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I hate it when people put the word brand in quotes

July 19, 2012

I was reading the Chronicle the other day, and I saw this:

“The University of Virginia needs no “brand enhancement.” Once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost. I suppose university presidents lapse into such language to placate the MBA’s on their boards. But the challenges and duties of private firms do not in any way resemble the challenges or duties of universities. So we must stop using business language to describe universities. It’s not only misguided and inaccurate, but it also sets up bad incentives and standards. The University of Virginia is a wealthy and stable institution, a collection of public services, a space for thought and research, a living museum, a public forum, a stage for athletics competition, and an incubator of dreams and careers. But it’s not a firm, so it’s certainly not a “brand.””

You should read the whole thing, it is a good article on technology in the classroom by Siva Vaidhyanathan. So, the qualifier: even though this paragraph isn’t the point of the article, and I am taking it out of context, I want to address it.

Because it drives me nuts.

“Once you consider a university a “brand,” you have lost” writes Vaidhyanathan.

The next couple of sentences make the point that a University isn’t a business. For reasons that might be clear to readers, I agree that a University isn’t a business. With the exception of a few, the University has a mission that is more than ‘make money’.  Investing in creating smart young people who can think critically and solve problems is a good long market strategy. The results far outweigh the costs.

No, my complaint with the above paragraph is simple: after saying ‘brand’ doesn’t matter in the second sentence, Vaidhyanathan uses the second last sentence to describe the brand.

The University of Virginia is… ”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call the beginning of a definition of the brand. I think the word brand simply means ‘how you’re defined by people”. Even if the brand isn’t in the business of making money, and instead is in the business of making smart people who will pay for my retirement, the way the thing is defined in people’s mind is the brand.

When a brand stops talking in unison about what they are, the terms get defined for them. In UVA’s case, the current brand is defined by the sacking, then re-hiring of the President. So while it is nice to think that the school is “a space for thought and research”, that isn’t the way many people would describe it. Rightly or wrongly, UVA needs to get a coherent message to people on what the school is. And for the record, no school should say it is the “incubator for hopes and dreams.” That is marketing-speak. A school should use alums to showcase the potential of the degree. It should focus on creating critical thinking problem solvers. And it should work on proving that it can create critical thinkers. But we’re getting off-topic.

People are the brand

It’s been said many times, but it is worth repeating: people make up the brand. If a brand promises good customer service in their advertising, but doesn’t train people to deliver good customer service, no amount of marketing will convince people of the promise. If a brand promises outcomes, but doesn’t deliver, then the brand is impacted.

At a University, the way people talk about the school will define the school’s brand. The way the category talks about outcomes will impact brands.

Brand is simply this: what people say when they write My school is….If the brand can’t define it, then people will define it for them. That applies whether the mission is to sell carbonated drinks, or create critical thinking problem solvers.

Stop putting it in quotes, start thinking about how people define it.

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