Why I Hate Branding


By William A. Draves, President of LERNcoke

Visiting a west coast program last year the head of the institution called his branding folks the “branding police.”  But institutional branding, contrary to the serve and protect function of real police, often prevent your lifelong learning program from serving, leaving your unit without protection.

Institutional branding policies prohibit good marketing. They inhibit registrations and income. They present the wrong image to many of your audiences. They take away control and authority and make decisions without any understanding of your programs and audiences. They cost you time. They cost you money. And they make life miserable for you and your staff. Other than that…

Here’s why I hate branding:

1. You’re not Coke.

Try taking your branding department’s font and two others and find someone, anyone, who can tell which type font is your institution’s official branding font.

Yes, if you have a national image and your company is on TV every day branding is a big deal. But your institution is not Coke, Google or Amazon.  You’re not close.

Instead of recognizing your institution, we know what makes a bigger difference in registrations for your program is having something your customers want. That’s why you have a different image on the cover of every brochure instead of the same image of your institution.

2. Your customers come last, not first.

The reality behind branding is that the institutional branding department makes decisions without any consideration of your customers.  Let’s not even mention that you serve more than one market or segment, and that each market segment also has needs different from other market segments you serve.  The branding folks can’t deal with that marketing reality.

Let’s pretend you only have one kind of customer.  Try asking the branding guys how a given color, format, phrase, policy or design message is received by your customers.  Your customers come last, not first, in branding.

3. Branding rules have gone wild.

If branding meant a few rules, we could all customize and tailor our marketing to each audience using what you know to be good marketing.

But that’s not the deal.  The deal is that the branding department often creates so many branding rules, policies and procedures that it puts your staff, and your program, in a straight jacket.  There’s no way out, no way to boost registrations and income when you are tied down with a zillion rules.

4. Rules take time and cost money

Most rules take time.  But branding rules also cost your program money. Staff time is money. Promotion is money.  Lost registrations are money.  After you have to follow a few dozen branding rules, the money adds up.

5. Branding costs registrations

The bottom line is that we have yet to see institutional branding increase registrations and income for a lifelong learning or continuing education program.  Show me the data.

Instead, too often we see just the opposite.  At another lifelong learning program last fall I got to see the institutional branding folks’ email copy to people who clicked-through for a continuing education event in October.  Instead of promoting the event, which these potential customers are actually interested in, the branding folks wrote a paragraph of copy telling people they would receive another brochure from the institution in November, and then tried to redirect the recipient’s interest away from the October event to another institutional program.  They got back to the October event in the second paragraph. By that time too many people have lost interest, according to every eMarketing expert who says the first line in an email is the most important.

What to do

If branding at your institution is inhibiting your registrations you can do two things. Firstly, consistently provide your institutional leaders with data and evidence about what works in our field. Secondly, politely ask your institutional leaders to decide whether they want your program to make money, or follow rules.  By doing those two things, then you will serve and protect your program and your customers.

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