Dealing with nonconformists: How to get departments and faculties to buy-in to your brand’s visual identity.

In higher education marketing, nothing is black or white. But it should at least be within the same colour palette. As a marketer, you might be familiar (or more likely, fatigued) with the back-and-forth about branding between your institution’s various faculties and departments who need to stand out from the college or university’s branded house (but don’t know how to do it the right way).

You know the ones. Those deviants who go rogue and blithely pick a colour scheme or typography out of left field. Or how about the not-quite-right imagery of a department’s website that doesn’t mesh with the photography anywhere else on the institution’s site?

Whether their deviations from the brand are intentional or not, departments and faculties want to stand apart within your institution’s ecosystem. And that’s fair. From engineering research labs to law schools, each faction of an institution has a different target audience to hook and reel in.

A Higher Ed. Marketer’s Guide to Structuring a Branded House & House of Brands.

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You can’t blame them for needing to differentiate, but you can get them to buy-in to your overall brand guidelines, and teach them how to deviate the right way.

Your graphics and visual identity standards should give everyone under your institution enough flexibility that they can have a voice that is within, and not apart from, the rest of the university. Here’s what that can look like.

There’s enough room to play in the visual identity standards sandbox.

First of all, there should be plenty of room for everyone to play in the visual identity sandbox. From secondary colour palettes to imagery and logos, each department or faculty can draw inspiration from the same visual identity of their institution. And still be different.

Your decided colour palette already lives in your brand guidelines. But a secondary palette maybe isn’t on their radar. It can be a jumping-off point for greater exploration and deeper meaning. Your departments and faculties can approach their own visual identities with creativity and customization without moving out of the brand house.

At the University of Manitoba, the Robson Hall Faculty of Law wanted to establish their own visual identity. During a branding exercise, students and faculty boiled down some of the differentiators they wanted to reflect in their branding. They chose ‘balance’ and ‘trust’ for guiding values, both of which are denoted by the colour blue. This wasn’t an accident. Blue is in the university’s visual lexicon. The blue hues were chosen from the secondary palette, which gave them a distinct character.

Secondary colour palettes are just one example of a multitude of ways a sub-brand can set itself apart. There are extensions for a core logo, a messaging matrix that provides proof points from across disciplines, and typeface families.

If different departments embrace different aspects of the brand identity, such as a secondary palette or typeface families, that’s a good thing. Because you’ve ensured that the colours or typeface they’re using adhere to the overall master brand and complement it. 

But beware. Deviances that appear to go along with the brand guidelines at first glance, but are still a little too creative on a second inspection, you might need to get more buy-in. We’re talking an offbeat orange that doesn’t match any other orange on the given colour palette. Swing and a miss.

Getting buy-in from deviants means educating and listening.

Innocent deviators (or rather, first-time offenders) are probably just uneducated in the standards set by your marketing department. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. When this happens, it’s best to get everyone singing from the same songbook by making sure everyone knows and has access to the graphic standards. 

But if you’re noticing rampant standards abuse, you might have some soloists not interested in harmonizing.

There are a couple of scenarios here. It’s possible these rebels don’t want to buy into the standards, or they could be bored with them. Some nonconformists might believe the guidelines are just too restrictive and they just want to be different. 

Others may feel like their voice isn’t being heard. And there’s your opportunity. 

When building a new tool, visual identity toolkit, or updating your brand standards, get these people in the room. If they’re consulted and see their feedback being heard and addressed, and solved, they’re more likely to embrace the new standards. That’s usually all it takes.

If you’re noticing rampant standards abuse, you might have some soloists not interested in harmonizing.

But if you’re seeing more variations popping up over and over campus, you should take the hint. It probably means that something just isn’t working, and i’s time to go back to the drawing board. Some consensus-building over branding might be on your list.

Good graphic standards don’t just exist for aesthetic reasons. They’re important and integral for your overall brand strategy. If you don’t take pride in the details, it’s harder to expect your stakeholders to take pride in you.

Know when it’s time to make some updates.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The proliferation of digital applications, for example, ushered in a whole new set of considerations for accessibility that didn’t exist a decade ago. 

Things like that are good milestones to use to evolve – or completely update – your standards. 

Higher education always tries to accommodate working for most of us, reducing barriers for everybody. One of the ways you do that is by making sure your materials are actually readable, have audio available when possible, and are just plain easy to read. This even goes as deep as your social media presence. 

Look, your school’s crest is very nice. But as a Twitter avatar? No one can read the Latin motto, and you can’t tell what it’s supposed to be. And that’s a detail in your brand’s architecture that could be overlooked, but is just as important as a bad colour choice. 

Your institution’s brand house is big enough for everyone to have their own room.

Accessibility standards are separate from your graphic standards, yes. But they can’t be forgotten in any brand refresh, update, or re-brand. They affect and benefit everyone. These details matter. 

Your institution’s brand house is big enough for everyone to have their own room. Include your nonconformists in your brand evolution, let them help make the rules, and next time they will know exactly how to break them.

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