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One of the most important insights about branding is borrowed from ecology.

Several years ago, I realized that Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology (“Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.”) applied to branding, too. Brands have a communications ecosystem and, when it’s healthy and effective, “Everything is connected to everything else.”

In the distant past—say 20 years ago—this wasn’t so important. Prospective students seldom saw the alumni magazine, donors rarely perused a viewbook, no one to speak of used college websites, and social media didn’t exist. If these publications didn’t resemble each other—and if the admissions office said one thing, the alumni office another, and the development office something else about their institution—few people would pick up the disconnects.

Fast forward to 2015. Everything’s different. Disrupted.

For brands today, integration across the brand ecosystem is really important. Messages and channels need to be closely connected to each other: what you tweet about should be connected to what you post on Facebook and Instagram and there should be echoes of those messages in your alumni magazine and viewbook. And they should all look as if they belong to the same institution.

The glue that holds everything together is the internet. A .edu website is a click away from anywhere else, and people can land on any page of your site.

What’s a university to do? There are actually many steps you can take.

While you couldn’t use the term “brand” on most college or university campuses outside of a marketing class in 1995, it’s different today. Because institutions understand that it’s important to pay attention to their brand, marketers can be proactive and address disconnects across their brand ecosystem.

Creating an effective messaging strategy that’s tightly integrated with your brand platform is a must. Follow that with communication (and plenty of it) to ensure that the people across campus who are communicating about your institution are well aware of those messages, as well as the nuances appropriate for the audience segment that they’re responsible for communicating with.

It’s essential that your most important communication and marketing channel — I mean, of course, your website — is up to date and managed effectively and that storytelling and user experience there are tightly integrated with your brand platform.

It’s also essential to listen to the conversation that’s going on in the social channels where so many of your institution’s target audiences connect. Prospective students, parents, alumni, friends, donors, members of your local community, faculty, staff, current students, and so many others spend their time in these spaces.

You can’t control what people say on these channels, but you can be aware of the conversations that are occurring. Part of an effective brand messaging strategy is determining how to leverage social content and when and how to take part in conversations others are having there.

It also means paying close attention to what’s going on offline and integrating it, as much as possible, with the web and social content.

None of this is easy, but the more disciplined you are, the more effective you’ll be. The goal is to connect everything in a systematic way, across multiple channels (call it “integrated marketing” if you want to).

This takes time, attention, and sufficient budget. But, as Barry Commoner put it in his fourth law of ecology: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

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