Podcast

Building People-Powered Brands with Jennifer Holland

Estimated Reading Time: 19 minutes

Many institutions include brand building in their strategic plans, but making those aspirations a reality is challenging. Brand development expert, Jennifer Holland, argues the best way to build an enduring brand is to focus on strong alignment between organizational, marketing, and people strategies.

We discuss:

  • The vital importance of having deep internal buy-in on what your brand stands for.
  • How to balance inside out versus outside in thinking when developing a brand.
  • Jennifer’s approach to hardwiring a brand into an organization so that frontline employees stay engaged and focused on the brand.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You are listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.
Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. In this episode, we’ll be talking about brands, how to develop them strategically and most importantly, how to sustain them for the long haul. Joining us in the conversation is Jennifer Holland, a published author and brand development expert with more than 20 years of experience in both industry and education. We discussed the vital importance of aligning organizational marketing and people strategies, the right way to balance inside out versus outside in thinking when developing a brand and Jennifer’s approach to hard wiring a brand into an organization so that frontline employees stay engaged and focused on the brand. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Jennifer Holland.
Jennifer Holland, welcome to the show.

Jennifer Holland:
Thank you.

Jarrett Smith:
I am super excited to have this conversation about all things brand and branding and brand development, but to get the conversation started, you once ran a highly acclaimed restaurant and I’m curious what that experience taught you about brand building.

Jennifer Holland:
It really taught me that you’ve got to build a team that is capable of delivering on your brand promise. Think about it, the frontline staff are responsible for the brand experience. If the wait staff doesn’t deliver or communicate that brand promise, you fail. If the wait staff is not of a caliber to serve your clientele at the level that you are representing yourself, that’s a fail. So I would say it’s right back to the people, right? You’ve got to attract a team that is enthusiastic about delivering on your bread promise. They believe it. They love the restaurant, the food, the purpose, the intentionality behind it, and they deliver it so clearly and consistently with every customer experience. That’s really what we do in business today, isn’t it? Isn’t it the same thing?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I think restaurants are such an interesting sort of look at brand because I mean people come in with very specific, very high expectations. So the ability to deliver on that reliably night after night is really quite a feat.

Jennifer Holland:
Yeah, one rogue employee, let’s take it back to the back house of the kitchen. One rogue employee poorly doing their job, shows up on a plate, shows up on someone’s plate or shows up in delayed cook times or overcooking or inattention or just not a level of excellence you ever want to communicate or experience inside your own restaurant, right? You just never see that happen.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. We’re going to talk about brand today and I think this is one of those areas of marketing where you run across lots of different definitions. So I would love it if we could sort of all get on the same page and you could share with us your definition. I think of a few different terms brand first, but then also brand development versus brand management. Because I know your area of expertise and where you focus most of your time and energy is around brand development. And so I think that’s just an important sort of distinction we might want to draw. So how do you define brand? I guess we’ll start there.

Jennifer Holland:
Well, I defined in the simplest, I mean there’s 1.8 billion, if you Google definition of brand, you can’t say 1.8 billion in about eight seconds.

Jarrett Smith:
Right.

Jennifer Holland:
Obviously it’s no surprise that everyone is confused about brand when you see those kind of results being delivered by Google. The simplest definition is A, your brand is your promise. It’s the set of deliverable promises you make to your audiences every single day. So you got to communicate it and you got to deliver on it. That’s the simplest definition for brand and that expectation, those emotions, all the other things that accompany a brand live in the parking space of your audience’s mind. So that’s the simplest definition. Brand development is the strategic uncovering of what’s unique and ownable about you. It’s a prestep to branding. Most often it’s the step before branding that people don’t know about or miss or don’t do it successfully. Whether they’ve engaged someone who doesn’t have the experience to be able to take them through a process that will get to the heart of why them over anyone else or whether it’s an approach that’s outside in where we’re looking at competitors and trying to find the gap in the market so that we can communicate in that space to sound different.
And the challenge with that particular approach is that’s the easiest thing to copy. So you’ve found the gap, you are serving that market, someone else comes behind you and does it better. Most important thing we can do as institution organization, a company, is to uncover what’s already inside the business in the DNA and the hearts and minds of the business. When you can get to that level of understanding about who you are and what you do differently, now we got something to work with to communicate. Now we can come up with how to position that and that is hard to copy.

Jarrett Smith:
And so that whole inside out versus outside in point I think is a really interesting one. So can you kind of lay out for us, how do you think about inside out versus outside in? What are the sort of key points for you?

Jennifer Holland:
If you’re going through a brand development initiative, like you want to uncover what’s unique and ownable and how to communicate it for positioning if that’s where you’re starting, then inside out we want to focus inside the company first. Before we create the communication and the position, but after we’ve uncovered the unique value propositions, the why statement, the customer benefit statement, after we’ve gained consensus and clarity around that, then we can do the competitor analysis. And during that, and we often do IDIs or in-depth interviews with employees and then we go afterwards, we go outside to preferred customers, customers that have exited just to get a thorough understanding.
And that’s where the competitive analysis comes. And when you look, then you take all of the information when you aggregate it to determine your positioning. Yes, you want to know what your competitors are when you launch your new positioning, you want to know where they stand and what they’re communicating and how they’re communicating it. They might be communicating the same thing that really is what you’ve uncovered that’s unique and ownable about you. Perhaps you could communicate it differently where it’s stickier and more memorable or more has more personality or more human centric. There’s all kinds of ways to communicate. One thing I often tell the story of the Maytag repairman because they’re just communicating quality and reliability, so was everybody else, but they communicated it differently and their sales went off the charts. And to this day there’s still a lot of equity in the loneliest repair man in the world.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s so funny you mentioned that I was reading recently, there’s a great book on higher ed brandy’s called The Real You, and it was from, I believe it’s Robert Moore over at Lipman Hern. And I don’t know if he was quoting somebody or he said it in the book, but he said, nobody complains about new ways to eat chocolate. Chocolate is a thing that people buy, but no one’s saying, “Oh, here’s a new delivery method for chocolate. I’m so tired of that.” I thought that was such a fun analogy for describing exactly what you’re saying, which is new ways to say the same thing. Or I think about, I have a friend that’s a songwriter and the number of topics that people cover in, especially in popular music, is relatively limited in a lot of ways. And it’s the same old things, but they’re being brought out new and inventive ways and finding new angles to express that.

Jennifer Holland:
And really also the new angles, but also those communications that can stand the test of time. But you don’t want to be rebranding every year or every two or three years like you do with your campaigns, your ad campaigns. Those just simply need to map up to your positioning. What I see often is specifically in higher ed, often they sound like everyone else. So their ad campaign every year changes and they have some success with that, but they’ve never really gotten to the heart of why them as an institution and then how do we use that same process to approach an admissions campaign, a capital campaign, an athletics program. They’re all the same. They all should map up to the highest level of why the institution, what is it staying clearer, which what am I going to get now? Again, it could be another quality and reliability kind of thing that happens where it sounds it still like everyone else, but it still could sound different. It still can be positioned differently to attract those audiences that truly will thrive in that environment.

Jarrett Smith:
It’s really hard in higher ed I think to step away from the generic category benefits which are attractive and substantial.

Jennifer Holland:
Sure, absolutely.

Jarrett Smith:
But then to really drive down into something that is unique, institutions weren’t built from the ground up to be unique. That wasn’t their premise. They weren’t started as commercial enterprises for the most part. And so you bend up in this place space where they’re sort of almost by design, very similar in a lot of ways. It presents quite a challenge. You said something though about your brand should have a lot of longevity to it, the core of the brand, the expression might be very different, it might evolve and change out more often. So for you, how do you view building a really enduring sustainable brand? What are sort of the core components of that in your mind?

Jennifer Holland:
The first step is that clarity and consistency and the communication, right? My three Cs. And of course it has to connect. So once you’ve uncovered that and then you move them to how we communicate it. And then from there, again, I recommend an inside out approach. Too often folks prefer to go out the gates, they’re so excited about the new brand, let’s just get it out there and start communicating. Your people don’t know about it yet. They’re not delivering on it. It’s probably not on performance reviews. There’s no metrics probably associated with the delivery of that brand from us that you’re about to communicate. You may not even have any buy-in yet. So you have to do in the brand world, we’re taught that it’s internal adoption, which I dismissed because really it’s employee engagement. It’s employee engagement. They have to engage and really connected a value driven level to what the brand is promising.
They have to be connected in such a way that it’s deep in deep alignment with their core values and that brand promise. If you’re about service, then you’ve got to have a service mentality team, whether it’s faculty and staff, whether it’s in the business world, employees, you have to have that mindset. So that goes from the very beginning. My partner calls it the ACE model. How do you acquire, connect, and engage that new employee to the brand over time? So very powerful approach, but it’s inside out once you have done whatever you need to do, and there’s all kinds of approaches.
One time we had one organization that we did a whole brand launch event internally and we collected all the old collateral and we had a big bonfire. Out with the old, in with the new. We had a treasure, a scavenger hunt where they had clues to go find the unique value propositions. And then we had a thematic of mountaineering. So we had them go in the mountains around the snow to do the scavenger hut. So we connected everything. So they had a deep experience at that launch. And that is not to be underplayed. I have seen many organizations skip that part and then do an external launch. Again, that’s a big miss. And we know that the employee mindset has changed over time, hasn’t it? And the employees expect to be known and understood at the same level as the customers and prospects by their employers. They want to feel valued and they want to be a part of it. So if you don’t engage and connect them to the brand before you launch, you’ve got a missed opportunity because what the outside audience might experience might not align with what you’re communicating because it is not understood internally. And that part can’t be left out.

Jarrett Smith:
And I think especially in higher ed where you have so many different stakeholders, so many different constituents, and they’re very powerful. You have faculty and in the whole concept of shared governance, it’s just not even something that in other commercial enterprise you would even really encounter. I don’t think anywhere else it’s this really unique model. And faculty, they’re an interesting bunch. They are allergic to being marketed to. They’re highly skeptical, highly intelligent, highly invested in their-

Jennifer Holland:
They have their own personal brand at stake.

Jarrett Smith:
They have their own personal brand at stake. So there’s a lot there. And a shorthand way of saying that is for a lot of reasons, they have a finely tuned BS meter and so roll in with this brand platform that they don’t think they’re delivering on, you’re going to have going to have some serious trouble. The best case scenario is we just set up a promise that we don’t deliver on. The worst case scenario is you have some real contentious relationships building. I just think in higher ed, so much of what you’re saying, the idea of building from the outside in something that is authentic and believable to the institution is so critically important. I know, one of the things that I think is so interesting about your work is that you place so much emphasis on the employee engagement side of the house and that really is how the brand is being delivered, I think is so true in higher ed. How can you dig into that a little bit more? What are some of the companies that you would consider best in class in that regard? What sorts of things are they doing to bring people along and to really help folks on the front line really deliver on that brand promise consistently?

Jennifer Holland:
Well, Jimmy John’s comes to mind because I think they do a great job of aligning the business brand and people. So if I ask you for the folks that are in a geography where Jimmy Johns is located, they probably know one or two words that it stands for. So if I ask you, what does Jimmy John stand for? What would you say?

Jarrett Smith:
Probably speed.

Jennifer Holland:
There you go. Freaky fast. So fast you freak, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Jennifer Holland:
So I think they do a really great job. Their business strategy is to create fast sandwiches, not gourmet sandwiches. In fact, their CEO once said, “Man, we’re not trying to be the best gourmet sandwich that you ever had. We’re just trying to deliver a good quality sandwich fast.” So if you need fast and you like sandwiches, they’re already in your purchase consideration set. There’s a parking space established for that. So their business strategy, fast sandwiches, they’re the way they communicate it through the brand and marketing is so fast you’ll freak. So it doesn’t just say fast, it’s memorable. They’ve created a personality with it, which also appeals to a younger demographic, as far as staff, right? Freaky fast is a little cooler than we do fast sandwiches. And then on the people side-

Jarrett Smith:
Sandwiches delivered expediently.

Jennifer Holland:
Right? I mean it wouldn’t connect. Yeah. And if you look at their teams, the folks that they hire, they are capable, agile, smart, and the ability to deliver with speed so fast that by the time you pay your sandwich is ready. So in fact their franchises, I don’t know that what it is lately, but it used to be always the top 10 franchise in the country for years. And most of the growth was coming from existing owners and the franchise model, which means it works, it’s successful. So they know how to acquire, connect, and engage as employees. So that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. If you can get all three things in alignment, you’ll be remembered. You’ll rise up [inaudible 00:17:24]. You’ll be known who doesn’t want to be known? How often have you heard whether it’s a school, maybe not as much a school unless it’s a little community college, but mostly it’s in business. You’ll hear, “Oh, we’re the best kept secret,” and we don’t want to be anymore.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, sorry there in the age of the internet, there are no best kept secrets.

Jennifer Holland:
No.

Jarrett Smith:
Doesn’t exist. Sorry.

Jennifer Holland:
No, but they say that because they’re not known. Not known because they’re communicating too many different messages to have any … People don’t know where to assign them. When we receive the communication, we don’t know where to place them in our minds. So we have to really get the right communication, the right positioning in the right way so that it’s memorable, it’s sticky, and it’s true. It’s authentic, it’s genuine. So uncovering all that is a vital step. And when you were talking about faculty and staff, one of the things that we always do that folks don’t always understand the need for this research level, but those IDIs, in-depth interviews, with key faculty and staff and students is vital in that discovery phase for understanding this inside out approach. You can’t leave out a constituent base. Board members. You’ve got to have that kind of conversation with every constituent base and then you go through the brand workshop.

Jarrett Smith:
I think that that is true for any organization, but I think particularly in higher ed research can be so powerful because you have so many folks in the academy that their careers were built around research and they value it, they respect it, they’re not going to respond well to the sage on the stage handing down the brand. But if you say, “Hey, we did a really rigorous systematic qualitative and quantitative process research process here, look what we found. Let’s compare that to maybe what you thought you were going to find and let’s have a talk about …” I see that as being a much better option to a crowd that’s going to be very allergic to being, to feel like they’re being railroaded or marketed to.

Jennifer Holland:
And don’t forget that same internal brand launch I’m talking about, you do it with faculty and staff and then you do it with your student population. You can create a whole group of a thriving group of brand ambassadors among your student population if you really arm them with the information and the tools and the experiences that help them communicate it further and clearly. You get every student saying, “Oh my gosh, this is the greatest school for blah blah, blah. Now you’re attracting students who want that.”

Jarrett Smith:
The underlying thing that I just keep hearing from you and hearing from anyone who’s I think a really a true strategic thinker is just this idea of choice. I don’t know if choicefulness is a word, but-

Jennifer Holland:
I love that word though. It’s key.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I think I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Ritson recently and he said the word choicefulness and it got stuck in my head. But strategy, the organizational strategy comes down to choices. Because you don’t have unlimited resources, you have to focus somewhere. And in your marketing strategy that’s going to flow out of that, you have to make tough choices. I’m curious, I mean if you relate to this, or maybe you can expand on this, but sometimes I think the fundamental problem with many of the organizations we talked about inside and outside higher ed is a reluctance to make the hard choices because you’re probably going to tick somebody off when you do it. There’s a over emphasis on consensus and everybody feeling really good about the choices. And that takes you to a really bland space. I don’t know if that’s how you feel about that.

Jennifer Holland:
Ultimately the final positioning has to be selected and championed by the head of school. It has to be. If that’s, and then it’s a top down, this is the way we’re going to communicate it, this is us. But if you’ve done all the groundwork, it should be received well, right? If you do the internal launch first and you’ve got your president. You launch that way, you’re going to have the right kind of, I want to say oomph. You’ve got power behind it because if it’s not important at the top level and it’s relegated to marketing, yeah, you’re going to have lots of problems and you’ll stay lucky because you’ll be communicating one thing and you won’t have buy-in because the majority of the staff will feel, faculty and staff will feel that, yeah, but he doesn’t care. So it doesn’t matter. You start from the top to drive it in. Yeah, this matters. And you’ll be held accountable on delivering on it just like you are on your other whatever number of performance review metrics you particularly calculate and watch for however you hold them accountable.

Jarrett Smith:
Well in choicefulness. And then also integrity. I keep hearing the picking up on this theme of integrity. What are the operational choices that we are making that allow us to deliver on this promise that allow our team to believe that we actually mean what we say, that it’s not just fluff and that there’s actual integrity in our promise and that we can be successful if we do those things.

Jennifer Holland:
And that’s a great message for the head of the school, the present, whatever to communicate. That’s a great way to approach it because that creates … And then bolster it by what are the barriers to delivering on this promise? What do we need to fix? What barriers do we need to remove to make this more true? And then how do we empower our team, our employees, our faculty and staff, whatever it is, how do we empower them to deliver on it in the moment of need? That is very powerful. So what are the guardrails for delivering on this promise? How of you want them to be able to handle it on the frontline as much as possible before it’s escalated on up?

Jarrett Smith:
When we’re having these brand conversations, you frequently run across sort of attributes that we do possess and that we can say with integrity. And then you run across things that are somewhat aspirational, maybe completely aspirational. How do you think about a client that comes to you that says, Hey, we see where we could deliver in this really unique differentiated way. I guess, how do you think about that within the context of helping them nail down their brand today and where their brand is going and just what’s, what do you say to them?

Jennifer Holland:
In the higher ed space, the first thing I’m going to say is, do you have proof, evidence-based? They get that. They understand evidence-based learning and evidence-based statements, evidence-based programs, you want to have that. So that’s the first thing I say. Do you have evidence to support that? Because if it’s not true, you sure don’t want to go out and break the promise right on the get go. And the other thing is, if you assign this, create a brand initiative is always part of your strategic planning. There should always be space for it. And one of those things we call them wishes granted. Put them in, post it on the wall, and you write wishes and granted in the two columns. And so you put down this wish, this aspirational idea that if you did this, man, we would own this space, whatever it is, okay, how do we grant that wish? What has to happen for that to be true?
And then on the granted side, you write down the ideas, the steps, the whatever needs to happen for that to be true. And then you assign who’s going to own it and by what day. You get your next step right there in that strategic planning session so you can go execute on it and you have a start. Well, the first step is to validate, is this not owned anywhere else? Or it might be research. How can we make this more true? Is there some kind of an reward we could win that would have someone else saying it? That’s pretty powerful. Are there opinion opportunities where we get published and known for that statement? There’s all kinds of opportunities to make something true, but you’ve got to have that step. So I’m a big fan of the wishes granted, people get it and it’s easy to execute and follow and you can always get the next step right there in a session. Even if it’s something very lofty, you can always at least identify the next step for that has to be accomplished by X date by somebody so that you can further the conversation.

Jarrett Smith:
So I’ve heard you kind of use the phrase hardwire that you need the hardwire, the brand in the organization, which I thought was such a great choice of words. Speaking of choicefulness-

Jennifer Holland:
Love choicefulness.

Jarrett Smith:
… what are some practices that we go through this big brand development process, everybody’s on board, we’re feeling great, it’s believable. So how do we really keep the momentum? How do we make this something that is, as you said, hardwired in the organization over the long term and keep people focused on that?

Jennifer Holland:
You have to activate the brand internally like we talked about, but then you have to install it and you install it by creating a cross-functional team to lead the brand. So identify a brand champion often the first year it might be the marketing person and that makes sense. And you always have the HR represented on the team. You have finance represented on the team, you create a complete cross section of your organization and that team meets every week for the first month, one hour only. We help facilitate and install these and train the brand champions so that this is a self-directed group for the eternity of the brand. People rotate off every year, but when you’re first starting, it’s every week and then it’s every other week for the next month. And then after that it’s once a month. So it’s a one hour once a month commitment.
Doesn’t mean they won’t go do things afterwards, and it doesn’t mean they might not invite what we call fire starters in to experience it, but it’s an opportunity to help identify leadership growth opportunities for key employees that you think will thrive and grow and become higher levels within your organization. Teaching them to lead. And the brand champion and the cross-functional team rotates. Half of them rotate EV off every year. So it’s really a year and a half commitment for that first group, right? Because only half of them are going to stay on for another year, I guess two years. But you really rotate half off every year. So you have that continuity and they are the ones to bring it to life. So when our program teaches them how to do that and how to think an owner, like a leader ahead of whatever they’re, you’ve got to look at all those positions and that’s why you have them reflected and then they come up with how else they can deliver on it or communicate it.
They come up with the barriers to it. They are in the trenches. You’ve got a frontline employee or a frontline student, whatever it is that you identify that you need for your organization, they are ears to the ground. We even have had the janitor on a panel on one of the programs and wow, the things that person said were so impactful and so powerful. It really helped give visibility inside this group of understanding of what’s actually happening. So that’s how you start with hardwiring. Then you create the programs and the processes and the systems that support it. You might come up with, I don’t know, some sort of community service commitment. Everybody does that. You can do it in a more orderly fashion that’s connected to what you’re preaching and what you stand for. You align with something like that. You get a nice halo effect, but you get every employee thinking about it.
You get them excited about it. They’re hoping to be selected and invited to this team. And so they’re all rowing in the same direction, all coming into the same one thing at the end of every communication from the president, especially his speech or trying to inspire the team, you want to make sure he ends with some statement about that. You want that woven in. So leadership has to be living it and communicating it. And then this team actually is who gets it hardwired. So that’s how you get to the masses. It takes time, but it is very effective and it will hardwired into the organization because you look at everything where you can, if you need to name and formalize a program, maybe it’s rewards and incentive program, maybe they come up with something like, “Well, that’s for delivering on the brand and promise” or communicating on the brand promise. Or maybe it comes in the form of kudos from one another. A brand culture team could come up with.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay, if somebody’s listening to this and they’re like, “Wow, this is awesome, Jennifer’s right.” Internally, what might be a good practical first step that someone might be able to take on their own to just take one step in this direction that you’re talking about of greater alignment, the business, the marketing, and the people.

Jennifer Holland:
Well, if anyone’s going to the case conference in Atlanta in February, I’m presenting there with a couple other schools said it’s called the Vital Step Before Branding Your Institution, Your Capital Campaign Or Your Program, that’s the title. So they can certainly attend that and that’ll be a fun, very interactive session to drive deeper on all this as a how to form. They also can connect with me on my website, hollandhelix.com. H-O-L-L-A-N-D H-E-L-I-X .com. Like a DNA helix. And they certainly, there’s lots on the website, there’s some blogs, there’s the social media links are there, or some on LinkedIn and they can connect with me right on the website. They can reach out right there.

Jarrett Smith:
Jennifer, this has been a really fun and super interesting conversation. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Jennifer Holland:
Thank you.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

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