Building Brand Through Narrative

How a story is told reinforces your community’s relationship with your institution.

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”Seth Godin, 2009

Often when we think of brands, we immediately go to the big consumer names. My mind goes to Nike, Apple, and Target. But what if that brand is your private school, college, or university? When that “consumer” is your alumni, parent, or student community, how do you connect with each in order to build your brand? You share “memories, stories, and relationships” from your community.

In a recent conversation with Ali McNichols, Director of Brand Content, Marketing and Communications at Purdue University she shared, “People can go to college anywhere these days. There are hundreds of universities in the U.S. alone. You could go anywhere, why would you want to go to Purdue? What is so special? What is it about this story that makes it special to Purdue and unique to Purdue?”

To effectively engage their audiences, Purdue launched “Branding Our Next Giant Step” a new brand focused on storytelling. The initiative includes The Persistent Pursuit, a digital storytelling platform featuring the people of Purdue. These stories—and all of their communications—are clearly branded with the school's colors and fonts. “With a story this momentous, it’s up to each of us to share it in an equally impressive way,” McNichols says. 

But it is more than pairing the story to the school’s identity, it is also the way in which the story is visually interpreted. Just as writers are selected for particular stories and guided on voice and tone, visual styles need to be defined. When 2communiqué is working on a rebrand, we make direction for illustration and photography an important aspect of the guidelines. Defining a clear direction (i.e. candid vs. portrait photography) helps to ensure the school’s people and places are being represented in a unique way.

Collaboration with university photographers and videographers is equally important. As a part of the storytelling team, their understanding of the story’s theme and goals helps provide clarity and strengthens the narrative. This connection simply cannot be accomplished when photography and video are approached as assignment tasks versus a collaborative effort.

Communication and direction are also crucial when working with off-campus partners. Just as with an in-house team, freelance photographers need to understand the brand to capture the subject or story in a way that aligns with the narrative. We find that curating a sample of their work, along with sharing guidelines, helps to clarify the direction. 

Medicine@Brown conveys the unique position of a medical school for people with a liberal arts background. Shared photography from alumni, portraits of people outside of the medical profession, and cover directions that offer a sense of warmth are key brand elements that aid in the success of the magazine. 

“Our brand is built on the authentic experience that students have at The Warren Alpert Medical School. As alumni, when they see an image of a doctor doing yoga or admire an artistic photograph taken by a student, it stirs feelings of nostalgia and connection. Images are deeply tied to emotions. I want alums to look at every issue of the magazine and say ‘That’s my Brown,’ or even better, ‘Only at Brown,’”says editor Kris Cambra.

Beyond photography, more and more universities are understanding the impact that illustration brings to the narrative. (I suggest everyone read The Impact of Illustration and University Magazine, published with RappArt). Unlike photography, illustration does not limit a project to location, broadening the options to thousands of illustrators. But like photography, it is essential  to clarify style for illustration, perhaps to an even greater degree because there are so many options available. Understanding the visual style helps immensely with the illustrator selection and direction, ensuring the piece provides a fresh perspective while enhancing your brand.

The redesign of Georgetown Business includes illustrators with bold, graphic styles who have the ability to distill complex topics into eye-catching covers. This artful combination both builds the brand of the magazine and differentiates it from a crowded market of portrait-focused covers.

“The newly reimagined Georgetown Business magazine was an intentional departure from the portrait style of our previous additions. We wanted our magazine to reflect who we are — a bold, innovative, and forward-thinking institution that isn’t afraid to tackle the complex issues of the day. The result is a magazine design that parallels our school ethos and quickly captures the attention of our readers. Since we launched the first issue of the redesigned magazine, various school leaders, alumni, and community members have commented on how different this magazine looks from previous editions (as well as from other higher ed magazines more broadly) but that it still feels distinctively Georgetown.” notes Samantha Kraus, Director of Marketing and Communications. 

What about “the consumer?” Podcasts, longform narrative, video, and print make it possible to build a brand with broader audience reach than ever before. Perdue’s McNichols notes, “We wanted to create this space [The Persistent Pursuit] where no matter what kind of medium you were interested in, absorbing, and consuming you would find it. We have everything from our amazing podcasts to consume storytelling from an audio form or you can read longform storytelling. If video is your preferred medium of getting a story, we’ve got everything from a documentary to, you know, two minute videos that are really quick to consume.”

Last year, 2communiqué partnered with Iowa State University to transform their Visions magazine from an alumni magazine to their flagship publication, Iowa Stater. Our work went beyond identity application to the critical task of connecting with the ISU community. We knew that they were passionate about the school’s cardinal red and gold colors, but we needed to understand the kind of stories that interested them. After an extensive process that included  interviews, surveys, and a review of ISU’s existing research and communications, we developed user personas, an editorial plan, and a content strategy, all with an eye toward connecting with the ISU community “where they were.”  

In a nutshell, the stories you tell—and the manner in which they are told—helps to connect your school with your community.  Because a brand is so much more than colors, fonts and a logo: it’s a “set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships” that reminds us why it’s important—and why we want to—stay connected.