfam has been well documented and played out in the full glare of International media attention.

I don’t want to comment on how Oxfam got into this situation, but rather focus on some of the issues it raises for all organisations.

The first issue is – as the title says above – bad drives out good. No matter how well an organisation performs or the good it has done in the past, when something bad happens that good work carries very little capital.  The good is forgotten and driven out by the bad.

Conversely, the bad stays with them and can take an awfully long time to overcome. It’s called crawl out cost – what is it going to take to get back to a position of trust and investor confidence.

Look at BP. The crisis in the gulf not only brought the company to its knees, but destroyed its reputation and the cost of the clean-up is only one aspect of what will be a long and painful crawl out.

The other day I was in conversation when the subject of Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill came up. I mentioned how powerful I thought it was and asked my colleague if he’d seen it.

“No,” was the reply. “And I’m not going to.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, he wasn’t a very nice man, was he?”

So the perception of Churchill before the war in this person’s mind completely outweighed his success in the war years, even to the extent of not wanting to see a possibly Oscar winning performance.

Another issue raised by the Oxfam story is why do organisations to go off the rails?

My first question is – who/what are these “organisations?” When commentators say on TV that business needs certainty and business won’t be happy with decisions, I wonder where these “businesses” are, what exactly are they?

Margaret Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society” and was criticised for being heartless. But what she meant was that there is no such thing as an amorphous thing called “Society”. When things go wrong, it’s all too easy to say it’s society’s fault but we can’t because there is no such entity.

What she was trying to say is that society is made up of individuals, families and groups and we all have a stake in, and a responsibility for, what happens around us.

It’s the same in organisations.

How many times do outcomes get blamed on “the Organisation” or “The Corporation” as if somehow there is this entity outside human control which is making all the decisions?

Oganisations, like society, are made up of people and the people working there have a responsibility to do the best job they can and improve performance. No one (well, most of us) goes to work to hurt people or to rip people off or to exploit people.

So what happens? In many cases, senior management become remote from the day to day and remote from their work force. They lose sight of what it’s all for, what they are there to do.

They lose sight of their values in the complexity around them, or they start to believe the end justifies the means (such as making a profit).

So the lessons from Oxfam I would recommend to all senior management teams are:

  • Bad drives out good – you can lose your reputation overnight and it takes decades to get it back
  • Organisations don’t exist as separate entities making decisions – people do that and management must take responsibility for decisions good or bad.
  • Values are what make organisations and are the reasons why people want to work there and engage with them. Don’t compromise on your values.
  • And most of all, listen to your staff and your customers – it’s why you are in business.
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The limitations of reason – lessons for marketers.

I was reading an article recently in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert (Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds – New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.) which had some fascinating insights into how people think.

The article quotes a number of experiments at Stanford and elsewhere looking at  how people form their views, the role of peer pressure in their thinking and how reason and evidence don’t always come into the decisions we make.

A number of observations stand out:

Firstly, “Once formed,” the researchers observed, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted.

Secondly, the article asks us to consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.”

In this experiment, students were asked to respond to two studies about capital punishment. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favour of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

Thirdly, researchers see an effect which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do

“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” two of the researchers write. “And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views.”

So reason is not what we thought it was. It seems to be much more about our social interactions and social standing than it is about objectivity and factual evidence. It is often about being right in the sense of being able to win an argument, rather than being “right” in terms of objective facts.

People use “reason” to reinforce beliefs and confirm their opinions, and then this bias becomes deep seated and difficult to shift.

There are lessons here for marketers and anyone involved in developing successful brands. For instance, to what extent do we use market research to truly uncover new insights, or to what extent do we use it to confirm existing opinions and prejudices in our marketing strategy?

The experiments also reveal the importance of creating the right “first impression” and to recognise that, once formed, opinions about brands will be difficult to change and information will be filtered depending on how individual consumers perceive them.

It also speaks to the power of social media and confirmation bias when numbers of people come together to agree on a point of view and filter out any conflicting evidence.

People are not as rational as they would like to believe – and that is why Marketing has always been an art, not a science.

Full article:

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Who are you? Branding in Higher education

Well, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

Tell me, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

‘Cause I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

  • Pete Townsend

University marketing has been in the news again recently following the ASA reviewing University advertising and telling some Universities to change their messages to avoid misleading claims.

The majority of challenges have been about University’s messaging on their positions in rankings, awards and comparison tables.

The ASA has now issued guidelines to Universities to provide more robust data and be sure they can back up any claims with solid evidence.

Of course, this brings them into line with the commercial sector and is another example of how Universities are being seen as commercial operations as much as teaching and research institutions.

This brings me to the second interesting development which was the recent report into University branding published recently by SMRS (branding in higher education: an inside view – November 2107)

This report highlighted the importance of branding to senior management given the competitive market and changing external environment.  Apparently, 94% think branding in HE will become more important in the next 3 years and 60% of institutions identified internal understanding of brand as a key challenge.

For me, the most interesting challenge was that Differentiation remains  the top aspect of branding that respondents feel is ‘very important’ to the ongoing success of universities today (60% in 2017 and 57% in 2016) and that internal understanding of the brand is one of the main brand challenges.

What are we to make of all this?

Firstly, Universities are businesses and must look at their marketing and advertising in the same way as any commercial business. It would not be acceptable for a commercial business to claim they were in the “top 10” or “top 1%” or to claim some kind of uniqueness without being able to support it with evidence.

Secondly, it shows Universities are still struggling to articulate a clear proposition which differentiates them in a crowded market. The emphasis University management puts on differentiation in the SMRS report shows this longing for clear blue water.

Finally, the importance of an internal understanding of the brand so that staff and students recognise the importance of delivery to the brand and the customer experience.

Where does this leave us?

It is incredibly hard for Universities to differentiate themselves – they all do research, they all teach, they all work with business etc.

It is also hard for them to say they offer a significantly different or better “product” as commercial companies do – stronger, more powerful, more features, unique technology type claims are very difficult and they can’t really compete on price without an open market.

This is why they are led to making claims about their position in league tables or indices like TEF.

I would argue that it is more important than ever for Universities need to think about the values, the personality and the vision of their brands – why they are there and what they are trying to achieve. This is as important to the staff as it is to prospective clients. These intangibles then need to be backed up with stories illustrating who they are, but these stories need to be evidenced and believable or they will damage the brand.

I have a simple formula which is:

Credibility + visibility = profitability.

Universities need to take a long hard look at who they are, what they do and why they do it and then tell people internally and externally in an engaging and believable way.

There is no easy answer, and sometimes it might have to be the case as with AVIS – we’re number two but we try harder.

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Marketing, PR and internal communications – specialist disciplines or not?

There has been much discussion of late about the different roles of marketing, PR and internal communications. Some people regard them as separate disciplines with different audiences and objectives – reputation management, brand-building, employee relations, and so on.

With that debate comes the usual problems of organisational boundaries and politics as to who owns what function (and budgets!)

I think we need to go back to first principles and start with the brand.

The brand is vitally important in every organisation – consumer, B2B, not-for-profit, charity, public sector, academic – but it is often ill-defined and its power misunderstood.

For my part, I see internal communications, PR, reputation, and marketing all as a sub-set of the brand strategy.

If by “brand” we mean a promise kept, then your employees are clearly brand ambassadors who need to deliver the values of the organisation. This needs effective internal communications about who you are, what you stand for, and how you want customers to perceive the organisation. Internal communications is an integrated part of the whole – effective delivery of the brand.

Of course, the cultivation of brand ambassadors is not the sole responsibility of any one function. Organisations should be developing effective leaders who are fully conversant with the purpose, vision and values of the organisation, and whose behaviours exemplify those values.

All employees need to live the brand.

Employees aren’t a homogenous mass, nor are they different in attitude and motivation from any other audience.

An effective communications strategy – internal and external – starts with the brand vision, values and proposition and tailors messages to all audiences accordingly.

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An avalanche is coming

Fantastic quote from the latest Institute for public policy research report “An avalanche is coming – Higher education and the revolution ahead”

“Another implication of an era where access is free is that a brand matters, perhaps sometimes more than the accredited degree itself. In a world where employers make snap judgments to prioritise candidates, students will need every advantage to get ahead. Thus the signalling power of the university degree as determined by the strength of its brand will prove of great value to the student.”

Another example of the changing mind set required by UK Universities under the impact of commercialisation and global markets

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