Brand Expression vs. Brand Experience

April 5, 2019  |  Tamalyn Powell


Earlier this year I attended Council of Independent Colleges Presidents’ Institute in Scottsdale. Over the course of my three days, I had the opportunity to talk with several university and college presidents.

Many I engaged with or heard speak in the break-out sessions talked about the importance of a strong brand for their school. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the higher education industry, especially at this level. As I have mentioned in other posts, not all that long ago the brand conversation simply wasn’t happening. But in 2019, the brand story is becoming more top of mind for CMOs as well as CEOs.

However, what I found interesting is their definition of branding.

Most of the presidents I connected with view branding as only those elements that can be seen. For example, a banner ad, a print ad, a view book, a website, a TV spot, flagpole banners across the campus… And the list goes on. In other words, advertising.

They are not wrong, of course. All the points mentioned above are one important aspect of branding. These elements are part of “Brand Expression.” But it’s just one component and quite honestly, the least critical of the two.

Far more important in building an enduring and profitable higher education organization, however, is “Brand Experience.”

So, What Is Brand Experience? 

In his seminal book “Grow – How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s 50 Greatest Companies,” Jim Stengel, former global marketing officer for P&G, conducted a 10-year study looking at 50,000 corporate brands. His mission was to uncover those factors that make certain brands stand-out and consistently outperform others.

His work identified 50 brands (“The Stengel 50”) that were consistently top performing brands. When measured over a 10-year run, those brands outperformed the S&P by a staggering 392%. And there was something else special that these 50 brands had in common: they all positioned on a core human ideal – not a feature or a benefit like many higher education brands do.

Stengel also noted another consistency with the “Stengel 50” and that was how they built their brands: The five steps he noted that they all performed well were:

These are the pillars…the “growth activities” that push brands from good to great, according to Stengel. Study his list again. Note that there is only one bullet that relates to “Brand Expression”…the rest are all about “Brand Experience.”

In fact, I would add, “Brand Experience” not only comes first, but it is also what gives substance, credibility, and is the jet fuel that drives “Brand Expression.”

Let me take an example from “Grow.” Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey positions on the values of being an “independent spirit” and “authenticity.” The history of the brand reflects a commitment to a process of distilling that would not be rushed. No shortcuts are taken. Here’s an interesting fact: until the mid-70s the demand for the product exceeded supply. There was only so much Jack Daniels to go around because of their long distilling process. Despite the increased demand for the product, the company made the decision not to take any steps that would result in a less than superior product, just so they could produce more.

If they increased the production, could they have sold more? Absolutely. And in the short-term, they would have cleaned up. But the long-term impact could have been devastating to the brand.

Now, using the culture and ideals ingrained in the company, the advertising that was created simply reflected this vision and their core human ideals.

In other words, the advertising (“Brand Expression”) didn’t create the culture. The culture (“Brand Experience”) was already there and the advertising merely supported the brand values. And they did it in a unique and engaging way that fits with the DNA of the Jack Daniels.

So, what is “Brand Experience?” It’s this:

It’s what you stand for.

And organizations that stand for something, that build their culture around that ideal, and relentlessly communicate it both internally and externally are some of the most successful brands. Consider:

Apple stands for Creativity

Coke stands for Happiness

Harley-Davidson stands for Freedom

The Importance of Brand Experience – Gillette’s Latest Commercial

Recently Gillette launched a new commercial that kicked up a firestorm of comments. Their focus was on “toxic masculinity.” For two days, social channels and radio pundits were all over this spot either loving it or condemning it.

Regardless of your opinion, what is interesting is that the company took a stand. They came out, stuck a flag in the ground and stated they had had enough of terrible male behavior and they weren’t going to stand for it anymore.

But here’s my question…

Is this something that is part of Gillette’s culture captured in this commercial? Or is this a company jumping on a popular social trend and hoping to use it to spark sales?

I don’t know, and we will see how this story unfolds in the coming months. What I can say is all too often companies have used advertising (“Brand Expression”) to make them appear more caring or apologetic without the action of really doing something that shows they care or are actually changing their ways.

And that leads me to higher education branding and why experience is so important. As the competitive landscape heats up, more and more institutions will be taking part in what is essentially becoming an advertising arms race with their messages of what makes them different, unique, and a good investment.

If done right, this will have an impact, but it will likely be short-lived if it is not consistent with the “Brand Experience.” Because promises made via “Brand Expression” and not kept will have a negative impact on the brand for the long term.

So, what is really essential in today’s landscape is building the “Brand Expression” from within before going out to the public so that it’s built on a platform that is reflective of the “Brand Experience” a prospective student will have if they enroll in your college or university.

Changing the Culture v. Capturing the Culture

No matter what industry, changing the culture is hard, lonesome, demanding work. But in our experience, most higher education brands don’t need to change their culture as much as they need to capture it and create a consistent “Brand Experience.”

Many institutions we work with operate in a decentralized environment. There are different kingdoms (Admissions, Advancement, Alumni, Academics, and Athletics) that all march to their own drummer. Added to this, comes the history of the school itself. Institutions that have been in operation for 100+ years carry a lot of baggage, both good and bad.

It’s not easy…but it is work that needs to be done. And in today’s higher ed environment, this work around creating a consistent “Brand Experience” needs to be done more than ever.

What’s holding you back? What have you done that is working? I’d love to hear your thoughts. [email protected]


is a Senior VP, Group Account Director at BVK

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