The Right Way to Build a Brand

Work from the inside out.

September 29, 2016

You’re about to build your dream house. Big or small, ultra-modern or uber-traditional… you know what you want. And by some miracle, you’ve been graced with the resources to do it well.

Do you call the painters first? Of course not. You need a design, blueprints, a foundation, a structure, systems. The fixtures and finishes come nearly last. And yet too many of us, when given the rare opportunity to rebrand a institution, start from the outside, with the marketing. The best way—I’d even call it the right way—is to work from the inside out.

Internal communications is the key. It’s not flashy work, and it won’t give your institution instant curb appeal. But if you look past the stereotypes of dull benefits updates, you can use an imaginative internal communications program to help your faculty and leadership build a great academic program—the foundation of any great brand.

Here are a few quick ideas on how to do it well. They’re not a blueprint, just useful rules of thumb:

  1. Show your subs the master plan, and listen to their reactions. In homebuilding it’s important for carpenters and other tradespeople to understand what the finished house should look like. They’re the ones building it. Similarly, on campus you want staff to understand the leadership’s vision. A good internal communications program articulates that vision. It also celebrates milestones and shines a light on emerging challenges. Teresa Valerio Parrot argued very persuasively for that latter point on this blog last September. Be ready to listen, too. Faculty and staff have direct insight into how well things are working, and can identify trouble spots for you early.
  2. Give your institution great “bones.” Your marketing isn’t your program any more than the MLS listing is your dream home. One’s a description of the other, and a little touch-up to the website can’t compensate for real structural weaknesses. Instead, use internal communications channels to highlight your institution’s mission and the areas where investment is needed, to show faculty and staff how they can help strengthen the institution. 
  3. Please don’t make me quote that old cliché about location. Often, faculty and staff aren’t well-versed in how your institution is situated compared to its peer group. Campus presentations and internal newsletters can be effective ways to share benchmarking data and help people understand the competitive neighborhood. As Michael Stoner suggested back in July, include your board, too: the more everyone understands the landscape, the more likely they’ll appreciate (and invest in) your institution’s real and meaningful distinctions.
  4. Use the right tools for the job. There are a variety of options for building a great internal program, including staff e-newsletters, campus events, the aforementioned town halls and public forums, intranets, and emerging social and collaborative tools like Slack. Choose the ones that make sense for your campus. People won’t be shy about telling you what works or doesn’t. Your HR and Staff Council (or equivalent) are great sources of insight—they’ll appreciate how your efforts help them achieve their goals, too. The CASE website also has a number of helpful articles on the hows and whys of internal campus communications, including this one by Matthew Jennings from Middlebury, and another by Larry Lauer, emeritus vice chancellor at Texas Christian University.

Remember: even the best paint job can’t mask shoddy workmanship. In order for you to do your best and most creative brand work, you need your institution to be at its academic best: brilliant teaching, transformative discussion, galvanizing learning experiences inside and outside the classroom. Most marketers don’t have the ability to directly improve our institution’s program, nor should we. But we do have powerful, indirect ways to help faculty and staff do their best work.

If you truly want to build your dream home, build it from the inside. Devote a little attention to internal communications, and you’ll end up with a institution worthy of your best branding work.


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