Higher ed. institutions: Your brand should lead the way in times tumultuous and tame. Higher ed. institutions: Your brand should lead the way in times tumultuous and tame.

Be ready. 

In 2020, Lethbridge College was. When classes were forced online, they were ready. When important events were cancelled, they were ready. And as the ripple effects of 2020 play out, they will undoubtedly remain ready.

That’s because Lethbridge College stands on a solid brand idea. When tumultuous times hit last year, they were prepared to dig in and rise up because they know exactly who they are. They turned to their brand idea, “Be ready”, to help them adapt, respond, and forge ahead.

While 2020 threw everyone a curveball, it revealed something particularly interesting in the higher ed. space: The institutions that best responded to the year’s relentless challenges were those that knew who they were. Their brand identity — who they are — was loud and clear. 

A strong, well-conceived brand isn’t just a tagline on your ad or your website header. Rather, it is the starting position for your response to anything — expected and otherwise. 

Brand idea + brand narrative = your institution’s brand foundation.

In times of uncertainty, your students, faculty, and staff look to you for answers, hope, and a path forward. To confidently lead them requires the careful articulation of your brand’s idea and narrative. Or, in other words, to know exactly who you are and fearlessly express it.

These essential elements — a brand idea and narrative — aren’t ephemeral. On the contrary. They’re enduring. And they should be woven into every fibre of your brand. 

A brand idea is the distillation of something true and foundational that everybody can buy into. And it’s expressed in as few words as possible. Your idea is grounded in, but must transcend, your institution’s core offer.

For example: Be ready

Your brand idea should be a guiding light or North Star that you look to time and again to help you respond to any situation, especially the unforeseen.

A brand narrative allows you to describe yourself and your point of view in detail. There’s no word limit. Ideally, multiple audiences can see themselves reflected in your narrative despite not being explicitly called out. It’s what grounds your brand idea in the real world. 

For example: What happens next matters most.

When you’re armed with a firm brand idea and compelling narrative based on your true identity, your brand can stand at the ready. If done right, the calculated words you choose will be enough to give you a strategic focus on what to do next. 

After all, it’s much easier to respond when you know exactly who you are, right?

Be ready to handle anything by knowing your brand’s identity.

In southern Alberta (Canada), Lethbridge College prepares workers for specific industry opportunities. They aren’t immune to the constantly shifting industry demands. Adaptability is central to who they are.

Beginning in 2017, ED worked with them to define a bold brand idea and narrative that has served them well through times both tumultuous and tame. 

Sparked by the constant ebb and flow of industry needs, their brand idea centred on preparedness, with the brand idea articulated as “Be ready.”

Lethbridge’s narrative, “What happens next matters most” answers why they call their audience to be ready

When the words Be ready and What happens next matters most were woven together, they were almost too prescient for what lay ahead a few short years later. 

When Lethbridge informed students through emails and online about their response and ongoing practices in light of the pandemic, their communications were often anchored by brand language

Higher ed. institutions: Your brand should lead the way in times tumultuous and tame.
Language from the Lethbridge College brand narrative used in their Spring 2021 magazine headline.
Higher ed. institutions: Your brand should lead the way in times tumultuous and tame.
Campaign theme line developed for Lethbridge College used to celebrate their most recent convocation.
Be Ready. It’s a phrase we use a lot around here, but the reason it works so well is because of how true it is. And it has never been more applicable than it is now…
Paula Burns,
President and CEO, Lethbridge College
Introduction from an internal faculty and staff email (May 2021)

Their brand, including these broad statements about preparation in the face of change and opportunity, served as statements of reassurance when they needed them. 

Know who you are to know where you’re going.

Of course, it’s a game changer to have a deep well like a brand idea and narrative to draw from during unexpected times. But it’s equally important to be able to turn to those elements in predictable annual events and normal times. 

The University of Manitoba calls the prairies home, which many tend to think of as cold and flat. But instead of sweeping those perceptions under the rug, the University of Manitoba let us take it and run with it. Their brand idea was crafted to claim “Where you are shapes who you are”, a nod to the inextricable link between place and character. 

The brand idea proved to galvanize messaging for leadership who used it to evocatively celebrate the school’s position as a challenger brand. Their mettle and resolve don’t exist despite their location, but because of it. 

Years after “Where you are shapes who you are” was introduced in advertising (and utilized for recruitment and alumni engagement applications) the University of Manitoba went back to that foundation idea to theme their capital campaign: Front and Centre

That hallmark message, Front and Centre, was conceived as a dual statement about the location of the university (at the geographic centre of North America) and the ambition of the campaign to position them in the ‘front’ position in attracting research investment, as well as student support. 

If “where you are shapes who you are”, then their campaign espoused that “Front and Centre” is where they aspire to be. We were able to use their established brand idea to create a fresh call to action in a future, successful capital fundraising campaign. 

Both of these schools’ brand ideas and narratives were created in consultation with the institutions and their various stakeholders. Now, these institutions have a foothold for years to come through major events both planned and unforeseen.

Just-right words are foundational to your brand. What do yours say?

You either found yourself in one of two scenarios last year: Your milquetoast brand expression exposed the limitations of your branding, or you saw the strength of your brand idea stand and deliver.

It’s safe to say that if your institution couldn’t adequately respond to anything that happened, you’ve got some work to do.

But if you were able to articulate your brand language to reflect your institution’s offerings and vision with what was happening in the real world? Congratulations on your solid foundation. 

In the end, it all comes down to the words you choose to define your brand. Each word that comprises your brand idea and narrative carries a sacred meaning. Together, they can act as a rallying cry, a call to action, or a place to land. 

Need help figuring out who you are and what you’re trying to say? We have the words. And we’re ready to help.

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