Brand Higher Education Marketing

“This branding stuff is stupid.”

By Sean Carton \ November 11, 2021

We pride ourselves in our relentless quest to find the nugget of insight from which an arresting, authentic, and memorable brand is hatched. Along the way we always run into skeptics–clients that don’t believe in brand or its power. Several years ago while in the throes of a brand qualitative research study, we ran into a client who couldn’t have been more clear bout how he felt as he decreed, “This branding stuff is stupid.” In time, our research-based and methodical process converted this brand obstructionist into a brand champion.

Branding is not about altering reality, it’s about owning it.

Brand nonbelievers are everywhere. And for good reason. There are plenty of hacks out there bending reality to fit what they want the brand to be. But branding is not about altering reality, it’s about owning it. And when you do so well and constantly, the brand itself becomes a force of nature. 

Case and point

One of the best illustrations of the power of a brand came to us recently, not in a case study or conference presentation, but by way of Apple TV’s new science fiction series “Invasion.” In the first episode, frantic mother Aneesha Malik arrives at the pediatrician’s office with her two children, one of whom just suffered an inexplicable nose bleed with the rest of her class except for her brother, who just as inexplicably was the only one not afflicted with a bloody nose. There’s no indication of the cause of this sudden outbreak, but the experts are suspecting toxic chemicals.

As the scene opens, the doctor walks in and Malik explains that she performed a complex-sounding medical procedure on her children during the car ride over. The doctor asks, with equal parts concern and condescension, “Are you a doctor?” Malik haltingly replies that, well, she is (sort of): “I … no … Well … yes. I went to medical school.” “Oh?” the doctor replies, his condescension intensifying, “Where did you go to medical school?” Malik defiantly looks the doctor in the eye and answers “Harvard. You?” “Ummm,” he stammers, “Hofstra.”

That brief scene illustrates the power of brand — university brands, specifically — better than any business book we’ve ever read does. By telling the doctor — who could barely contain his lack of respect for her — that she had an M.D, from Harvard, not only did Malik establish her bona fides in an instant, but she also communicated an enormous amount of information about her character to the audience as well. By uttering one word, she established that she’s a smart, resourceful, learned, and capable woman, one who may have sacrificed a brilliant career as a physician or researcher for her children. On the other hand, the doctor, portrayed as somewhat of a condescending jerk, comes off as an even bigger jerk as soon as he mumbles “Hofstra.” The audience instantly is aware that, while he may be a competent physician, he is definitely not intellectually superior to Malik. It’s not that his medical school has a bad reputation, but even if a viewer is unfamiliar with the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University, they certainly know that Hofstra is no Harvard.

All of this takes place in just a few moments of screen time, but those few moments convey an enormous amount of information because of the power of the Harvard brand. When Malik reveals that she has a medical degree from Harvard, all the characteristics of the Harvard brand transfer to her character. It’s a brand so strong and so recognizable that the show’s writers could be confident in knowing that even viewers not fortunate enough to be higher education marketers would recognize it and appreciate what it means for someone to have graduated from Harvard Medical School. One word communicates volumes of information and — just as importantly — positive emotions so effortlessly that it almost seems like a magical incantation.

Here’s another brand takeaway from the scene:  the word “Harvard” means nothing in and of itself. It doesn’t describe where the school is located, what goes on there, or how we should think about it. It’s a blank canvas that only means anything because of all the knowledge we’ve accrued about the institution. Just that one word — a word not accompanied by colors or taglines or logos — is all we need to hear. The word “Harvard,” like all iconic brands, means nothing but signifies everything.

And so…

“Brand” is one of those words that we all use on a regular basis in some very inconsistent and often confusing ways. To some, “brand” means a mark or a visual representation of a company or organization — in other words, a logo. To others, it is the ineffable feeling that you get when you come into contact with a company or organization. A “brand” is what we feel. Other folks regard “brand” as a verb, as something that has to do with building awareness or recognition of a product or organization. 

The reality is that none of these are completely right. “Branding” isn’t something you just do on a whim: it’s a comprehensive and measured process that demands clarity of insight and intent. 

And this stuff can’t be faked.

 

Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.