How do you reflect your brand’s personality (when you’re not sure what it is)?

Very few organisations manage to express their brand in a way that excites – or at least so ordinary mortals (ie non-marketers) can relate.

Compared to fields like toothpaste, universities are relatively new to branding. And helping a couple of them with their stories recently got me thinking about one of Sarah McCartney’s posts from a few years ago.

Sarah’s point about clear brand thinking is more relevant than ever. Over to Sarah…

 

A while back I was thinking about giving up the Smoke and heading north, so I had a look at the job sites. (Most of the writing in job ads takes the brand and tone of voice guidelines and tears them to shreds, but more on that another time.) Right up my street – in both senses of the phrase – was a university branding role, and I was pretty sure that I could do all the tasks it listed.

Except one.

‘We expect our staff to act at all times in a manner which reflects the reputation of the university.’

I was intrigued, and there was a number so I gave the chap a call.

‘What exactly does that mean?’

‘Oh well,’ he said, ‘you know…’

I sort of knew, because I’d studied there, but I sort of didn’t. When I was a student there were plenty of staff whose behaviour didn’t really reflect the reputation of the university. Not one bit.

If you don’t know what your brand stands for, how can you tell your people?

We tend to assume that we know what’s expected of us at work, but if no one has thought seriously about the brand – taken the trouble to research what students, parents, recruiters and staff really feel about their brand identity – and no one has written it down clearly, you end up with everyone saying, “Oh well, you know…”

If I’d taken the job, I’d probably have set out on some serious strategy work, getting the tone of voice in place, trying to avoid writing a strapline. (Universities’ straplines are almost invariably useless.) I’m sure I’d have clashed heads with some senior academics who’d have told me, ‘We are not a brand, my dear, we are a seat of learning!’

Because that’s another thing about brands, people don’t always know what one is. Instead of seeing a brand as a useful way of encapsulating what you are and what you do, they see brands as flashy trademarks there merely to influence people of inferior intellect. But if you accept that everything with a name and a public identity can be seen as a brand, then you can see it as a really handy tool to help you with your thinking and planning.

How not to write a strapline

The next thing that goes wrong is that organisations’ brand thinking can be extraordinarily woolly. (‘You know…’) Instead of getting to grips with what really makes them different from the rest they’ll come up with platitudes like:

  • We are outstanding in our field of expertise.
  • Our aim is to achieve greatness.
  • We are number one.
  • We aspire to outperform all our competitors.
  • We are committed to growth over the long and short term.
  • We are the first choice in our market.

Just like everyone else.

And yet, organisations expect their people to reflect their brand identity without ever pinning down what they stand for.

Clear brand thinking

That’s where your clear brand thinking should come in. It’s also why we think your brand writing is so important. If you can’t express what you stand for in words, how can you explain to your staff how they should represent your organisation to the outside world? If the only people who can use your tone of voice are the copywriters you brought in for a quick burst of letter writing, your internal communications will be stuck in the same old groove.

Give it a go. Ask your colleagues how you think they should behave in order to represent your organisation. If you get the answer ‘Oh well, you know…’ it’s time to give it some thought.

What do you think?

If you’ve got a story to tell about woolly brand thinking or straplines that send people to sleep, we’d love to hear it.

And if you’re still pondering the intricacies of brand strategy, check out our article on brand personality.