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Branding a Schizophrenic

Bob Brock

Funny how many colleges say they’re creating a “brand” that’s aimed at student prospects. Hmmm…what about alumni? And donors, influencers, business leaders, friends, partners, and the public? Can you convey different “brands” to different audiences? Sure, if you’re schizophrenic.

When you look and sound different to different audiences, you don’t really have a brand. More like a split personality.

Brand messages – the definition of who you are and what your stand for – need to be consistent across all audiences. That’s a no-brainer.  Of course, you should match the benefits, outcomes, and proof points to each specific segment you’re addressing, but most marketers understand that the brand drivers can’t keep changing if you want to establish a compelling reputation.

But brand consistency goes beyond messaging. Your unique brand personality should be a constant across audiences, too. That’s a little more nuanced.

Brand personality is the way your brand speaks and behaves. It involves assigning human personality traits to your brand to achieve differentiation. The traits should define a consistent identity through advertising, publications, website, and social networking, as well as through one-to-one “moments of brand truth” when audiences come into personal contact with faculty, staff, alumni, and students.

In higher ed marketing, brand personality is one of the chief ways to differentiate from the competition. It generates emotional responses, associations, and attachments in your audiences’ minds. It builds brand equity, and sets your unique attitude toward education and life.

Apple’s a great example. Their differentiating personality was personified – literally –in an ad campaign featuring the “Apple dude” verbally sparring with a dimwitted, bad-suit-wearing doofus representing PC’s. The Apple personality might be described as:

Apple = young, informal, smart, unpretentious, practical


Here’s another strong and successful brand personality:

Harley Davidson = rugged, macho, independent, powerful, free-spirited


And another:

Nike = young, strong, athletic, competitive, a winner


You might choose slightly different words, but the consensus would be a consistent set of personality traits, I think.

These brand personalities don’t change for different audience segments. In the higher education arena, it’s damaging to try to convey one personality to students and a different one for everyone else. Remember how silly Drake looked by launching the “edgy” D+ admissions campaign? No one seriously thinks Drake is edgy.

But to stay true to a brand personality, you have to define one first. Here are some character traits that have surfaced as we’ve built brand personalities for a variety of institutions. It’s fun to try to pick the traits that would describe a well-rounded personality for your institution. Which four of these would you choose (this isn’t a definitive list…go ahead and create your own)?

Young Traditional
Hardworking Easy-going
Sophisticated Informal
Fun-loving Serious
Businesslike Friendly
Creative Practical
Authentic Innovative
Supportive Independent
Aggressive Laid-back
Energetic Smart
Dedicated Casual

The process we like to use in developing brand personality traits is to survey faculty, staff, and students on a list like the one above, to understand how the institution is currently being perceived. Then we match the desired personality traits with the leadership vision for where the institution is heading, and arrive at three-to-five personality characteristics that are both true to life and will also help the organization achieve its vision.

Then we build those personality traits directly into the brand platform and express them through advertising, publications, and the website, and make them integral part of staff training in the brand.

Try it!

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