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Brand Your Sustainability Centre

Your centre is doing important work. Branding can make its contribution shine.

Sustainability doesn’t sell itself. “Even the word sustainability can be alienating to people,” said a sustainability centre leader at the 2018 Sustainability Centres Community Workshop. At the workshop session on “Developing Your Centre’s Unique Identity,” communications experts Dave Demerjian and Dave Sandstedt advised business school sustainability centre leaders on how to create and share a clear identity around their centres’ work. Demerjian and Sandstedt are with communications agency 43,000 Feet. They provide brand messaging, which they define as unearthing the “core truths that make you who you are,” identifying the value you provide, and sharing that identity with specific stakeholders. That process provides focus for centre staff and reason for others to engage. Branding is particularly important for sustainability centres because they are set up in different ways, within different universities; there’s no one definition of what a sustainability center does.

Centres face varied communication challenges

The session began with centre leaders describing the communication challenges they face. They said:

  • We have many stakeholders, and it’s hard to find one identity that resonates for all.

  • We are a centre located within a business school, within a larger university. Each of these units has a brand identity — how can we relate them all?

  • At our centre, we do connected but very different research. It’s all about sustainability, but different aspects of it. Can we communicate under one umbrella?

  • We are a new centre, trying to define a long-term identity. Where do we start?

Demerjian and Sandstedt described the approach that they take with clients to address similar challenges.

Brand is about emotion

Communicating a centre’s identity is not just about laying out facts. “People are very busy,” said Sandstedt. “The busier we are, the more we react to emotion, and this is where brand comes in.” Brand is defined as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.” Through elements such as content and tone, an organization’s brand “strikes the right emotional cords” to help people make decisions, said Sandstedt.

Developing brand is a process

Sandstedt and Demerjian recommend a five- step process (see image), resulting in a clearer identity and content that effectively communicates that identity.

1) External research 

Brand strategy begins by “finding out what people think about you,” said Demerjian. An organization should speak with stakeholders — “people you work with, or want to work with.” How do they see your strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and key differentiators? Interviews, focus groups, and email surveys can elicit these insights. These interviews begin to surface people’s passions and feelings around the centre, said Sandstedt. “By the end of most discovery sessions, you know where people’s emotions lie, and you can start speaking to them.” Tips for effective stakeholder interviewing: Anonymity is important and interviews should be conducted by someone more neutral than centre staff — an outside firm, or students. Demerjian recommended looking for themes from the beginning of the process, and revising interview questions halfway through to drill into emerging ideas. Peer benchmarking gives a complementary perspective. How are similar organizations handling branding and messaging? How do they present themselves visually? Look at their website, big picture ideas they convey, specific language and word choice, color and images.

2) Internal alignment

Get your team on the same page. In brand workshops, share what you’ve learned from the external interviews and compare it to “what people are saying within your four walls,” said Sandstedt. With centre staff, compare the feedback to your mission statement or vision. “Is it aligned to what we’re doing, are there things that we need to pump the volume up on?” A communications audit is another way for the internal team to review the centre’s image. Spread out the website content, press releases, publications. Ask: Does everything look the same? Are we making things easy for customers? “Consistency is king,” said Sandstedt University branding requirements may constrain a centre’s presentation. Demerjian explained that “Some universities that will let up the leash a little, but some just say, ‘This is our brand, this is our template.’” He recommends involving a university’s branding or marketing office early on to be clear on guidance.

3) Findings and insights 

The next stage is synthesizing the external and internal research. 43,000 Feet present the findings in three ways:

  • A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) matrix.

  • A listing of common themes and insights. Eventually, these should become the centre’s “brand pillars” (see step #4).

  • Gap analysis of communication materials, identifying poor practices and misperceptions.

Get The Sunlight In

A session participant asked: Should the centre involve broader stakeholders in this discussion? Demerjian and Sandstedt recommend sharing the findings with key decision-makers such as business school administrators. “I think it just helps to know what the market is saying about you,” said Sandstedt. “I always think, you gotta get the sunlight in.” Demerjian noted that brand messaging interviews can surface other issues with the centre. “You will inevitably have things come up that have to do with the operation of your centre. We convey those findings, but we’re not going to make recommendations. Sometimes there are political implications where you don’t want every stakeholder in the room.”

4) Messaging architecture

Activities move the research into guidance and content for brand communication. Demerjian and Sandstedt recommend the following (see PowerPoint for additional details.)

  1. Audience personas are characters representing core stakeholder groups; the descriptions can illuminate their needs and preferences.

  2. A value proposition states the centre’s usefulness for the audience(s). It should also differentiate the centre from competitors. What makes the centre special?

  3. Brand pillars are core themes. This is the centre’s umbrella message — broad enough that it speaks to all stakeholders.

  4. Creative expression is the actual content communicated externally: e.g. images, headlines, taglines.

A session participant said that centres need to be conscious of what they are not. “Often people don’t make hard choices,” he said. But no centre can be all things to all people.

5) Context execution

Execution is about the nuts and bolts of producing content over the long-term. Organizations need a content workplan and governance — e.g., an editorial calendar. They need to think through who will do the writing, on what schedule. Copy development is the actual writing, or image selection, or website programming that will communicate the centre’s identity. Demerjian and Sandstedt offered several general tips: streamline your writing, have a second person review your content, avoid jargon.

Can We Measure Success?

A workshop participant asked how to know if progress has been made. “It’s hard,” said Demerjian. “Brand is inherently a longer process.” It’s tricky to know whether you are increasing awareness, and whether people understand the centre’s activity better. Some content does lend itself to quantitative evaluation, said Sandstedt. With website analytics and social media, “I think you can start measuring whether your story’s coming through, whether it’s resonating. “For most of the stuff we do, we’re helping people detangle these really complicated stories that have built up over time. We are trying to get back to the really salient themes that they want to communicate to their audiences.”

View the session PowerPoint

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