Why UMass should improve the brand, then worry about the message

I had this thought: what would happen if an organization, instead of using a lot of effort to improve their brand message, instead did better work that would improve the brand itself? Instead of creating better messages about your product or service, you improved your product or service. Wouldn’t that be a more efficient use of resources?

After reading this story about the University of Massachusetts Amherst trying to create a more compelling brand message, I was left to wonder the difference between the brand message and the University itself. After all, they’re not selling laundry soap; it’s a institution of higher education, therefore the brand is not just the message. The stakes are higher than marketing soap.

Their research has identified 5 brand themes they want to focus on: “smart, wide open, real, entrepreneurial and maroon”. The theme that piqued my interest was “smart,” which they say “emphasizes the high caliber of the student body and the quality of the faculty”. Really? In no way do I want to disparage the current faculty, but doesn’t UMass Amherst at least need a consistent number of faculty doing strong work, if not a growing number of faculty, to be considered “high caliber”?

Let’s look at the numbers (you can find any of these stats at the UMass Institutional Research (OIR) site). The tenure system faculty has decreased 11% between 1988 and 2009, from 1,197 to 972 faculty, respectively. At the same time total faculty, tenure and non-tenure, decreased from 1,292 to 1,180.

In terms of total number of faculty the drop was around 100 (leaving aside the issue of tenure), but then there’s this problem: student population has increased. Between 1990 and 2009 undergraduate student population has increased from 17,717 to 19,440.

Okay, faculty population is decreasing and student population is increasing; who is teaching these extra students? The numbers don’t lie. Most of the increased workload is falling to non-tenure system faculty; between 2000 and 2008 the full time equivalent instructed student ratio increased from 20.3 to 25.5 for non-tenure faculty. All other categories of faculty remained constant during the same period, more or less.

What does this mean for the “smart” theme of the UMass brand? Shaky would be a good word to describe the relationship between the reality of the statistics and the brand message. Non-tenure faculty have no incentive to contribute to the community in the same way tenure track faculty do; moreover, good faculty will always look for tenure track opportunities, which offer more stability and salary.

Do you have anymore examples of brands not meeting the expectations of the brand message?

Photo (CC) by missmac