At the recent AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, CMOs gathered for a conversation about brand vs. reputation. There was much good discussion, and the consensus was that, while they are related, brand and reputation are different things. To put it overly simplistically, the sentiment in the room was that:
Your brand is what you manage. Your reputation is what happens to you.
I’ve been thinking about this question of brand vs. reputation a lot since then, and I think there’s a lot of truth in those statements. However, I think it’s a bit more complicated than those statements suggest.
Let’s start with a definition. I define a brand as what you stand for in the minds of people you’re trying to reach, influence, and move to action. Not what you want to stand for. That’s your brand strategy (or brand positioning statement, if you prefer.) Your brand is what you actually stand for.
If you buy into that definition of a brand, then brand and reputation could be exactly the same thing. But that doesn’t feel quite right. So what are the differences between brand and reputation?
- A brand is enduring. Reputation is more temporary, yet it can bolster or diminish the brand over time.
- A higher ed institution’s brand is usually related to typical educational results such as alumni successes, graduation rates or career preparation. Reputation can be influenced by many things, including the experience of its students while on campus. This is particularly true when an institution’s reputation is tarnished by a crisis. (Think about recent events at Mizzou or at other campuses across the country.)
- It’s not possible to completely control the brand, but a brand manager has more control over the brand than his or her institution’s reputation. Brand is largely shaped by paid and owned media, which allows more control over messaging. Reputation is largely affected by earned and social media, which is much more difficult to control.
That said, there are things you can do to not only protect but actually strengthen the brand in times of crisis:
- Make sure that leadership and key communicators are familiar with your institution’s brand language and can comfortably weave key messages into talking points during interviews.
- Develop a strong PR strategy that clarifies how the brand story will be told through media outreach. Weaving clear brand messages into talking points can help strengthen the brand throughout crises and help to ensure that the reputation doesn’t become the brand.
- Develop specific strategies to close the gaps between reputation and desired brand positioning. Market research will tell you the top associations people have with your institution. That’s reputation. It’s just as important to know the associations you want to lose as it is to know the brand you want to build.
A enduring brand can withstand any repetitional issue; however, this requires careful and close management of both brand and reputation so that they become – and stay – synonymous.
Deborah Maue was recently appointed to the newly created position of Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Columbia College Chicago, and is a leading voice in higher education marketing.