Soundings: Branded

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

The student writer was giving good advice. In his Observer column he was criticizing competitively cutthroat academic environments he had known. He liked that Notre Dame students choose community over competition.

“We look out for each other,” he wrote. “We help each other in times of need without expecting anything in return. We sincerely care for each other.” And he encouraged his fellow Domers to keep it up.

“When we help our peers,” he wrote, “we help the entire Notre Dame family. That’s why we are such a respected school. Not because we have the smartest students — other schools have high-caliber students too — but because we have a sense of compassion and community.”

He also wrote, “Once, I was given this piece of advice: We shouldn’t compete with each other. We should be helping our brothers and sisters, hope they are just as successful as we are, if not more, and actively build the Notre Dame community. Why? Because, when we raise up our peers and help them succeed, they perfect our brand, our Notre Dame brand.”

This rationale gave me pause.

Now first, this was advice someone else had given; the writer was merely repeating it. And second, the rest of the column was full of such good intentions that singling out this passage might seem unfair. But it also got me thinking.

I first heard of the “branding” phenomenon about a dozen years ago when a marketing guru was brought to campus to talk to University communicators. It was a term others seemed comfortable with, but I had to ask what it meant exactly. I don’t recall arriving at a very specific definition but, as the concept got kicked around, I got it.

It has to do with reputation, the perception held by others, the public image of a place or a corporation, of commodities, of consumer goods. Not the person as much as the public persona. How an institution or company is perceived by various constituencies.

The Harley-Davidson brand. The Victoria’s Secret brand. Disney. Audi. Apple. Nike. Strong brands all. The mere name or logo makes a rich statement, evokes a clear impression, stands for more. And when bad news happens, it hurts the brand.

So as we then talked about enhancing Notre Dame’s brand, what the place does and should stand for, and the messaging strategies to strengthen the image, and how to craft our communication to influence public perceptions, I had to ask a question.

In talking about the Notre Dame brand it seems we have separated that — the image, the reputation, the public persona — from the place itself. The way we say things matters — the words we use, the terminology. Seems kind of dangerous to me to divorce the two, even in the way we talk and think. Can’t we just talk about Notre Dame and how to represent it, the university, and not how we promote or protect the brand?

But I was alone with this concern, and the conversation continued without further ado. And I deferred to the marketing experts whose knowledge in this arena far surpassed my own.

Now let me say here that, when this conversation took place, I had worked in communications at Notre Dame for 20 years, totally aware of the public relations value in my work and knowing how my efforts contributed to making the place look good. And today writing this, having spent the past 34 years at Notre Dame Magazine, I understand very well the role the magazine plays in telling the Notre Dame story, in representing the University, in helping it convey its nature, its character, its merits and meanings to family members as well as strangers. The magazine, in its way, is an important public relations vehicle.

I am also the son of parents who (“if they told me once, they told me a thousand times”) stressed the importance of one’s reputation: “Nothing is more important,” they would say. And yet their point was that reputation is something earned over time, but which could be easily dashed by singular errors in judgment or behavior.

And as someone schooled in the “What Would Other People Think” theory of conscience development, I understand well the essential value of public perception. I have also surprised colleagues in recent months by alluding to “the magazine’s brand.”

What interests me most here is the relationship of brand and reputation and the authentic reality of a person, place or thing.

And what turned these thoughts even more interesting since I read the column has been my introduction to another concept — personal branding.

It seems people — and not just celebrities, politicians and sports stars with endorsement contracts — have brands too. And that a big part of the game today, at least in advancing one’s career, making an impression and developing one’s professional and social network, is creating a strong personal brand.

“Personal branding,” says one online definition, “is the practice of people marketing themselves and their careers as brands. While previous self-help management techniques were about self-improvement, the personal-branding concept suggests instead that success comes from self-packaging.”

With the growth of the virtual world and the burgeoning social media industry linking and friending us all, it is important, I learned, to give people “access to our personal brand assets.” This helps aspirants gain entrance to elite colleges and universities and helps them land a good job afterwards. Assorted sites offer seven, nine, 12 and 20 ways (some are actually “complete ways”) “to build an awesome brand.”

Interestingly, one of the advice sites warns about the risks of “self-commodification,” turning oneself into a consumer good. Person versus persona. Persona versus product. Which aligns with my nagging concern about the dynamics of brand, reputation and the real thing itself.

And that concern was not eased the other day when — as I apologized to a colleague for a kind of awkward but harmless incompetence on my part — I was told, “That’s OK. That’s your brand.”

Kerry Temple ’74 is editor of this magazine.