Self-developed brands remain very common within the college and university dining community. And as a recent Food Management online poll shows, one of their most common uses is to reinforce a unique sense of campus community.
At the same time, self-developed brands either work effectively or they fail to meet their potential. Some of the most common reasons they fail are because:
• the brand is not well aligned with the dining program's strategic vision;
• the customer is confused by the brand identity;
• the brand is seen as signaling a possible decrease in product or service quality, or;
• the brand doesn’t stand out—it’s ‘just another face in the crowd’
The ability to successfully develop and promote brands is an important function for any campus dining organization, and it’s not just about logos, websites, packaging and promotional materials. Successful brands are about who you are. Your brand is your promise to your customer about your products and services It is how you differentiate yourself from the growing number of national and local brands you compete with in the off-campus market every day.
Many of us assume that the first step in creating or re-developing a brand is to start with the actual brandelements (name, logo, signage, etc.), but this would be a mistake. Developing an effective brand requires that you lay the groundwork with brand visioning supported by good research. It is only then that you will be prepared to design a logo or other design elements.
Here’s a seven-step process that can serve as a roadmap to any branding or re-branding effort:
Phase 1: Onboarding, Overviews and Introductions.
This is the most important phase before starting any branding project.
• Form your internal team (including interns, if necessary)
• Before you approach them with your ideas or perceived needs, conduct intercept surveys with a small sample of customers. This feedback will help you focus your goals for the project and provide data to back up your strategy.
• Based on the goals you have or develop, prepare an initial plan, calendar and budget. Present your findings to key decision-makers. Plan to include a simplified explanation of what branding means in the context of campus dining and why it is important to the success of your operation.
• Obtain buy-in from the stakeholders, approvers and decision-makers. Seek out their input and ideas and try to add them to your plan if possible—this helps get key influencers invested in what you are trying to accomplish.
Phase 2: Research
Once a branding project is approved, begin data collection and analysis using some of the following methods:
• In-depth Interviews with department heads, stakeholders, and internal customers such as departments for Housing or Community Life or the faculty/staff of buildings where the brand will be located
• Intercept surveys for students: How is brand perceived? How does it contrast with other on campus and off campus brands?
• Focus groups with influential student groups, faculty and staff and even some of your own team members
• Execute a mystery shopper survey (if it is a re-branding project) to establish strengths and weaknesses of the existing brand
• Data collection and evaluation of such areas sales history, product mix, competitive analysis, similar brands at peer universities, existing collateral materials, past surveys etc.
Phase 3: Brand Visioning
Once all the data has been collected and analyzed, review your findings with the stakeholders and decision-makers.
• Invite them to a brand visioning session in which you discuss how the brand is currently positioned (both theoretically and in the minds of customers). Explore how the brand should evolve, based on your research.
• Agree on 5-10 words that describe your brand attributes.
• Work on defining your brand promises. It is important that these simple brand promises be crafted at the most senior level of the organization, because delivering on the promise will require making sure that the mission, vision and allocation of resources of the organization are all in alignment.
• Based on the visioning session, craft a brand positioning statement. The brand positioning statement is a one- or two-sentence statement that shows your brand’s unique value to your customers as compared to those of your competitors. It has five important components: type of business; what you offer; who you target; why you are so special; and the specific value you provide.
Phases 4, 5, 6 and 7
Phase 4: Brand Development
Now that you have established the brand attributes, positioning statement and promises, you are prepared to design a logo or other elements needed to give a physical presence to the brand.
• If at all possible, you should test early versions of you logo and signage with customers.
• Work to simplify the design and message so customers can quickly grasp what you are trying to communicate.
• Once a logo and design elements are approved, work on a graphic standards manual which can be used in training sessions.
• Finalize menu items, offerings and prices for the location.
• Prepare a communication plan with a launch strategy that specifies needs such as signage, menu boards, merchandising, uniforms etc. The communication plan should also include a budget.
Phase 5: Implementation
Based on your timeline in Phase 1, begin implementation of the brand at your location. This should include formal training of team members on the meaning of the new brand, an understanding of its “brand promise” and the appropriate use of graphics used to present it (your graphics become your physical brand ambassadors).
Phase 6: Communication
This phase includes establishing a communications plan and any promotional and other efforts to build awareness of your brand and its presence in your department, division, university, and peer organizations if necessary. This is important as it is the primary way you will build enthusiasm about the brand among your team members and customers. The brand’s marketing plan should be updated annually so you have consistent and continuous communication throughout the year.
Phase 7: Strengthening the Brand Promise
Now that your brand is fully developed and ready for business, you need to make sure that you keep the promises you have established and have strategies in place to address and recover from any broken brand promises as quickly as possible. A few methods used to maintain consistency include:
• Developing research such as monthly intercept interviews and mystery shopper surveys to assess progress in terms establishing the brand perceptions you are aiming to establish
• Work with team members to review procedures for “reputation recovery” in cases where brand promises are inadvertently broken.
• Review of key reports and data to assess progress
• Conducting brand audits semi-annually or annually
• Providing the resources and training to team members to help them ensure brand consistency over time.
f you think that undertaking this process will require more time, energy and resources than you can devote to it, consider the cost that is entailed by a brand failure. Assuring success in brand development requires investing adequate time in brand research, planning and execution. Brands are a foundational tool that positions your organization in the minds of your customers and peers.
Finally, here are a few things to keep in mind before you begin any branding project:
• Branding is NOT a project of the marketing department or of any single individual. Branding is a team project and requires buy-in and participation from all members your group! All phases should be communicated to each other and approved by the stakeholders and decision-makers.
• Seek to retain flexibility. Changes in a branding plan will always be necessary as situations or available resources change. A well thought-out plan will still be able to maintain brand promises and graphic standards.
• Consistent and continuous brand audits and research help in keeping the brand promise.
• Many stakeholders and decision-makers will have an better understanding of the bran proposal if you present your ideas visually, using a PowerPoint presentation. If possible, take photos of locations and use Photoshop to show how the location might potentially look once the branded elements are added.
• Depending on the complexity of a brand initiative, the introduction process can take anywhere from a single month to a full year.
• If you have questions or need branding advice/help, use the marketing resources available from associations such as NACUFS.
Sojo Alex is an Associate of Envision Strategies, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning and operations consulting for food service, hospitality and retail enterprises. Prior to joining Envision, she was the Brand Manager for Culinary Services at Michigan State University.