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The importance of branding in business and higher education HERO

Brand power

From cattle to higher education, branding remains a critical tool for distinguishing yourself from the rest of the herd.

November 26, 2019

By Matt Watson

When Colorado’s Tivoli Brewing Co. bottled its first beer 160 years ago, branding referred to the searing of a recognizable mark on cattle so that one rancher could tell their steer from another rancher’s steer.

Once the brewery relaunched in 2015 after a half-century hiatus, its leadership struggled to differentiate itself within Colorado’s crowded modern craft-beer market. So the brand older than its home state designed a new logo with a bold typeface set against a silhouette of the brewery’s iconic smokestack. The graphic elements complement its lineup of beers, which range from a pre-Prohibition-style lager to a red ale brewed in collaboration with Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Beer Industry Program in one of the most innovative partnerships in brewing.

“The biggest challenge we faced was battling with our cool history while also becoming relevant today,” said Stephanie Rayman, Tivoli Brewing Co. director of marketing and strategy. “One piece of our rebranding was marrying the two and saying, ‘We’re old meets new – not old versus new.’”

Tivoli Brewing Co.’s success shows the value and power of branding, which – whether burned on a cow’s rump or broadcast over social media – is simply a name, term, design or symbol that distinguishes one good or service from those of others in the market.

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There’s no difference in branding a publicly traded company, small business, person or horse, said Darrin Duber-Smith, senior lecturer of marketing at MSU Denver.

While many people think of a brand as just a slogan or a logo, those are merely singular elements of a brand that help position it in the marketplace, he said. There are three stages to the Brand Evolution Model that Duber-Smith developed and teaches.

“The brand is the foundation of your entire group of products. It’s what you start with. Everything you do stems from the brand identity you develop,” Duber-Smith said.

From there, brand positioning is established – and it’s something that should very rarely if ever change, he said, “because it’s the place in the mind of the consumer that a product holds.”

Next comes the continual stage of managing the brand image.

“Your brand image is not what you want to be but what everyone else thinks of you. It’s the marketers’ job not only to establish the identity but also to make sure it translates effectively into the desired image,” he said. This includes developing brand awareness and managing brand attitudes and loyalty.

The third step, brand optimization, involves repositioning, extending new product lines or adjusting logos or other visual elements.

“The bottom line is: Is what we’re doing working? That’s always the question,” he said.

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It’s a question MSU Denver found itself asking in 2012 when then-Metropolitan State College of Denver earned the status of university. The nearly 50-year-old institution had a new name but the same mission, presenting a critical opportunity to redefine its place in the higher-education market – and the Mile High City.

Branding is critical in Denver, where the density of higher-education institutions is supplemented by copious out-of-state college recruiters trying to lure students elsewhere and online programs such as Southern New Hampshire University bringing programs into Coloradans’ homes.

Cathy Lucas, MSU Denver’s vice president of Strategy, has witnessed the evolution in higher-ed marketing firsthand in her 21 years on campus.

“‘Marketing’ used to be a bad word at universities. Communications offices at universities used to be press offices that responded to media calls,” she said. “Over the last 20 to 25 years, higher ed has gotten much more savvy. Everyone realized, ‘We have to compete. We have to meet our students and demonstrate the brand through storytelling and experience– students won’t just find it on their own like they used to.”

Lucas, named the 2017 PR Person of the Year by the Public Relations Society of America’s Colorado chapter and an Outstanding Woman in Business by the Denver Business Journal in 2019, is the chief strategist behind MSU Denver’s brand, which launched a new “Reimagine Possible” campaign in September.

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The campaign shows how the urban University is reimagining higher education through its Health Institute that unifies 10 health-related fields, private-public partnerships with aerospace companies and the aforementioned partnership with Tivoli Brewing Co.

Lucas says she’s proud of a new internal approach with the campaign, which has included brand training and certification for more than 500 employees.

“Your brand’s narrative should flow freely from your employees, whether it’s faculty, financial aid counselors, front desk support or a development officer. Our employees are a critical element that often provide our brand’s first impression. If they don’t understand the brand, it will lead to brand confusion,” she said.

What MSU Denver has been doing is working: Positive brand perception has increased from 71% in the Denver market in 2012, when the college became a university, to 84% in the University’s 2018 brand audit.

“The brand is the heart and soul of an organization. You frame it based on the core values of the institution and build from there,” said Lucas, citing MSU Denver’s newly redefined core values of opportunity, innovation and excellence. “At MSU Denver, the brand is the promise that we make to our students: We offer students the opportunity to reimagine what their possible is through an excellent education at an affordable cost.”

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