We’ve spent a lot of time in the Learning Zone exploring ways to measure your brand voice in the higher education space. To date, though, we haven’t spent much time exploring how that brand voice is actually created. 

Just like your own personality, your brand voice is made up of all the tiny interactions between yourself and your audience. That makes it pretty hard to pin down. However, your personality is guided by a set of overriding principles – your values, beliefs, thought patterns and behaviours. In much the same way, your university brand voice can be steered by value statements, positional frameworks and editorial guidelines. You’ll never have complete control of your brand voice. But you can create a set of assets and systems that help you push it in the right direction.

This week, we’re delving into the world of brand writing for your university. You’ll probably be familiar with the broad techniques of brand marketing such as buyer personas, brand values and mission statements etc. We want to take you a little deeper and explore a few key issues surrounding brand writing in action.

Let’s take a look.

Know your brand agenda

Chances are, your institution already has a brand framework in place consisting of brand values, vision and mission guidelines and editorial frameworks. It’s important to know these back-to-front. However, it’s more important to understand how these elements position your university within an existing marketplace. Knowing your brand agenda makes the difference between simply following guidelines and actively working towards a unified brand voice. 

We recommend building a brand differentiation document that allows you to see your brand in action against other market forces. You’ll want it to answer the following key questions:

Who are your immediate competitors? How do they present themselves?

How does your voice differ from what’s on the market?

How does your brand voice reflect your story (history) as an institution?

What things to do you talk about that other institutions don’t?

Who are your natural allies in the market? Who do you relate to?

Get specific on language use

Having worked with many universities, we’ve had the privilege of seeing a huge range of different editorial guidelines and house style documents. Whilst some universities do a great job of demonstrating what great writing looks like for their brand, others fall short. 

A common misconception is that its enough to cover the basic editorial rules – capitalisations, abbreviations, hyphens, colons and commas – and leave out practical tone-of-voice advice. This is a critical error. Your writers rely on tone-of-voice guidance to take your messaging beyond the purely instructive. And they need to see working examples in order to do it.

One of the best tools for getting this across is the ‘instead of x, say y’ statements. These help writers understand the balance between different elements in your brand. For example, the tool below helps to show writers a supportive versus a formal voice.

Instead of:

“Please tidy up your workspace when you leave.”

Try:

“Kindly leave your desk as you found it.”

There are a lot of language analysis tools out there that can help you quantify tone-of-voice differences. A powerful tool is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which can help you determine the appropriate reading level for your audience. Grammarly even has an AI that can assess the formality of your writing. Use these tools to establish a measurable tone-of-voice for your brand language.

Take a position

The topics you choose to talk about are just as important as the tone in which you talk about them. Every message you chose to send, or not send, illustrates what’s important to your institution and creates a brand position. Often, universities create these brand positions without thinking about whether they’re truly driven by the brand values they purport to maintain. In such cases, the impression they give at best is one of confusion; at worst, hypocrisy. 

A contemporary example of this phenomenon in action is universities’ reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the world in 2020. Many universities publically voiced their support, where others kept silent or where critical. Every university’s policy on this should be derived directly from its brand values, which in turn drive your messaging.

In your tone-of-voice documentation, make sure you include instruction on which topics you choose to talk about and why. It’s a critical part of your brand voice. Remember, taking a position can be challenging for universities and is a matter that needs to be handled delicately. The problem, of course, is that remaining silent is also a position. If you can’t actively take a position that defines your brand, your audience will define it for you. 

We’ll talk more about building your brand voice in upcoming articles. But you can always reach out to the team if you’d like to know more. We love to hear from passionate brand marketers in higher education.