Column Editor: Jill Heinze (Director, User Experience, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA 22904; Phone: 434-243-1368)
Many librarians undertake branding efforts because they rightly view them as means to stand out in a world of information abundance and to clarify the value proposition they offer stakeholders. Brands are important because they distill an organization’s identity into a form that users can relate to emotionally. Recently, I had the pleasure of leading a workshop for a group of medical librarians who are refreshing their library’s brand after some internal changes prompted a reevaluation of their service approach.
Through our work together, these librarians and I applied some essential branding principles that any librarian should keep in mind as they take on a branding effort.
Branding is a Long Game
An organization’s brand is the ultimate shortcut through people’s otherwise meandering decision-making processes. A strong brand gets audiences’ notice, enthralls their emotions and propels them toward making a quick choice, avoiding detours like considering competitive offerings. Brands also make organizations resilient. People are less likely to abandon a favorite brand because of one or two bad experiences, and they are also more likely to spread the word about a brand they love. These traits make brands among organizations’ most valuable assets. They are so valuable in fact that major global brands have monetary values assigned to them by consultancies like the widely-recognized Interbrand, which, in 2018, ranked Apple as the best global brand with a brand value of more than $214 billion.1 Anecdotally, we customers know the influence brands wield. Whether we’re buying a car, a latte, shoes, or toothpaste, we automatically favor those seemingly superficial details like logos, designs, packaging, and taglines that resonate with our tastes and perceived identities.
As influential and valuable as brands can be, they are equally and frustratingly abstract. While Intrabrand may assert Apple’s brand is worth $214 billion, for example, others use different methodologies to arrive at what are often vastly different sums. (Brand Finance ranks Apple the #2 most valuable brand behind Amazon at a relatively paltry $153 billion in 2019, up from $146 billion in 2018.2) The variability is explained, in part, because brands are elusive — they do not exist anywhere but inside one’s mind. Marketing thought leaders recognize this in their definitions of the term. Some have likened brands to a reputation or a promise. According to marketing guru Seth Godin, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”3
In the face of so much ambiguity about what a brand is, it is tempting to focus on those things that are more concrete and quickly changed, such as logos. Logos are important brand signifiers, but they are not the brand. It is more accurate to think of a brand using one of the definitions above. If, for example, a brand is like a reputation, how would you go about shaping it? Most likely you would identify the kinds of associations you want to nurture, and you would use every interpersonal interaction to reinforce them.
Consider, for example, how librarians at the Architecture Library at Ball State University approached their rebranding initiative. They first determined that their brand is student-focused and emphasizes the contemporary built environment.4 Then, they identified points of contact with their users that would serve to strengthen those notions. Notably, they used their collections to “broadcast the library brand” by strategically displaying attractive book covers and using scanned versions in their class presentations.5 Rather than relying on a clever tagline, these librarians sought every available opportunity to demonstrate their unique offerings (attractive collections), thereby “micro-branding” themselves continuously and consistently over time.
Find Your Brand Blind Spots
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a brand. The earliest public libraries in the United States started emerging around the early nineteenth century. Every day since, libraries’ brands have been maturing and evolving in ways that are both a help and a hindrance to sustaining stakeholder support and modernizing collections and services. OCLC’s 2018 report, “From Awareness to Funding: Voter Perceptions and Support of Public Libraries in 2018,” reveals that a majority of voters view their local public library as essential, but a declining number indicate they value the free access to books and computers libraries provide.6 Studies like these that illuminate what does and does not spark an emotional connection with users are branding prerequisites (though you’re likely to conduct them on a smaller scale). Without knowing how people currently think and feel, it’s difficult to determine what changes, if any, are worthwhile.
Relatedly, staff need to uncover their current brand and envision what it could be in the future. During my time with medical library staff, we watched a video of Neil Blumenthal, founder of the popular ecommerce eyewear company Warby Parker. In it, Blumenthal beautifully relates a fundamental brand truth: “…we’re in a time where authenticity matters most. And you need a reason for doing everything that you do. And the brand should be that reason. But it only has credibility if there’s depths [sic] to the brand. You really want to start from the core essence of why you’re doing what you’re doing.”7 The task before librarians, then, is to find that honest, core essence from which all other branding considerations follow.
To begin this effort, we worked in groups to sketch social media profiles for what participants imagined their brand to be. I asked each group to draw a profile picture of their brand as if it were a person, and write answers to the following prompts: favorite quote, what patrons would describe them as, likes, dislikes, a short story about themselves, and what makes them special. Participants agreed this was an exceptionally illuminating activity. Profile pictures ranged from an octopus-like creature to a girl wearing glasses and a stethoscope. Responses to the prompts were equally diverse. For example, participants indicated their brand was special for all sorts of reasons from comfy couches to being dependable to being open to everyone. The exercise demonstrated that we as librarians often have different and even competing ideas about who we are as a collective organization, which inevitably leads to a murky brand identity. Making time for conversation-generating exercises like the profile picture exercise help clarify your sense of who you are while giving users a personal affinity they can easily recognize.
Ultimately, it will be up to users to decide if your brand is one they want to connect with. Brands, like any other relationship, are grounded in mutual understanding and acceptance, and develop gradually over time. As you think about your work building collections, enabling discovery, and preserving cultural heritage, think too about how your approach to these everyday tasks fulfills, or breaks, the brand promises you make to users. The potential reward for faithfully articulating and keeping your promises is a strong brand that drives long-term support and allows your offerings to stand out from the rest.
- Interbrand. Apple. (2018). https://www.interbrand.com/best-brands/best-global-brands/2018/ranking/apple/
- “Global 500 2019: The Annual Report on the World’s Most Valuable and Strongest Brands,” Brand Finance, 2019, 9. https://brandfinance.com/images/upload/global_500_2019_locked_1.pdf
- Seth Godin, “define: Brand” Seth’s Blog, 2009, https://seths.blog/2009/12/define-brand/.
- Amy Trendler, “Branding the Branch: A Case Study in Marketing the Architecture Library at Ball State University,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 35, no. 2 (2016): 133.
- Ibid., 136.
- OCLC and American Library Association. 2018. From Awareness to Funding: Voter Perceptions and Support of Public Libraries in 2018. Dublin, OH: OCLC: 6, 9.
- Neil Blumenthal, “Neil Blumenthal on Branding,” Lynda.com, (2016): https://www.lynda.com/course-tutorials/Neil-Blumenthal-Branding/459103-2.html.
Tom is originally from Brooklyn N.Y but has spent his entire professional career in South Carolina, most recently as Head of Reference Services at the College of Charleston. As part of the Against the Grain and Charleston Conference team, he serves as the associate editor of the print ATG as well as the co-editor of the webpage. Tom’s conference duties include coordinating the Penthouse Suite interviews as well as the conference poster sessions.
He received his MLS from the University of Buffalo, SUNY and a second master’s in public administration from the College of Charleston and the Univ. of South Carolina. His wife Carol and he live in downtown Charleston and she is an artist and a tour guide offering historic walking tours of the city.