No two universities are the same. But you wouldn’t guess that from their photo libraries. The issue is so pronounced that the higher education sector has given it a name: “three and a tree”. And it’s something other sectors suffer from, too.
It’s something other sectors suffer from, too.
Universities want to show that their campus is pleasant and relaxed, and that the student body is diverse and welcoming. How do you do that? With a photo showing a diverse trio of students relaxing around a tree. Three and a tree.
It ticks all the boxes, and no one’s going to object to it, so that’s what ends up on the website, in printed brochures, and attached to tweets. But choosing the unobjectionable option – whether in photography, typography, colour, or any other aspect of the visual identity – is what leads to bland, generic looking brands.
We see this in every sector, in any organisation where the chain of approval for branded visuals is more than a couple of links long. It only takes one cautious link – one that hasn’t grasped the importance of differentiation in brand strategy – to push a brand’s visual style away from something distinctive, towards the same middle ground already occupied by the majority of the sector.
But what’s unobjectionable to the organisation isn’t necessarily unobjectionable to the audience. In fact, when you take the middle road with your visual identity, “unobjectionable” is probably the best you can hope for. The more likely outcome is an identity that’s boring, unmemorable, or worse, not credible.
Brands stretch credibility when elements seem at odds with each other. For instance, if the messaging is all about brave new ideas, independent thinking and experimental approaches, but the photography, imagery, typography and colour palette are nothing but safe choices, audiences will question which impression is really true.
An organisation with the confidence to express a distinctive attitude through its visual identity is more likely to stand out from the crowd. And more than that, it can inspire your audience and gain their trust. Stepping off the middle road means taking a position. The risk is that not everyone will identify with that position; the reward is that some will, much more strongly than they ever could with a generic, unobjectionable stance.
The reward hugely outweighs the risk.
Customers attracted by a clear position make far better advocates for the brand. Plus, a visual identity informed by brave ideas will naturally be more exciting, more eye-catching, and more distinctive.
And when your visual identity, messaging and – most importantly – actions all reinforce the same brave position? That tells everyone, customers, staff and stakeholders, what the organisation stands for and where it’s heading. So everyone can pull in the same direction – bringing the brand closer to achieving its ambitions.