Recently, mStoner teamed up with their branding partner BVK to deliver a webinar on Brand Architecture: Building an Enduring Brand. During the session, we shared a six-step roadmap for building your institutional brand:
- Discover: Explore your brand ideal.
- Clarify: Define your position.
- Inspire: Ignite excitement internally.
- Align: Integrate actions from inside out.
- Unleash: Transform brand through deepened relationships.
- Engage: Connect with all audiences.
The most important (and time-consuming!) step is the first one — Discover: Explore your brand ideal.
You accomplish this step when you find the shared space among your audiences’ personal values and your institution’s core values. Achieve this by following these five steps:
Step One: Understand values-based positioning.
While many agencies look to create a point of differentiation for their clients, it’s mStoner’s opinion that few go far enough in the higher education space. Many colleges and universities continue to focus on features and benefits to tell a story, or push location as a point of difference. While this can work, we believe an emotional connection forged from a common value is far more powerful and enduring, with transformative results.
BVK and mStoner recommend taking a values-based approach to positioning.
A value is a guiding principle that we all use in our daily lives; our values reflect a our sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be. Our values trigger our most powerful emotions because they reflect our fundamental choices about who we are and who we want to be.
People have values, and so do organizations. Call to mind some of the world’s most recognizable brands, such as Coke, Dove, or Disney. The brands that are most beloved form a deep and emotional connection with people through values-based positioning. Coke = happiness, Dove = beauty, and Disney = wonder.
Choosing one core human value to leverage in your brand’s positioning will give it new clarity, focus, and meaning. This is the trickiest part, because there are about 500 core human values, according to clinical and academic research.
BVK has found that there are about 75 values from the list that we tend to focus on in higher education. (You can find this list in BVK’s book “The Big Brand Theory,” which is available for download.)
To start homing in, you must leverage the shared space among your audiences’ core human values and the core human value of your college or university.
Step Two: Identify your audiences’ personal values.
To best understand your audiences’ personal values, follow these two guiding principles:
- Tap into past research and/or conduct new deep, qualitative research to study your audiences (current and prospective).
- Strive to understand their emotions, motivations, needs and values.
Your objective is to truly get to know your audiences — what they want, what they stand for, what motivates them, and what inspires them.
Questions to consider:
- What do they want out of life?
- What did they want out of their college or graduate school experience?
- Why did they choose us? What were they hoping to obtain?
- What do our audiences have in common with each other? With the institution?
Step Three: Understand your brand’s core values
Just as you want to understand your audiences in deep and meaningful ways, you also need to understand your organization through conversations with your internal constituents, including senior leaders, faculty, staff, and current students.
Two guiding principles:
- Consider your institution’s origin story. Determine the purpose for which it was originally started.
- Discern your most powerful equities. Go beyond features that all institutions share to some extent. Consider the cornerstones of what makes your institution special in comparison to the competition.
Questions to ponder:
- What was the motivation to open the institution’s doors at its founding?
- What purpose do we serve in people’s lives and society?
- What do we stand for? What do we fundamentally believe?
- What makes us truly unique?
- If the college or university were a person, who would it be? What are the personality traits of the institution?
- If we were gone, what would the world miss? What would people miss?
The purpose of education institutions is the same across the board: to educate. So it’s the how and the why that help us differentiate.
Step Four: Study your competitors.
After completing steps two and three, you’ll likely find a handful of overlapping values on your short list. To narrow your choices, look at the institutions in your competitive set and ask: Where else do your prospective students also frequently apply? To which college or university do you lose the most students? Which institutions do you aspire to be like?
Your institution’s brand must be distinct from these institutions, and you must make sure that your brand value is not the same.
Remember that your selected brand value must work across both the institution at every level and generations so that alumni old and young feel connected.
Step Five: Find the shared space.
Now you’re ready to find the shared space among what your audience values and what core values drive your institution.
Two guiding principles:
- Discern the top overlapping themes among your DNA (core strengths, essence, purpose) and your audiences’ values (needs, motivations, identity).
- Find a space that’s a combination of what’s true to you today, but also is slightly aspirational — giving you something to grow into.
Questions to consider:
- What’s most important to people?
- What can we distinctly offer?
- What do we stand for now? What do we want to stand for?
- What will excite and motivate people, internally and externally?
You may choose to conduct additional qualitative and/or quantitative research on your top overlapping themes to get audience feedback before finalizing your core brand value.
Two Helpful Resources
As mentioned at the start of this post, mStoner’s recent webinar with BVK walked through the six- step road map for building your brand ideal. We encourage you to download the on-demand session to learn more about values-based marketing and how this approach has created incredible success both inside and outside of higher ed.
In addition, I recommend downloading BVK’s book “The Big Brand Theory” to take a closer look at the steps involved with creating a powerful and enduring brand. Inside, BVK describes each step in the branding process.
Each of our institutions has a unique story to tell. By identifying the core human value that captures the essence of your story, you can begin to tell it with clarity, consistency, confidence, and conviction.