Branding is a crucial component of any successful organization. It is not just about creating a logo or a catchy tagline. It is about creating a unique identity that separates your organization from competitors and establishes a connection with customers. In today’s highly competitive environment, a strong brand is essential to thrive and grow.
Institutions of higher education are competing for students, alumni engagement, donors, and more. The college union has competition on campus from libraries, academic buildings, residence halls, and recreation centers, to mention a few. Off campus, college unions must compete with entertainment venues, restaurants, retail stores, and other campuses. Unions are competing for students’ attention and time. To stand out from the competition, the college union must be able to tell its brand story. Data from the college access and equity nonprofit Common Application shows more applicants are vying for spots in the same brand-name schools, where demand rose 24% from 2019 to 2022.
Each person has favorite brands and prefers those over other products. We live in a time when buyers have lots of information and lots of choices. It has not always been that way. This is why branding is becoming increasingly important. The decisions to use a service, buy a product, or do engage in an activity are because we connect to a brand.
Branding is Not Marketing…
“A brand is the sum of the good, the bad, the ugly and the off strategy. It is defined by your best product as well as your worst product. It is defined by award winning advertising as well as god-awful ads that somehow slipped through the cracks, got approved, and not surprisingly, sank into oblivion. It is defined by accomplishments of your best employee—the shining star in the company who can do no wrong—as well as by the mishaps of the worst hire that you ever made,” states Scott Bedbury, former advertising and marketing chief at Nike and Starbucks, in his book “A New Brand World.” “It is also defined by your receptionist and the music your customers are subjected to when placed on hold. For every grand and finely worded public statement by the CEO, the brand is also defined by the derisory customer comments overheard in the hallway or in a chat room on the Internet. Brands are sponges for content, for images, for fleeting feelings. They become psychological concepts held in the mind of the public where they may stay forever. As such, you cannot entirely control a brand. At best, you can only guide and influence it.”
A brand is every part of an organization. The name, packing, price, history, reputation, and physical facilities are all the parts that make up the college union brand. A brand is defined by the impressions and perceptions customers have of the organization and what “promise” the organization has communicated, directly or indirectly, to customers. Branding is what has come before, what is going on right now, and what will happen in the future.
An organization’s brand reflects the “what” and “who” of your organization. Brand identity cannot be fake. The brand of the organization must be authentic. As Gallup culture and change expert Jake Herway puts it: “Approaching your brand promises without deeply understanding your culture, no matter how inspiring and well communicated, can only work for so long. The best brands are authentic to what and who your organization is.” Students can tell when the brand is not real.
Branding is the identity and personality of the organization. Even if you have never used a product of an organization, you have some impression because of the brand. Branding reflects the values of the organization. The experience a person has with your union/center is your brand. No matter how good the graphic elements are or how nice the physical space of the union is, what happens when customers experience your union is the brand. This is what is the most important part of a brand.
While college unions spend a great deal of time branding their facilities with a focus on graphic identity to foster campus pride and tradition, those efforts are only a partial approach to brand development. Branding is not just about logos or slogans—branding is about creating an experience. It is about creating a positive and memorable experience for your customers at every touchpoint. The experience begins when the customer first touches your organization all the way through to the finishing touch and everything in between. Experience is what they anticipate and what they remember. Each experience creates a brand moment for the college union. Experiences are not static; they are dynamic. Not just a transaction; experience is transformation. There are more than features and benefits; experiences give customers reasons to believe in your organization conveying a dramatic difference, an uniqueness that makes your union different from another organization.
Writing in “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore note that great experiences are:
- Revealed over a duration
Consider your favorite brand. What types of experiences have you had with that organization? What did those experiences create? How did those experiences make you feel?
To cultivate a deep and meaningful brand, college unions need to examine the experiences that students, faculty, staff, and guests have at each touch point with the organization. The touch points are where the brand comes alive and is demonstrated to others. Touch points such as:
- Two-Dimensional (graphics and written materials)
- Virtual (websites, social media)
- Face-to-Face (Welcome Desk, office, front-line staff)
- Three-Dimensional (Architecture and interiors)
These all impact how the community observes the brand. It is where the union experience creates the union brand. Each touchpoint can enhance the brand or diminish the brand.
Stories about your brand are about the experiences people have with the union. People want to tell others about their experience. The stories people tell about their Starbucks cup of coffee, purchasing an Apple computer, and riding on a Harley are not just about facts and figures. The stories share the special feelings a person has for the experience with the business. Starbucks, Apple, and Harley-Davidson have strong identities because of the stories people tell about their experiences with their products.
Stories are how our brains remember things, they provide context and connection. Stories create connections and form the foundation for relationships. Stories create emotional responses. Stories allow others to know how we feel. As you think about your favorite brand, what stories do you share with others about that organization?
A good story has six elements:
- Human – Describe so you can see them, empathize with them
- Problem – What is preventing the person’s success now
- Hero/Helper – This would be the staff/donor (the hero!)
- Plan – How exactly will the character be helped
- Ends in Success – Paint a picture of what that looks like
- Avoids Failure – Paint a picture of what could have happened
Good stories touch your heart. It is that emotional connection that makes people feel good about your brand. Stories about the college union share who you are, what you stand for, and why you do what you do. Telling your brand story is essential for building a strong brand.
Every organization has a brand story to tell. It is the origin story of the organization. How people decided to create the organization, the problems encountered, the hero who helped the organization to succeed, the success and avoidance of failure. Every college union has an origin story to tell that is a foundation story of the union brand.
Here are some tips for telling your brand story:
- Be Authentic: Authenticity is crucial to telling your brand story. Your story should be true to who you are and what your brand stands for. Do not try to be something you are not.
- Know Your Audience: To tell your brand story effectively, you need to know your audience. What are their interests, values, and beliefs? By understanding your audience, you can create a story that resonates with them.
- Use Emotion: Emotion is a powerful tool for storytelling. By using emotion, you can create a connection with your audience that goes beyond just your product or service.
- Keep it Simple: Your brand story should be simple and easy to understand. Do not use jargon or complicated language. Keep it straightforward and easy to remember.
- Use Different Channels: Your brand story should be told across different channels, from your website to social media to advertising. By using different channels, you can reach a wider audience and create a consistent message.
The story of your brand begins with the employees in the college union. Customers look into the organization through a window of actions and words from the employees. The staff experience matters if you want a good customer experience. As a recent Gallup survey shows:
Educating employees on the power of experience to deliver the college union brand will empower staff. Fostering staff to examine ways to deliver great experiences to the campus community not only builds the union brand, it motivates staff to perform at a higher level knowing they are making a difference.
- Build and grow their experience
- Inspire extraordinary performance
- Unleash the potential of their workforce
- Develop and retain talent
- Learn, grow, and stretch their skills
- Do meaningful work
- Make a difference
- Find unique expression within organizational boundaries
The college union brand is delivered through the experiences that staff members provide to the campus community. If your brand is not getting traction, work with your staff first instead of trying to create new graphic elements. The experience is delivered by the staff, full-time professionals, part-time staff, student managers—everyone in the union. No matter what the logo looks like or what the tag line says, it is the experience people have with the college union that creates and reinforces the brand. Build the experience, and it will build the brand!