“Customers must recognize that you stand for something.”
– Howard Schultz, Starbucks
What does your learning organization stand for? What do employees look to gain from the learning you provide? What do senior executives expect from enterprise learning initiatives? Branding learning can increase the visibility and identity of your learning organization, create compelling learning programs that employees clamor to attend and position the learning organization as a valuable function that supports strategic organizational objectives and impacts the bottom line.
What Is a Brand, and Why Brand Learning?
The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers to differentiate them from those of the competition.” According to Brad VanAuken, author of “Brand Aid,” a brand, is more importantly, “the source of a promise to the consumer.”
That said, why is it important to apply branding principles traditionally used to sell products to the business of learning? VanAuken said that there is a very compelling reason to brand learning: “to get people to understand the importance of a learning organization, the importance of investing in learning as a function and the importance of taking part in learning.” Not only will branding learning organizations, programs and classes give employees a quick and compelling reason to choose a particular program, but it also helps create an emotional connection – a connection to learning and a connection to the overall organizational brand as well.
Let’s take a closer look at applying brand principles to learning organizations. Successful branding starts with a focus on your customer and knowing who and what you are. It requires tenacious attention to identifying, building and promoting your message.
The first step in developing a learning brand is to determine your customers’ needs and your competitive position. Begin by asking, “Are you offering what your customers are buying?” According to Alan Weiss, author of “How to Establish a Unique Brand in the Consulting Profession,” “Brand elements should be examined in terms of what has attracted someone to you, not what attracts you to yourself.” Unfortunately, many of us in the world of learning are so married to our own methods, classes and programs that we don’t take a long, hard look at what we are offering when we encounter problems with attendance or with selling our value to senior executives.
Richard S. Montier, director of training and communications for Sharp Electronics, began Sharp University by thinking about his customers. “For our customers, learning is not an end in itself,” he said. “There is a business purpose that we are trying to address. Very often, learning is an enabler of other things that lead to desired levels of revenue and profitability.” To that end, branding is done carefully, and the business purpose and quality of learning is paramount since the Sharp University brand has the potential to influence customers’ perceptions of the overall Sharp brand.
Another example of customer-driven branding comes from The Executive Committee (TEC), an international organization of CEOs. Chief Learning Officer Jim Canfield relayed his experience in branding a training program for the group chairs who facilitate CEO meetings. “We found out by surveying our own CEO members that one of the most important ways TEC created value was the chair’s ability to lead the group,” Canfield said. “We changed the program name from a ‘what’ called ‘Facilitation & Meetings’ to a ‘so what’ or outcome called ‘Group Leadership.’ So, we branded the program with the outcome we hoped to achieve for our customers.”
A focus on the customer means understanding your customers. What are their values, attitudes, motivations and needs? In what tangible ways do learning initiatives add value to your customers? What do customers buy when they purchase learning? Will it help them attain a better position? Get a promotion? Work easier or faster? Earn more money? Stay up-to-date? Once you understand the voice of the customer, it’s time to discover the competition.
In branding enterprise learning, your competition may be other internal learning programs, external training programs, the Internet or, even more so, employees’ time or perception of learning. It’s well known that busy professionals resist taking anything else on when the benefits aren’t clear. Think about who and what your competition is, and define at least 25 concrete benefits that show customers why they should choose your organization or program to meet their learning needs. If employees are going to spend their time and leaders are going to spend their money, why should they invest it in learning over something else?
Next, identify your brand essence. VanAuken defines brand essence as “the heart and soul of a brand – a brand’s fundamental nature or quality.” Who are you, and what do you stand for? What value do customers seek to gain from you? What makes your organization compelling? Which classes or programs are most popular? Where do passion and popularity converge in your organization? According to VanAuken, the exercise of developing a brand will “make you think through what value you add, identifying the proof points – anecdotes, case studies, testimonials, statistics, third-party reports validating learning’s importance and benchmarking from other organizations, etc. – it brings out these proof points.”
Successful brands sell more than a product or service – they sell an experience that is their essence. Diamond merchant DeBeers sells romance, Nike sells athletic performance, Disney sells family fun, and Starbucks sells time to relax. As Howard Schultz, chairman and chief global strategist of Starbucks, put it, “We’ve known for a long time now that Starbucks is more than just a wonderful cup of coffee. It’s the experience.” A critical component of a successful brand is understanding the value and experience your customers are looking for, and being able to communicate and deliver that experience.
Many people skip directly to this step – develop a logo and a tagline, and a brand is seemingly made. It is important to focus on the strategy piece before you try to develop these supporting materials. If you haven’t figured out what you are, it is difficult to develop an identity, and this often results in inconsistent and confusing branding.
The organization or program name, tagline, logo and description should convey your focus, communicate your value through your customers’ eyes and promise delivery of that value. FedEx’s “Absolutely, Positively Overnight” campaign differentiated the company from its competitors and defined its value in the eyes of the customer while making a promise. Likewise, while the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going, the customer identifies with both the value and the promise of the brand.
The design of your brand identity should include the obvious logo, Web site, key message presentation and marketing materials. Additionally, extend your brand to the training materials, course catalog and any online learning management system platforms that you may be using so that the “look and feel” of your brand is consistent across all customer touch points.
IGA, a worldwide food retailer, branded its learning organization the IGA Institute. Dr. Paulo Goezler, CLO and president of the IGA Institute, felt that the word “institute” more clearly defined a corporate training entity for the company’s global audience. The company developed a logo that captured the brand of the IGA organization, the worldwide accessibility of learning and the feeling of an educational institution. To extend the brand, learners receive IGA Institute sweatshirts during training, as well as IGA Institute diplomas, which often end up hanging in the front of the stores. “You need to have quality and credibility in what you do, but branding provides that extra way to promote, identify and create meaning around what you do. It makes learning distinctive,” Goezler said.
Taking it a step further, consider how your learning services and offerings support the brand. All too often, we provide a laundry list of training – courses offered based on trainers’ favorites, employee requests and convenient off-the-shelf titles. Are titles, course descriptions and consultative services written from the trainer’s or the customer’s perspective? Do your offerings have a concrete, tangible identity? In other words, do they have a name that conveys the value they provide? All learning offerings should support the objectives and brand essence of your organization.
It is not enough merely to decide on a brand. The brand must also be built within the marketplace, whether internal, external or both. This encompasses not only your typical learning-related marketing initiatives, such as e-mail announcements, newsletters, posters, frequent learner programs or lunch ‘n’ learns, but also the total experience of doing business with your organization. How do your employees answer the phone, respond to requests, use e-mail and interact with customers? In most learning organizations, such experiences often carry more weight than a snazzy tagline or a flashy Web site.
Dr. Kathleen Gallo, CLO of the Center for Learning and Innovation (CLI) at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System (North Shore-LIJ), one of the largest health-care systems in the United States, built her brand on a total experience aligned with corporate objectives. “You can be branded as a training organization, or you can be branded as a corporate strategic vehicle for change. Your brand will dictate your future,” Gallo said. “We did not come out with a big-bang dropping of leaflets from an airplane, but decided to target a certain group, bring them in, provide an excellent experience and let success speak for the brand.” She created a demand for learning by creating a total experience that provided learners the ability to gain new skills and knowledge, as well as clearly demonstrated to leaders the value that CLI brings to the bottom line. Good branding pulls people in to learning more than it pushes learning out to learners. At CLI, both the learners and the senior executives see how learning directly contributes to the achievement of professional and business goals, and this builds the brand day after day.
Who will leave the light on for you? You probably know the answer because Motel 6 has been saying it for 40 years. Launching a new learning brand is not about introducing learning and hoping that people sign up – it is not a one-time event. Consistently and continuously engage customers with your brand – your promise of value to them. Be disciplined in building your brand and communicate it in every learning event, every newsletter, every meeting, every Web page and every phone call.
Brand discipline not only applies to communicating the brand, but also to the design of the brand as well. Scott Bedbury, former marketing guru from Nike and Starbucks and author of “A Brand New World,” said that great brands have design consistency. He highlights Ralph Lauren, Levi’s, The Gap and Disney as several companies that maintain brand integrity and refuse to adopt new trends that don’t fit their vision. Ensure that learning products and services clearly support the vision you’ve established with your brand.
Brand discipline also applies to ensuring consistency in behavior. As previously noted, the customer experience is critical to building your brand. This experience needs to be consistent, as customers expect a brand to deliver the same excellent experience every time. Discipline and consistency create familiarity and comfort with your brand, resulting in loyalty and, in the case of learning, participation and organizational investment.
As you begin your journey of branding enterprise learning, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your brand support the organization’s strategic objectives?
- Does your brand promise and deliver value as defined through the eyes of your customer?
- Do you adequately understand the competition?
- Have you defined what you do and what you don’t do?
- Does your brand name communicate your organization’s value, identity and promise?
- Do your learning offerings reflect your brand vision and convey your value?
- Do you have a marketing plan in place to build brand awareness?
- Is there a direct link between your learning brand and your customer’s experience?
- Do you have systems and standards to ensure brand discipline and consistency?
- Does your brand have an emotional connection with your customers?
In addition to these key elements of branding, there is just one more component that is critical to success – passion. Tom Peters, in his book “Re-Imagine,” said, “Branding is about nothing more (and nothing less) than Heart. It’s about Passion – what you Care About.” Creating a learning brand is about not only standing for something and identifying the unique value of learning, but also creating the emotional connection with employees, leaders, suppliers and customers that enables a continuous learning culture and reinforces the organizational brand within the heart and soul of every person who interacts with it. Brand strategist Scott Talgo said, “A brand that captures your mind gains behavior. A brand that captures your heart gains commitment.”
What passion and commitment does learning evoke in your organization? Now’s the time to up the ante, and branding is a good bet.
Lisa Travis is president of Adelante Consulting (www.consultadelante.com), a strategic communications firm specializing in marketing learning and professional services. You can e-mail Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.