UM-Flint Brand Update | May 2010 | Branding Department Websites

This month, UR spent a good deal of time and made a great deal of headway on our largest and most important ongoing project: the redesign of the UM-Flint website. For those faculty and staff members charged with maintaining their department’s website, the most eagerly anticipated aspect of the redesign process may well be the implementation of LiveSite – which will allow users to build and update pages in a realtime, drag-and-drop environment. On June 2, UR Front-end Developer Chad Hietala and ITS Web Software Developer Paul Woolcock held a Technology Brown Bag to demonstrate LiveSite and answer questions regarding the redesign process.

It was during this Q&A that several faculty members inquired about how the new site design, templates, and components would allow them to “brand” their individual units. It’s a key question – and one worth examining in greater detail than we were able to during the lunchtime Brown Bag.

What follows here are not direct responses to the questions posed at the Brown Bag, nor precise instructions for how departments are to brand themselves on the web. Rather, at this point, it is probably most useful to clarify what we mean by brand, how brand reveals itself to intended audiences online, and some aspects of branding departments should focus on as they begin to develop their web and brand strategies.

Last month, Chad posted a blog entitled “Experience Follows Brand” that gets to the heart of the way we should all be thinking about “brand” – both online and off. I found the following to be the most insightful line from Chad’s post:

“Experience builds brand equity, not an ad.”

The point being that “brand” is a function of the user’s experience with a given product or service, not the colors, tag lines, pictures, and pitches marketers come up with to represent (or package) their ideal of what a perfect user experience ought to be. At the end of the day, your “brand” is not really yours at all – it is the users’.

Now, this is not to say that we as marketers, communicators, faculty, staff, and administrators relinquish our ability to tell great stories about UM-Flint, our individual departments, and especially about our students who have had great experiences here. But it is, perhaps, a reprioritization of the efforts we must make to ensure a positive user experience – and thereby, a positive view among users of the UM-Flint (and individual departments’) “brand.” That is, rather than devoting time, effort, and emphasis to coming up with a nifty slogan or graphic, it is better to focus resources on ensuring that students have positive experiences in the form of:  building quality relationships with professors; being able to schedule classes easily; getting their questions answered and problems solved quickly and conclusively; and having a overall positive view about the quality of their education and the quality of their life as they pursue it – as well as the quality of their life after having earned their degree.

From a marketing and web design point of view, our ability to convey these kinds of positive experiences in an authentic and engaging way on the web is the best way to “brand” a website – both at the university and department level.

As we focus in on brand and user experience at the department website level specifically, some tough questions need to be asked and honest assessments made.

This gets at those questions and concerns raised during the Brown Bag about how much control departments will have in “branding” their department website. Taking into account some of the points mentioned above, the short answer is “lots of control – but perhaps not in the way you were thinking.”

The sense we had of those Brown Bag questions was that departments may be feeling that they will need to worry about logos, slogans, colors, and other design elements that are often associated with “brand.” In truth, a more prudent use of the time departments devote to “branding” their website should be given to finding and formulating content that reveals positive user experiences. And here it might be helpful to identify examples within your department that bring the larger “brand promise” of the University of Michigan-Flint to life. What are the unique opportunities your department offers students that prove our promise of being “the premier urban center for learning, research, and civic engagement?” Have faculty published work that speaks to the quality of learning students will experience? Are there ongoing research opportunities?  Are there relevant service learning or civic engagement opportunities? In what other ways does your department exemplify “premier-ness?”

Once that “proof of the promise” content has been identified by departments, it may be helpful to determine whether it should be conveyed via a written testimonial, perhaps a video detailing the method and findings of a research project, or photos of a service learning/civic engagement experience.

The main web redesign team is already developing components that will allow for a uniform presentation of brand-communicating content such as testimonials, videos, photos, etc. We are doing this, in part, so departments can concentrate on finding and developing such content. The other reason is to ensure consistency of such content across department websites. And this gets back to a critical question: from a user experience vantage point, is it a better web experience to have department websites handle such content in a more consistent, templated format – or for each department to create its own unique “look and feel” for testimonials, videos, photos, etc.? From the user’s perspective, not the department’s, continuity in the way information is presented makes for a better overall user experience on the UM-Flint website. And as a result, better “brand equity” for both the department and the university.

That said, as the web redesign process moves forward and we continue to meet and work with individual departments, there will be plenty of opportunity to identify and execute distinguishing “look and feel” elements and content for your department website. The templated elements are being created mindful of the fact that, as examples, the theatre department and nursing department websites should not “look and feel” identical. They should, however, “look and feel” as though they are part of the same institution.

Hope that helps clear up some confusion and expectations for department-level branding as it relates to the web redesign process.

Bob Mabbitt