Branding isn’t an enigma, organizations are

What have I learned in ten years of consulting and writing about branding? That organizations don’t really take differentiation seriously. They certainly want people to see them as leaders, and want the benefits that come with a recognizable brand – but without hassle, without being patient, without looking beyond conventional tactics.  Then, when successful branding is elusive, they have the temerity to wonder why their expectations haven’t been achieved.

This peculiar habit makes organizations more of an enigma than the process itself. Until organizations learn how to command and maintain attention they can’t build defensible, meaningful, and enduring public brands.

There is, of course, a great societal need for learning organizations – universities and museums, for example – to succeed at this task. Traditional media has largely given-in to assumptions that audiences don’t want their thinking challenged – with the attendant result, claims Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason, that speech has been debased “in virtually everything broadcast and podcast.” Society needs a new generation of public intellectuals willing to provide meaningful, high-quality, important ideas.

Universities and museums provide the substantive thinking to raise the bar, so this could be their crucial opportunity to restate their importance, and elevate the basic trust and goodwill that already exists. When people need to be part of a serious conversation, the museum or university should be actively positioning itself as the place to interact with leading ideas. After all, “it is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask,” writes Louis Menand in The Marketplace of Ideas, “investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.”

The bigger question is, perhaps, are these institutions willing to lead and moderate public discussion?  Museums and universities both seem to take their trusted status (some might even say “sacred”) for granted, so many don’t believe in the need to reach out.  Besides, there are often tensions within the institutions inhibiting outreach: university faculty – similarly, museum curators – don’t universally feel they need or want a larger public (neither seem to grasp who butters their bread); marketing, they say, is “not my job.”

Yet there is, perhaps, an even greater institutional need for universities and museums to succeed at effective branding: survival. Both are fundraising organizations that must be able to reach beyond their walls to convince donors the organization has a vision indicating how it will become sustainable. Partly as a result of faculty-curatorial resistance, “too few organizations,” says Michael Kaiser in The Art of the Turnaround, “spend the time or effort in marketing the entire institutional image required to get people excited about supporting” the organization.  Consequently, branding – and, by extension, fundraising – get shunted to the side; the prevailing assumption, Kaiser maintains, is that “charming and professional fundraisers” rather than a dynamic marketing program will provide sufficient returns for the institution.

This is, however, a crucial time for branding at public institutions faced with the contradiction of crushing financial burdens yet tremendous pressure to demonstrate accountability, accessibility, and value. The knee-jerk reaction to money troubles – making cutbacks to marketing – only deprives organizations of the opportunity to know themselves better and to use these insights to boldly reposition themselves.  Failing to experiment and innovate is, says Ken Auletta in Googled, like “committing suicide by neglect” if others are innovating around you.  Instead of believing audiences “should already know us,” or that their existing story is sufficiently interesting, organizations need to be more aggressive about drawing people to new, appropriately-packaged content – especially as the marketplace of ideas proliferates and focusing becomes more of a challenge.

An organization’s survival depends on securing new audiences, holding their attention, and continuing to earn their trust – as opposed to continuing to take it for granted. Organizations successfully building for the future are using substantive communication and media multi-tasking to tie-into the values of an emerging generation.  This is a brand-conscious generation favouring organizations positioned as trusted, credible leaders, and offering access to leading ideas, but this is not a generation content to sit quietly and listen to lectures. Instead, Don Tapscott tells us in Grown-Up Digital, it seeks ongoing connections, community, and interaction; participation, even responsibility.

To enhance reputation, to build and maintain a meaningful brand, learning organizations must refine their approach to outreach: the traditional focus on programming contributes only to the building of ramparts, making it difficult for outsiders to penetrate and understand what’s going on inside.  A strong identity does require programming, but also an equally strong ability to project: according to British author Richard Susskind, who told the Globe and Mail, “Neither marketing nor thought leadership, which increase spontaneous awareness of a firm’s capabilities, can or should be conducted covertly.”

As long as university administrators continue believing publishing’s only value is as a “general service function for higher education,” they will, claims Ithaka’s study University Publishing in a Digital Age, continue to believe “they have more pressing concerns.”  They don’t: the tangible return on a new style of university publishing that promotes the intellectual ambition of the institution has been overlooked. Similarly, as long as museum branding remains mired in blockbuster exhibitions, retail, dining, and architecture they will remain local – even neighbourhood – ventures.

The new leading learning organizations will be those able to widely project their expertise through engaging and informative Web sites featuring blogs, podcasts, ebooks, online magazines, even documentary films – and, yes, traditional books and magazines. A revitalized publishing process that says, in effect, “this is what we do, why we’re good, why we’re different” will be an essential activity recognized for directly advancing crucial institutional needs: brand awareness, evidence of mission achievement, operational choices, faculty recruitment and retention, marketing and fundraising – a true partner in helping achieve a learning organization’s holistic goals, not an add-on.

In other words, a communicating brand enables programming and projecting to work in tandem.  It removes the enigma of branding – which is, I believe, what I set out to write about ten years ago.  Every story needs an ending: thanks for reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: