Emotion-based branding strategy connects feelings to actions

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The way prospective students feel about a school or destination is often more important than how they think about it
  • Emotion-based branding requires careful consideration of the needs of students/stakeholders
  • It also requires strategic thinking about the feelings you want to inspire at every brand touchpoint

Let’s say you have a fantastic wordmark. Expertly designed marketing collateral. Website navigation that’s intuitive and clever. Your brand is in good shape then, right? 

Not necessarily, according to brand strategist Richard Gillingwater, who was a featured speaker at the 2018 EAIE annual conference in Geneva. Mr Gillingwater contends that if a school brand doesn’t trigger emotion, students and other stakeholders will not act in a way that benefits the school. They won’t be interested in it and they won’t engage with the school’s programmes and services. By contrast, a school that can inspire real feeling among students will be able to create an active, dynamic, exciting bond that can be leveraged in different ways and over time.

We feel, therefore we act

Mr Gillingwater’s presentation centred on a concept known as “emotional branding,” which is based on the belief that consumers feel more than think about brands. When a school inspires strong, positive feeling among students, it is often because it has demonstrated that it understands their needs and reflects and even amplifies their personality, style, and identity. Emotional branding is a powerful lever for purchasing and loyalty over time.

To stimulate a desired feeling among students, institutions must discover the answers to three questions:

  1. What are the needs of our students? Ask current students for help in pinpointing these. Needs might include: “I need to make friends while studying abroad,” “I need this programme to lead to a job I want,” “I need to be able to speak English proficiently for my career.”
  2. What emotions do we want to inspire at every brand touchpoint? Maybe it’s excitement. Curiosity. A sense of being part of something cool and important. Whatever the emotion, the brand should strongly evoke it.
  3. When we look at our marketing and the way we interact with our student and stakeholder communities, are we reflecting their needs and is there a tangible feeling that this outreach produces? Or are we merely producing information, with nothing really wrong about it but nothing wonderful, either? If so, it will all feel flat and limited in its ability to generate action.

With those answers in hand, consider how the needs of students and the desired emotion can be demonstrated through storytelling, dialogue, and imagery across all business touchpoints, for example:

  • The website
  • Social media channels
  • Virtual tours and video
  • Student fairs
  • Admissions staff
  • Welcome centres
  • Orientation week
  • Newsletters

As Mr Gillingwater says, ensuring that the same brand story is told at every opportunity makes it more likely that the brand will define itself and resonate among students at every step of the enrolment funnel.

Students want experiences, not services

Emotional branding at its best evokes an experience and a sense of community – rather than a specific product or service. It uses storytelling rather than simply description, and it asks for collaboration and conversation with students. Student testimonials, videos, expertly managed social media channels, and personalised emails are some of the ways schools can activate emotion.

Mr Gilligwater spoke about his work with the prestigious British boys school, Radley College, to illustrate his point. He noted that Radley executives were pleased with the concept of “True Greatness Is Within” to evoke the school brand, but that in and of itself, that slogan was not enough. Mr Gillingwater showed the audience a powerful video that brought the idea to life, infusing the concept with emotion, and one that positioned Radley as a nucleus and starting point for boys who would go on to be powerful and engaged citizens able to make a real impact on the world. This story would then inspire all marketing and communications, allowing the school to reach out to various stakeholder and student groups with the same emotional core concept.

Five ways to think about emotional branding

Mr Gillingwater summarised his presentation with five points schools can use as an anchor in their emotional branding strategies:

  • It’s not what you say, it’s how you make people feel;
  • Tune into your own emotions and assess the strength of your emotion when you look over your marketing and communications – if you don’t feel anything, chances are your students won’t either;
  • Build experiences in collaboration with communities;
  • Define how you want to make people feel;
  • Find ways to activate these feelings and be on the lookout for what may be disconnecting students from this experience.

Finally, Mr Gillingwater noted, look for ways to go one step further with students to make sure they really feel special. That extra effort might just be what differentiates you from the competition and provokes the actions that most benefit your brand.

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