A brand is everything to a company — even if you tout yourself as being brandless.
Branding experts in higher education and other industries practically froth at the mouth for the chance to wax poetic about the need for students and consumers to know what your brand is and what you stand for.
They’ll quickly cite Chobani, Apple, and so many other savvy companies as proof that with the right branding, a phone becomes much more than a phone and a cup of yogurt becomes a story. You’re spending huge amounts of time, money, and meetings on developing a brand.
But one company has found a way to make not having a brand its brand … and colleges should pay attention.
Brandless found that niche.
The San Francisco-based company is causing an online frenzy by going sans brand and selling consumers more than 100 basic household and food products for $3 a pop. Not just cheap knockoffs, either. These are all organic/non-GMO/nontoxic/whatever other buzzword consumers are demanding in high volume.
Brandless seems to be succeeding because their worst-kept secret is the brand has been there all along — and you can learn from it.
How College Marketers Can Learn from a Brand with No Brand
As an enrollment marketing communications director at a private college, I’ve seen more than my share of good and bad branding. So I was curious after reading about Brandless just how they pull this off.
Would it be a blah experience to order and receive products that, by nature, are generic? How can they drum up interest when they are also telling you to forget about the label? And how could a college learn from this (because so often, our best ideas come from other industries!)
The story matters
Not unlike Tom’s or Patagonia, Brandless has a clear philanthropic mission that ties directly into their hope that you’ll buy more products. They are unequivocally announcing a focus on value with “better stuff, fewer dollars” written all over their site. Not enough? Each order is paired with a donation to Feeding America. It’s their gambit to overcome the fear of buying generic, not unlike Warby Parker touting an eyeglasses donation or Tom’s donating shoes to reduce consumer spending guilt.
Does that mean your university needs to tie in a philanthropic effort or switch to sustainable materials in the dining hall to appeal to Gen Z? Not if doing so isn’t on brand. But what does matter is that prospective families know what you are all about. It’s no longer OK to tread along on reputation alone — savvy consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z, want to know that their tuition dollars are going to a college they can believe in and thrive in and not some faceless monolith full of stuffy halls and closed doors. Your “About Us” needs to talk about more the fabled beginnings of your institution. It has to convey why you exist.
The brand experience goes beyond your website
What was maybe the most pleasant aspect of my own Brandless transaction was how much thought was put into the package.
I expected, essentially, a straightforward box and my stuff. What I got was a slick but not overly-produced branded Brandless box (say that five times fast). Inside, they included a Mad Libs-adorned postcard meant to be filled and shared with a friend (promoting invaluable word-of-mouth marketing). There also was a heartfelt thank you card.
And each item featured their so-blunt-it’s-funny labels; Brandless doesn’t try to come up with marketing-friendly names for items. Facial cleanser is called, um… Facial Cleanser. Body Lotion is called Body Lotion. The ingredients and bright, solid colors are about the only noticeable attributes of the packaging. They want the product to shine. It wouldn’t be true to their brand to try to dazzle with shiny packaging. Still, receiving the package felt like a true experience and far more than what one would expect buying generic goods.
Are you going the extra mile after the acceptance letter goes out to make sure a student develops into a raving, deposited incoming freshman? That starts with thinking of each aspect of the application process, from how easy it is to navigate your site and read about your majors, to how the acceptance package arrives, to the way people answers the phones and talk to families. You can ruin your brand reputation just as quickly by ignoring a Twitter complaint as you can with having a glitch in an errant email — every step matters.
Your brand is built one transaction at a time.
Your brand doesn’t matter if you don’t back it up
Even at $3 an item, Brandless is still up against the Walmart’s and Amazon’s of the world. If a consumer doesn’t know a brand on Amazon’s site, they at least trust Amazon itself. Brandless has to back up what it’s selling, and it’s a bold claim — we can do it better and cheaper, and you won’t miss having a brand name on your shelf. That means the products have to be stellar and the experience needs to be smooth.
As someone who has helped develop several websites, I admired the seamless navigation and how I could narrow down my shopping preference. I’m vegan, so I don’t want anything that tests on animals or uses animal products. No problem — they have a button for that. That’s value added.
And when the products arrive and perform as expected? Now you’re delighting the customer. You’re backing it up. All the branding in the world doesn’t matter if you’re not delivering – your viewbook needs to reflect a college they could actually attend, not some fairytale. You can get so focused on having people know your name, your logo, or your commercial that you forget that also have to enjoy your academic and social experience.
Your brand should make it clear why you’re different
My wife isn’t a fan of buying generic. I won’t even mention the time I bought generic Tylenol for our toddler. It’s not that she assumes all generic items are worse, but she does have a sense of comfort with a known name. Brandless won’t outright say it, but they sell generic goods. You’re getting the same lotion you might get from Bath & Body Works, but without the markup. That’s the definition of generic – like a college taking someone else’s curriculum and selling it for half-tuition.
Brandless found a way to remove the stigma of buying generic — get it cheaper, but also help support a cause and feel confident you’re also getting quality. I am sure my wife — a television advertiser’s dream as an educated, employed mother of three — would be comfortable buying their products, even for our kids. That’s in part because she knows who the company is.
Your college’s brand should be similarly easy to define, making it easier for someone who isn’t familiar with you to be confident they are still getting value. Rather than worry about how competitors are defining themselves, what matters more is how your brand is known in the marketplace.
Could an 11th-grader, in a sentence, say exactly what you are all about? Would they know why it’s worth enrolling with you and not a similar university they stumbled upon? If you haven’t already, it’s worth the time to ask your students why they choose you. It’s even more worth your time to ask former students why they transferred away.
After all, you can’t stand to be generic.
Andy Shaw is the director of enrollment communications and operations at York College of Pennsylvania, a private four-year residential school. He also is a speaker, columnist, comedian, and father of three toddlers.