How your brand can lead the change your higher ed. organization is looking for.

Organizational change is one of the biggest challenges faced by higher education institutions. Today, the pace of change brought on by factors such as technology disruption, social unrest and climate evolution has meant that organizational change management is a constant priority.

Sweeping organizational change is a challenge in any large organization. But when you consider that universities and colleges cannot make the same kind of rapid transformation the private sector can — by replacing current staff with new, more appropriately-skilled individuals, for example — the difficulties are magnified significantly. 

Further, power centres — the authority to follow or resist — are generally more broadly distributed in higher education than in the corporate world. Deans, department heads, research chairs and tenured faculty often have autonomy to essentially go their own way in many instances, leaving administrative and marketing leaders frustrated at the pace of change or lack thereof. 

Turning the ship requires a strategy that inspires and unites stakeholders at every level to actively align and move in the right direction. We’ve faced this challenge several times and would like to share some insight on how we have helped clients steer their ship to a new destination.

Universities and colleges face severe restrictions when initiating and implementing significant organizational change.

Organizational change is necessary for many reasons, but here are the ones we most commonly see:

  • Growth is happening quickly and culture is changing, too.
  • Two or more organizations have amalgamated, each with its own culture.
  • Over time, individual divisions within an organization have developed unique and divergent cultures that no longer align with the strategic plan.
  • Business units might actually have their own visual identity and brand standards that are not recognizable as part of the parent brand.
  • Societal norms may have shifted and the brand representation becomes inappropriate.

Our work in higher education often uncovers areas where there are operational issues that cause cultural challenges with the institution. Frequently, there’s competition between faculties for funding or students. Faculties often have their own marketing budgets and are eager to stand out from the institutional brand or other faculties. And cultural norms and the importance of inclusion and, in Canada, Indigenization, have made the heraldic nature of most universities’ identities inappropriate at best.

Communication is a critical piece of change management. You need to make the case for change, create a sense of urgency, paint a picture of what the journey will be like and what the final destination will be. 

Your brand can and should be leveraged to lead transformational change, and can work effectively to energize your stakeholders, employees, alumni and future alumni to not just come along for the ride, but play an important role in building the destination.

There are three key elements of your brand that will help implement your higher education change management strategy:

  1. The big idea that anchors your brand.
  2. The stories you tell about yourselves and your communities.
  3. The pictures you paint to enhance those stories.

Your big idea – the foundation your higher ed. brand is built on.

The BIG IDEA has been revered and sought after by advertising creatives since the 1960s. It’s fallen into a bit of disrepute lately as marketers stampede toward data and tactics; many of them have left ideas in the dust, thinking that they are no longer necessary. But even if you’re a data-driven marketer, you truly can’t make a difference without a great idea behind your brand and your marketing campaigns.

At ED, research-based and insight-driven ideas are the core value of our business. Combined with the right delivery mechanism, a big idea is critical in aligning your organization towards change. In fact, I’ve seen multiple cultural or organizational change initiatives fall short because the idea at the centre of the brand fails to excite stakeholders. 

We’ve written extensively about how to arrive at this idea. If you haven’t checked it out already, please read this article.

Stories – the importance and impact of a brand narrative for colleges and universities.

Stories are the most important part of your brand. That’s always where we start in our development process. Often there’s no need whatsoever to change your visual identity (not always though – more on that later).

But we don’t start by just sitting down and writing. We start with a comprehensive understanding of your strategy and vision. Then we talk to people and get them to tell us their stories about the institution. Sometimes we talk to a few people; most often we talk to large groups.

Brand stories are an important part of our methodology, and possibly the most important starting point for organizational change. 

Visuals that don’t have a supporting story are simply window dressing.

A good brand story is often the “ah-ha” moment in the branding process. Done properly, it grows organically out of the discovery, research, consultation and insight stages. The brand story weaves these findings into an inspiring, evocative narrative that unites and inspires internal audiences. It presents itself and feels like a self-evident truth you always knew but couldn’t articulate.

Our work with the University of Manitoba shows just how powerful a story can be in realigning an organizational culture. When we were engaged, the university’s communications palette was fairly decentralized. It wasn’t for lack of effort – it was just that besides a visual identity standards guide, there wasn’t something central for faculties and departments to buy into. So, each entity within the school tried to fill that gap themselves, resulting in a fragmented voice in the market.

The Trailblazer narrative helped fix that. So much so, that in the months that followed the introduction of the initial campaign, the challenge of fragmented communications was replaced by a challenge to fulfill demand of aligned marketing materials. The institutional marketing team at the time (comprised of three or four people within a public affairs department), were inundated with requests from faculties asking how they could use the story in their own communications. And that inevitably prompted another change – the creation of a 40+ plus person marketing department to fulfill that internal demand and to consistently tell a single story across dozens of units.

You can read more about the power of story in this case study on the U of M Trailblazer campaign.

The picture you paint – the crucial role of a higher ed. visual brand expression.

There are many aspects to developing an effective and evocative visual brand expression. The right look and feel for your branded communication materials can either make the message more effective, or erode the impact of an inspiring brand story.

Colour, typography, imagery all need to fit the voice that you’ve decided on in your story. We take great care crafting the design, and the look and feel, to ensure that your story is being told in the most powerful way.

Cultural norms and the importance of inclusion and, in Canada, Indigenization, have made the heraldic nature of most universities’ identities inappropriate at best.

A critical part of your brand is your visual identity and your logo. I’m going to argue that the vast majority of universities and colleges need to reevaluate their logo design to be more reflective of inclusion. This is particularly true in Canada where reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is an ongoing and challenging process for higher education, and society in general. Around the world, symbols of hate and racism are being actively identified and rightly removed from places of prominence. It’s time we looked at that in higher education and did the right thing.

The heraldic crest is a vestige of colonialism, and a symbol of conquerors. Despite being almost ubiquitous among higher ed. institutions, and despite many people feeling that these crests instantly say “tradition and learning”, there’s a sizeable population of students and educators for whom it carries a drastically different message. One that’s not inclusive or respectful.

That perspective that was solidified for us when rebranding the University of Manitoba. In consulting with more than 7,000 people – faculty, alumni, students, and administrators – we initially did not hear an outcry to replace the existing logo. But as the discussions unfolded, and people heard others’ perspectives on what it and the symbols within it meant to them, people invariably came to the same conclusion: If the logo was a deterrent to any learner seeing the university as an inclusive institution, then the logo wasn’t working.

When we revisited the visual identity system in response to this feedback, the inclusion of Indigenous stories and design principles had a massive impact on both the brand story and the visual identity

Your higher ed. brand is where visuals and story intersect with experience.

Together, your stories and visuals become the way of sharing the experience your institution delivers – and in some cases, the experience you aspire to deliver. One of the most frequently-cited challenges with any change initiative is how you go from describing change, to activating it. By crafting with care, your brand’s visuals and messages can literally show people the path you’re taking, and guide them on the journey.

Weaving story and visuals together is the key to a powerful higher education brand.

For higher ed. institutions, a brand’s potential as a change agent should not be overlooked. It helps you tell your story powerfully and look your best while doing it. The key to our success in helping higher education institutions ‘be the change they want to see in the world‘ is our ability to weave a powerful and evocative story into an exciting and relevant visual presentation. We’d love to help you do that.

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